Amid a blaze of sparkling fireworks echoing from every corner of the Arabian Metropolis, the seventh edition of the annual Dubai International Film Festival kicked off Sunday night, commencing nine busy days of film screenings, industry seminars, workshops and plenty of business transactions.
A bevy of film stars descended on Dubai for the biggest film fest in the region. British stars Colin Firth and Carey Mulligan graced the red carpet alongside Egyptian actors Ahmed El-Sakka, Nelly Karim and Bushra.
Other major names making an appearance later this week include Hong Kong cult director Johnnie To, veteran Malian director Souleymane Cisse and Lebanese legend Sabah. Two-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn, who was scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award, couldn’t make it to the fest due to the new developments in Haiti where his staff is currently located.
With a line-up of 157 films from 57 countries, the eclectic program of Dubai offers a wide variety of films from some of the most acclaimed names both in the international film scene and the Arab one. From Asia, Africa and the Americas to Europe and Australia, this year’s film selection includes 41 world premieres and 13 international premieres.
All eyes will be fixed, though, on the Arabic films. Widely considered the biggest showcase for Arab films in the world, Dubai will present a wide selection of documentaries, long features and short films.
The Dubai Film Market is also in full swing, displaying more than 130 titles for distributors around the globe.
In the fest’s press release, Abdulhamid Juma, chairman of the Dubai International Film Festival, said: “The DIFF team has spent the last 357 days planning the opening night and the following week, and we are very proud of what we have been able to achieve. The seventh edition of the Dubai International Film Festival will be extra special not only for the powerful showcase of movies from around the world and impressive talent line-up of globally acclaimed actors and directors, but also for the largest selections of quality, contemporary Arab cinema anywhere in the world.”
Masoud Amralla Al Ali, DIFF’s artistic director, said: “I believe that our programming this year not only offers something for everyone, it also offers new, very interesting, unusual, and surprising films. If I could choose one word to describe our 2010 program, it would be ‘discovery.’ We have discoveries of new talents, new styles and new collaborations.”
Leading the international selection is Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palm d’Or winner, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Oscar winner Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Trainspotting”) unleashes his latest tour de force “127 Hours” starring James Franco. Mexican maverick Alejandro González Iñárritu presents his Cannes hit “Biutiful” starring Javier Bardem. American TV producer John Wells explores the impact of the economic recession on middle-class America in the Sundance hit “The Company Men” starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner.
Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman tries his hands at directing in the romantic comedy “Jack Goes Boating.” Sergei Loznitsa brings to the Gulf his surreal, unsettling portrayal of modern Russian society in “My Joy.” Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima follows his international smash “Memories of Matsuko” with “Confessions.” Vietnamese wunderkind Anh Hung Tran (“The Scent Green of Papaya,” “Cyclo”) adapts Haruki Murakami’s acclaimed novel “Norwegian Wood.” Oscar-nominated Austrian director Peter Weir (“The Truman Show”) returns to cinema after a seven-year hiatus with war-time survival tale “The Way Back” starring Colin Farrell and Ed Harris.
In the documentary section, British filmmaker Sophie Fiennes reflects on art, film and culture in “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.” China’s greatest living filmmaker, Zhang Ke Jia, continues his meditative studies of the impact of globalization and free market on modern China in “I Wish I Knew.” American documentarian Michael Epstein explores John Lennon’s relationship with New York in “LennonNYC.”
In the Arab film selection, Egypt dominates this year’s selection with four titles: Ahmad Abdallah’s award-winning hit “Microphone,” a docudrama about the underground art scene in Alexandria; Scriptwriter Mohammed Diab’s directorial debut “678” about sexual harassment; Hesham Issawi’s “El Khoroug” (Cairo Exit), a controversial love story between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl, and Marianne Khoury’s documentary “Zelal” (Shadows), a stark portrait of Egypt’s mental institutions.
For the opening ceremony film, the fest chose Tom Hooper’s much publicized Oscar hopeful “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter.
An entertaining crowd-pleaser with top-notch performances, this British production was an astute pick for the opening ceremony. Artistically though, Hooper’s over-praised film was underwhelming; an incredibly easy bait for the predictable taste of Oscar voters.
The film centers on the Duke of York (Firth), the man who would later become King George VI, and how he managed to conquer his life-long stammering with the help of an eccentric speech therapist (Rush).
“Speech” contains all ingredients for a serious Academy Award contender. Period piece? Check. Disability? Check. Historical figure? Check. British? Check.
The historical context (World War II, the abdication of King Edward VIII) of the film is a mere backdrop for an inspirational, and fundamentally conventional, story about beating the odds. The promotional campaign advertising the film as a story about ‘a nation finding its voice’ is inaccurate and somewhat farfetched.
And despite the palpable similarities with “Pygmalion,” Hooper’s film is too tame and too thin to function as a satire. In fact, “Speech” has nothing to say regarding monarchy or the era’s popular politics.
Hooper hints at some Freudian complexes that may have been responsible for George’s speech disorder, but he never cares to dig deeper, focusing instead on Rush’s shenanigans and the unlikely friendship that develops between the pair.
Firth and Rush, both shoe-ins for Oscar nominations, are stellar. Firth in particular is quite marvelous, injecting his character with sufficient pathos to save him from plummeting into caricature.
It’s Pearce, though, who truly shines as Edward. Pearce’s character is brimming with astounding dexterity and subtlety, bringing to life a complex, multidimensional character that, unfortunately, is not given enough space to fully develop.
The strong emotional draw of the story is undeniable, and the quirky nature of the relationship between George and his therapist makes for a highly amusing viewing. And while the conclusion is rousing, the humdrum course of the drama and its formalism left this reviewer cold.
The 7th Dubai International Film Festival closes on Dec. 19. For more information, visit www.dubaifilmfest.com.
British actress Carey Mulligan (C) is greeted by Emirati officials upon her arrival to the Dubai International Film Festival. (AFP Photo/Marwan Naamani)
US actress Sarah Wayne Callies. (AFP Photo/Marwan Naamani)
Egyptian actress Bushra poses on the red carpet. (AFP Photo/Marwan Naamani)
Egyptian actor Hisham Salim with his wife at the film festival’s opening ceremony. (AFP Photo/Marwan Naamani)
Egyptian actor Ahmed Al-Sakka. (AFP Photo/Marwan Naamani)