Treats from the desert counter

Posted on December 16, 2016


Same, yet different. That became the inadvertent theme of a few films at the 13th Dubai International Film Festival.

The films you watch at a festival are the result of a calculated exercise. I picked Certain Women because of the cast (Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone). I picked Frantz because it was in black-and-white, and you don’t get to see much of this palette on the big screen anymore. Plus, the director is François Ozon, who is always interesting. I picked Befikre because it was a world premiere. I thought it would be fun to see a Hindi film in a gala presentation on an international stage. And I picked The Worthy, because when you are in the Emirates, you have to see what Emirati cinema is about. Only a hand-picked selection of these “regional” films play outside their regions, and the others don’t get written about as much, so we don’t even know we’re supposed to be looking out for them.

These films ended up sharing an inadvertent theme, which I’m going to call “Same… Yet different.” In the sense that they make you think you are in for one kind of film and what you see is something else. Okay, maybe not Befikre, which was every bit as underwhelming as its trailer suggested. It was a collection of the same old rom-com staples. Still, the experience was different. The screening was preceded by a brief talk by Avtar Panesar, Vice President, International Operations at Yash Raj Films, and he said that a decade ago, the Middle East contributed to just 4-6% of the company’s worldwide revenue. Now, it’s 30%. I’m sure there’s a larger point to this – say, how our films are now being crafted with these markets in mind just like how Hollywood films are being made with global audiences in mind (more superhero adventures, fewer performance-oriented dramas) – but at least it explains the world premiere in Dubai. The crowd went crazy clicking picture of the stars. The film itself seemed beside the point.

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Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is exactly the kind of “local” American film that’s being phased out by the studios’ attention on global markets. You can’t see this muted-to-the-point-of-catatonia drama playing well in countries that don’t speak English (explosions, now, are the global language), and even in the US, its box-office gross, so far, stands at just over $1 million. The reason is the same that a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories isn’t going to sell as well as the new Nora Roberts. The synopsis suggests drama. There’s a hostage-negotiation situation. A woman falls asleep at the wheel and her car crashes through a fence. There’s adultery. But the pace is deliberate, and over the course of three loosely overlapping stories, events turn into fascinating non-events. How long should we see a horse trot across the screen, and for how long should the shot of a train passing through be held? According to Reichardt, an eternity isn’t enough.

The focus is not on the thing that happens as how people go through it. The focus is on the steady accrual of mood as characters make a bid for a pile of sandstone, or talk to a stubborn client with an effort to mask exasperation, or gaze with warm wonder at a kindred soul. Had this been a Marvel movie, it wouldn’t be about Thor wielding his hammer so much as Thor contemplating the possibility of wielding his hammer. A microsecond of decision-making is broken down into its component parts, and each part is magnified into its own little scene. It’s wonderful.

Frantz begins with a mystery. A mystery man, actually, someone from France who is found weeping over the grave of a German soldier, one whom he calls a friend. World War I has just ended. Germans are hated in France, and the French return the sentiment. The film is about the plight of its heroine (Paula Beer), formerly engaged to the German, now attracted to the Frenchman. The direction is so superb that the melodramatic premise (based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film, Broken Lullaby), despite not really holding much surprise when you think back about it, constantly subverts our expectations, especially those that wouldn’t be surprising from Ozon. I’ve rarely seen a war film so balanced. The first half of Frantz is set in Germany, the second half in France. But neither side is the villain. They’re both victims.

On the basis of its plot synopsis, The Worthy, directed by Ali F Mostafa, would be business as usual in Hollywood, post-apocalyptic sci-fi about a land without water. But the Arab setting changes everything. The story may be similar, but the faces, the words, the voices are different.The film is partly one of those Se7vn-like stories about an imaginative and sadistic sicko playing games on innocents to make a larger point. Plus, there’s a dash of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Plus, a doomsday cult culling the strong from the weak, or as the title goes, the worthy from the unworthy. Mostafa hints at major existential themes, but he never forgets to entertain us. A scene involving an amputation and cauterisation is so intense that the viewers, after being shell-shocked for a second, burst into applause.The only downer is the realisation that these films won’t find a global audience unless Hollywood does a remake that will end up being watched by more Emirati audiences than the ones that saw The Worthy. Irony doesn’t begin to describe it.

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