Movie stars, filmmakers descend on Middle East


Screen Africa journalist Linda Loubser was invited to attend the 8th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in the United Arab Emirates in December. She writes about her experiences there.

Looking down on Dubai from the 124th floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, you see a mass of glass and concrete. Tall buildings, many still being built, rise out of the hazy desert like a mirage, clustered around the main roads and highways, seemingly without history or context.

While one fellow attendee of the Dubai International Film Festival said he found the city to be “one massive highway and shopping mall’, others, like legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, were fascinated by the fast-developing city, calling it “a poem, a dream that has materialised in 10 years’.

As a symbol of modernity and progress with a dash of poetry, and a city that prides itself on its diversity and large expat community, Dubai made a fitting backdrop for a film festival that screened 171 art house and commercial films, documentaries and short films from a mix of well-known, established and up and coming filmmakers from 56 countries.

Red carpet
Besides Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Cave of Forgotten Dreams), who was in Dubai to receive a lifetime achievement award, other well-known names in attendance included Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg and Brad Bird (stars and director of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), whose film premiered at the festival on opening night and created a media and fan frenzy on the red carpet.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways) also walked the red carpet to attend a gala screening of his new film The Descendants with actress Shailene Woodley, as did My Week with Marilyn director Simon Curtis. Actor and screenwriter Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers, The Darjeeling Limited) was in town to receive a Variety award for International Star of the Year, and Australian director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, The Way Back) was president of the jury for the festival’s Muhr Arab Feature award.

Attesting to the worldwide popularity of Bollywood, stars Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and actor-director Farhan Akhtar as well as Ladies vs Ricky Bahl’s Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma and director Maneesh Sharma were in attendance.
The South African industry was represented by actors Jafta Mamabolo and Thomas Gumede, stars of Sara Blecher’s Otelo Burning, Akin Omotoso and cast members including Hakeem Kae-Kazim and Fana Mokoena of Man on Ground, plus director Khalid Shamis of documentary Imam and I.

Getting around
Festival headquarters were housed at the Madinat Jumeirah, a five-star resort with two boutique hotels, more than 40 restaurants and a conference centre. As the driver of my water taxi, or Abra, explained, the resort is built to resemble an Arabian town from earlier times, complete with wind towers, a souk (market) and the waterways I used to travel from one festival venue to another.

While the sheer scale of the festival made it at times confusing and a bit overwhelming to navigate between interviews, media roundtables, press conferences, photo calls, screenings and gala events, I got the chance to meet exciting up and coming directors such as Rwanda’s Kivu Ruhorahoza and South Korea’s Seung-Jun Yi, as well as some of the big names in attendance, such as Werner Herzog and British director Simon Curtis.

In a short interview Curtis, whose first feature film My Week with Marilyn (starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench) has garnered quite a bit of award season attention, he told me that he decided to make the film because he had read the books by Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne in the film) and really enjoyed them.

“What I like about the story was that it was not a biopic, it was only focused on the time she (Marilyn Monroe) was in the UK, and it was the only time she was in the UK. I loved that this was a moment in time and captured a clash between acting styles.’

Of Michelle Williams, who won the 2012 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for her take on Monroe, Curtis said the casting of the role was make or break. “She brings such a texture and complexity to the role. I was glad she was brave enough to take it on. I met Don Murray, Marilyn’s last remaining co-star, and he thought Michelle absolutely nailed the performance. That means the world to me.’

Star attraction
Although some attendees weren’t available for interviews, the festival offered a chance to listen to them talk about their craft and their careers. Hollywood star Owen Wilson, during a Variety Conversation after receiving his award, talked about his work as a screenwriter, his longstanding friendship with collaborator and former college roommate Wes Anderson, and his experience of working with Woody Allen on his recent crowd-pleaser Midnight in Paris.

“I got a very well-written, nice letter from Woody Allen describing the character as maybe a bit more intellectual than the roles I normally play,’ Wilson told the audience. “I didn’t meet him until I got to Paris three days before filming. John Cusack told me that he (Allen) was a real gentleman – and he was right. He wasn’t very precious about the script and didn’t give me a lot of direction – we were free to make suggestions. But I was maybe a bit intimidated by him.’

Wilson added that he did find a way to “bond’ with the director: “I would see him on his iPhone between takes, he was always checking the weather around the world and it kind of became the thing I asked him about all the time. What’s the warmest place in the world today? On that day it was actually Dubai!’ he quipped.
Spotlight on Africa

While popular and acclaimed actors stole the festival limelight on many occasions, the African and South African filmmakers attending the festival also got their share of attention, as did many independent filmmakers creating original and challenging works.

Kivu Ruhorahoza, director and writer of Rwanda’s first feature film Grey Matter (Matiere Grise), said while his screenings weren’t full, the attendance was better than he’d expected. “I was really scared that there would be less than five people at each of my screenings,’ said Ruhorahoza, noting that the audiences liked his film. “Or at least, that’s what they told me,’ he added.

While he was full of praise for the festival’s hospitality and the interest they showed in directors from the continent, he believes they face a challenge in terms of audience development. “They’ve done a good job in bringing (African) films and filmmakers to the festival, now they have to bring the audiences to watch those films and meet the filmmakers. Our films are not always easy to watch and convincing audiences to go watch some obscure film from Rwanda, instead of Spiderman 8 or Harry Potter 12, is a bit tricky,’ he noted.

Man on Ground
After his second screening, director of South African xenophobia drama Man on Ground, Akin Omotoso, told me that he was having a great time in Dubai, and compared his experience to his attendance of the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada earlier in the year. “I’m having fun. While Toronto is a well-established festival, it’s great to be here and be part of a growing festival.’

Omotoso said he was glad to have a witness to the full cinemas and great response from the Dubai audience at the Man on Ground screenings. At the screening I attended at the Mall of Emirates, the movie triggered a lively discussion on xenophobia and the background and meaning of the story.

Nigerian actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Hotel Rwanda, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) noted that hospitality at the festival had been “second to none’. “I’ve also found a wonderful array of different film languages here, especially Arabic. And the audiences have been quite amazing,’ said Kae-Kazim.

South African actor Fana Mokoena (Hopeville, Machine Gun Preacher) said that the festival gave him the sense that Africa and the Arab world are reaching out to each other. “I feel we have to strengthen those links. We’ve looked mostly to Europe for support and funding, but Africa is beginning to tell amazing stories, and if the Arab world has money to invest in film they should be looking to Africa to collaborate.’

Leaving the festival after five days with my head full of tall buildings, red carpets, falcons and wind towers, it was the movies I’d seen and the filmmakers I’d met that had left the strongest impressions. This is surely a testament to a film festival with the right priorities, and one that will hopefully see a growing collaboration between the film industries in Africa and the Arab world at future editions.

By Linda Loubser
Screen Africa Magazine – February 2012


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