Friday, September 4, 2009

Abu Dhabi puts up lavish cine fare

By Aruna Vasudev Not to be outdone by Dubai, which started its international film festival some years ago, Abu Dhabi decided to launch its own festival from 2007. One word encapsulates the spirit with which they went into their second edition of MEIFF (Middle East International Film Festival) in October 2008 - "lavish". Lavish in scale and in grandeur, lavish in the prize money given to the large number of award-winners in its two competition sections, lavish in warmth and hospitality, in the invitations to prominent guests from around the world. It more than made up for the limitations of Abu Dhabi itself. "Dubai is the happening place," friends from that emirate said. "There's nothing to do in Abu Dhabi." I have never been to Dubai, but having been told stories of the building frenzy there and the endless landscape of malls and shopping and residential complexes, I wasn't tempted. Instead, I fell under the spell of Abu Dhabi's pristine beaches and the endless vista of empty sea. No ships in the distance, no holidaymakers frolicking about noisily, nothing! Obviously it won't last much longer, but for now to be in a place where the sands stretch for miles with not a soul in sight, to walk along this beach in the evening with a full moon rising over the domes (of the Emirates Palace Hotel - the only building for miles around) to the sound only of the waves of the sea, is a rare privilege. It is what Bom Bai ("Beautiful Bay", as the Portuguese named Mumbai) must have been like many centuries back. The delegates to the film festival, over a hundred of us, were divided between the Emirates Palace and the Intercontinental hotels. As a member of the jury I was in the Emirates Palace in a magnificent room with a very large balcony overlooking "the lonely sea and the sky". The privilege of being in the VIP part of this palatial hotel was offset by the half-kilometre walk to the restaurant where we had breakfast, and almost as far from there to the large cinema two floors below where many of the festival screenings and activities took place. It was on the beach in front of this area of the hotel that the parties were held, starting only at 11.30 pm. Wine and food flowed freely at the Bedouin Party, the Bollywood Night - any excuse for a party after the hard work of watching films all day. Just about every festival in the world aims to be like Cannes, with its fabled beach parties, but Abu Dhabi has the physical attributes - and the wherewithal - to match at least that aspect of the mother of all festivals. There were plenty of films - two competitions (one for features, one for shorts), with the screenings held at the Emirates Palace theatre and at cineplexes in two of Abu Dhabi's fancy malls. Films came from all over the world, but shorts from the Arab countries left a deep and lasting impression. The prizewinner from Jordan (which came with no less than $75,000 - an enviable amount even for a feature, except that here the prize for the Best Feature came with $200,000), where the film industry is still in a nascent stage, although shorts and documentaries are made for television, proved how much the imagination can do to make up for lack of resources. Made by the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative, The View has the camera fixed on a single shot - through the viewfinder of a gun trained on the window of a room in the building across the road. It is only the voice of the (Israeli) sniper we hear as he comments to his commander on what he - and we - are seeing. How can 17 minutes of a fixed shot and a monologue make a "film", one might well ask? But here they do, and explore a range of emotions and thoughts -none of them pretty. There seems to be an explosion of short films and documentaries across the world. As if rendered helpless in an increasingly controlled world, filmmakers are giving vent to their frustration and anger through strongly committed films. The styles range from gentle irony to hard-hitting reportage. Either way the underlying feeling they convey is of an uncontainable anger and despair at a world spinning inexorably out of control in the hands of incompetent at best, crooked at worst, "leaders". At Abu Dhabi's Middle East International Film Festival, there were a large number of films on such themes, and they left you shaken. Feature films too were not lacking in similar themes. A Retrospective of Palestinian Films, a section of films by Arab Women Directors, all confronted critical issues, including the condition of women. The celebrated Palestinian director Rashid Mashrawi's new film which premiered here, Laila's Birthday, follows a lawyer-turned-taxi driver through one day which happens to be his little daughter Laila's birthday. Alternating between light-hearted encounters to the humiliation and helplessness of living in the Palestinian territories today, it makes an enduring impact, leaving you wondering how the world can sit back quietly and let things be the way they are. But not only in the Arab world! Disquieting films by Indian filmmakers on India, Americans on their country's activities, films from Lebanon, even from Iraq, films dealing with immigrants and refugees, on forced displacement and a rising wave of intolerance the world over. Girish Kasaravalli's Gulabi Talkies, which was in competition at MEIFF, forces one to confront the tide of communalism rising along the coastal belt of Karnataka. The fine filmmaker that he is, Kasaravalli does not underline this. It emerges slowly in the course of the film centred on Gulabi and her passion for cinema. Leavened with humour, with the light touch of an assured director, Kasaravalli allows the issue to take over, slowly, insidiously. Of course there were plenty of films that did not take a confrontational stand. Fawzia - A Special Blend, from Egypt, is a raucous comedy where love and hope triumph over the harsh conditions of daily life. Cinema brings it all alive, a country, a people, an issue, a situation. Such is the power of this incredible medium! The writer is an eminent film critic who has been on the jury of major film festivals around the world Source : The Asian Age

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