One does not go to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival to watch world cinema. One goes there to savour Middle Eastern movies, and the 7th edition of the Festival, which had its curtains drawn last Saturday, had some gems to offer.
Although I could not quite understand why the Festival chose to open with an essentially American and rather flat work by Daniel Schechter, Life of Crime, about a kidnap-for-ransom gone awry, the Abu Dhabi basket did have some gripping films. And these were not just from the Gulf.
Jasmila Zbanic’s For Those Who Can Tell No Lies is a haunting docu-feature about an Australian woman who travels to Bosnia and Herzegovina only to learn later that the very spots she had visited and savoured, and the very hotel room that she had slept in had been bloodied during the war and genocide. Women had been raped in the room. Inspired by the actual experiences of performance artist Kym Vercoe (who herself plays the protagonist in the movie), the film transforms from a picture postcard to a snapshot of sadism and suffering.
Ida from Pawel Pawlikowski takes us to another massacre in the Nazi era. Young Anna realises just before she takes her vows to become a nun that she is a Jew and that her family had a dark secret. In Stephen Frears’ Philomena, we see how another woman comes to terms with her past. Based on a bitter-sweet tale of an Irish teenager who is forced to abandon her illegitimate son in an orphanage, Philomena traces her angst-ridden journey that decades later take her to America where she hopes to find him. Instead, she confronts an unpalatable truth. A brilliant performance by Judi Dench as the distraught mother makes this movie great viewing. There was yet another woman-centric work from the Philippines, Barber’s Tales by Jun Robles Lana that underlines the sorrow of one woman during the tumultuous days of Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law
Several sad stories crowded the Abu Dhabi selection. But, they seemed like a barometer indicating what the world was going through today. If Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land traced the pluck of a young teacher (essayed with sweet determination by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) as she braves social ostracism and male brutality in a remote Kurdish village, Merzak Allouache’s The Rooftops was a brilliant reconstruction of a day, from dawn to midnight -- of a series of mostly nasty events on several of Algiers’ rooftops. A man is torturing his own brother urging him to sign a property document, and when a television crew out to capture the sights of the city from the roof stumbles upon the crime, it is killed. As we go on a tour of other rooftops, we see an old man imprisoned in a wooden cage (who narrates stories to a little girl of his life as a revolutionary), we see an elderly woman in a shack tending to her mentally challenged niece and her drug-addict son, and we also see a rock band practising. In 24 hours, Allouache presents crime, death, love and music as they happen on the roofs.
But, were there no happy stories at all? There were. Rani Massalha’s delightful Girffada takes us to a zoo in occupied West Bank. The little son of the zoo’s veterinarian adores the two giraffes there, but when one dies and the other refuses food, the father and son embark on a daredevil mission to smuggle a mate for the animal from across the border in Israel. Girffada is touching.
Peace after Marriage (helmed by Ghazi Albuliwi, and starring Hiam Abbas) was another work about the trials and troubles caused by political borders. When a 40-year-old Palestinian New Yorker falls in love with a Jew, they find the barrier of religion and politics intimidating their relationship. But then like all love stories, Peace after Marriage hops across the hurdle to liberating joy.
India’s contribution included Richie Mehta’s Siddharth about a boy who goes missing, and his parents’ frantic search for him in a country which is rather unrealistically portrayed as goody-goody. Anup Singh’s Qissa – with an excellent performance by Irrfan Khan as a Sikh during the bloody days of Partition and his corny way to convert a daughter into a son – turns into a disappointing ghost story.
However, there was something engaging from Aparna Sen, who gave us a delightful anecdote about a jewellery box (the film was called The Jewellery Box) and how it travels through three generations of women. Wonderful acting by Sen’s daughter, Konkana Sen Sharma, and Moushumi Chatterjee (what a change from the silly stuff she used to do in Hindi cinema once) elevated Sen’s work to the top echelons of cinema.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the recent Abu Dhabi Film Festival)