Dubai International Film Festival 2013 Review - Part 2

The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty


Here's my second review of the Dubai International Film Festival which will focus on the films I watched. I mentioned in my previous post that I watched 30 films, mostly with my film buddy Wael Hattar who contributed his list of recommended films to see at DIFF a few weeks ago.

I normally watch films alone, but I enjoyed having a film buddy to discuss the films we watched and compare our opinions. Towards the end of the festival we were referred to as cinephiles by a couple of the programmers because they kept seeing us at most of their screenings. The film nerd in me loved that.

Below you will find mini reviews and my personal opinions of the films I watched (not all 30, just around half of them that I feel strongly about), plus some other highlights of DIFF, all grouped into six categories:

  • Exceptional films
  • Gems of DIFF
  • Distinguised films
  • Documentaries
  • Rest of films I watched
  • Other Highlights

It is a long piece, so please be patient and if you missed out on watching any of these films, I hope this post will interest you to seek out at least some of them to watch whenever you get the chance.


Two films from this year's edition left a huge huge mark on me.

The Great Beauty(La Grande Bellezza)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

The Great Beauty left me emotionally shattered, something I have not felt after watching a film for a long time.

Journalist Jep Gambardella has charmed and seduced his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome for decades. Since the legendary success of his one and only novel, he has been a permanent fixture in the city’s literary and social circles, but when his 65th birthday coincides with a shock from the past, Jep finds himself unexpectedly taking stock of his life, turning his cutting wit on himself and his contemporaries, and looking past the extravagant nightclubs, parties, and cafés to find Rome in all its glory: a timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty.

I found this film seductive and heartbreaking. There’s an “intense, unbearable melancholy” in The Great Beauty as described by Peter Bradshaw in his review. He goes on to say, "the final end-title sequence has to be watched through to the very end until the screen goes dark". It was only during the end credit when the tears started flooding down my face, when the film's melancholia and beauty hit me.

A Story of Children and Film

Director: Mark Cousin

A Story of Children and Film is a must see if you love cinema. It's a visual essay that celebrates children in film. It made my heart flutter. If you've seen Mark Cousin's 15 hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, then you will know what to expect.

The world’s first movie about kids in global cinema. It’s a passionate, poetic portrait of the adventures of childhood – its surrealism, loneliness, fun, destructiveness and stroppiness – as seen through 53 great films from 25 countries. It includes classic movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Red Balloon, also dozens of masterpieces (many directed by women) that are almost unknown.

I have to mention one scene in it that just ripped my heart into pieces - a scene from Ten Minutes Older. I couldn't find the exact short version from the film, but here's the longer version.


The following list includes films I consider to be the gems from this year’s DIFF. I was really impressed with these five films, all by directors I had not heard off before DIFF. I loved their style of story telling and can’t wait to see what they do next.

Fish and Cat (Mahi Va Gorbeh)

Director: Shahram Mokri

Fish and Cat is an Iranian film that is over two hours long and was shot in one long take. It had us stuck in a time warp and played with our minds. It made us question what is the present, what is the past. The characters came in and out of the screen, each time their stories were being told and retold, each time with something new thrown in. A very haunting film and I enjoyed the mental games the director was playing with us.

Challat of Tunis (Challat Tunes)

Director: Kaouther Ben Hania

Challat of Tunis is a very clever and hilarious black comedy from Tunisia about a mysterious man who prowls the streets of Tunis on his moped with a razor blade in hand and slashes the derrieres of women strolling along the city’s sidewalks. The story is told in the style of a mockumentary and addresses sexism and misogyny in the Arab world in the funniest way I've ever seen. I hope this film gets watched outside the festival circuit as it really is an important film.

Of Good Report

Director: Jahmil XT Qubeka

Of Good Report is a very dark psychodrama from South Africa, described best by it’s producer during the Q and A session when she said Qubeka wanted to tell the story of Red Riding Hood from the wolf's perspective.Even though there isn't any physical violence shown in the film (apart from one scene towards the end), I had to close my eyes a few times worried about the horror of what might come next.

The film was banned for a short while because film regulators said it contained child pornography, a presumption made after only watching the first 20 minutes. The ban was reversed eventually because the film does not contain any porn and went on to win the first Artistic Bravery Award at the Durban Film Festival earlier this year. It was unfortunate Jahmil XT Qubeka wasn’t at DIFF as I would have loved to hear him talk about the film. It looks like he has an odd sense of humour (a disclaimer during the end credits said that any relation to the real events or characters “is purely coincidental, honest, LOL.”).

Miss Violence

Director: Alexandros Avranas

"On the day of her birthday, 11-year-old Angeliki jumps off the balcony and falls to her death with a smile on her face." This was enough for me to read in Miss Violence’s synopsis that convinced me this Greek film is a must see.

The film starts off with a birthday party and the birthday girl dancing to Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End Of Love before she jumps off the balcony. The layered revelations that follow make it one of the most uncomfortable films I've seen. It left me with a feeling that was hard to shake off easily after watching it.


Director: Sean Gullette

Traitors is a Moroccan film about Malika, a lead singer in a girl punk rock band in Tangier who is trying to make the right choices for a better future. I really liked it because it featured a punk rock girl band (not very often in films, especially Arab films) and a strong female lead character that refuses to be victimized because of her circumstances.

I also really liked the soundtrack, with a score composed by Nathan Larson and songs including:

  • "I’m So Bored with Morocco" (a Moroccan version of "I'm So Bored with the USA" by The Clash) sung by lead actress Chaimae Ben Acha
  • "City's Full" and "Husbands" by Savages
  • "In a Strangeland" by Talk Normal
  • An original track, "Battle and the Sea" sung by Kesang Marstrand, written by Sean Gullette, Nathan Larson and Kesang Marstrand

I hope a soundtrack will be relased for this film. 


The following list includes five stand out films from five different countries. One of things I love about DIFF is that we get to see films from so many countries which we don't get during the rest of the year.


Director: Hany Abu Assad

Omar was the opening film of the festival (and the second time for Abu Assad to open the festival, his film Paradise Now was the opening film in 2005). Hany Abu Assad presented the film and added if weren't for Egyptian cinema he wouldn't have been a filmmaker, a lovely gesture on a night that honoured 10 Arab Cinema talents including directors, actors and directors of photography, for their distinguished contributions in the top 100 films of Arab Cinema, most of whom are Egyptian.

This Palestinian film won the Jury Prize - Un Certain Regard in Cannes this May, so I, and everyone else attending had high expectations. And I was not disappointed. Omar is akin to a Shakespearean tragedy about young and naïve love, loyalty, trust and mistrust for a person and country. A well directed film with an excellent cast and great story telling, – we couldn’t have asked for a better opening film this year. (It went on to win Best Film in the Muhr Awards at the end of the festival and is now in the running to be nominated for Best Foreign Film in the 86th Academy Awards - the final nominations will be announced on 16th January 2014.)

The Lunchbox

Director: Ritesh Batra

The Lunchbox is a lovely film from India about reaching out for friendship to sharing dreams and regrets, told through letters between two strangers. Be prepared to crave for Indian food after watching this film.

In Bloom

Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß

In Bloom is a coming of age film set in Tbilisi, Georgia in the early 1990s. It follows two 14 year old friends, Eka and Natia and the choices they make in a harsh and disillusioned post-Soviet Georgia. I loved the dance scene feauturing Eka which expressed so much about being a 14 year old living in society that’s out of her control, of growing up and trying to find and define herself.

Class Enemy

Director: Rok Biček

Class Enemy is a Slovenian film set in a classroom, a microcosm of life, which reflects on power, life and death. A great first feature film for its director Rok Biček.

Thou Gild'st The Even

Director: Onur Ünlü

Thou Gild'st The Even was the oddest film I saw at this year’s DIFF. But odd in a good way. A man crying tears of blood, a man who can see through walls, a woman that can stop time and another woman who can control your moves - all these characters appear in this very surreal and symbolic Turkish film. Both funny and sad.


This list includes all the documentaries I watched.

1001 Apples,

Director: Taha Karimi

The premiere screening of 1001 Apples was a bittersweet occasion because its director Taha Karimi died in a tragic car accident in May shortly after he completed the film. His brother Hara Karim presented the film and oh what a touching film it was. The documentary felt like long sad poem about the 1988 Kurdish genocide, about trying to reconcile, to forgive and to move on.

The documentary follows four of the survivors who distribute 1001 red apples and cloves as symbols of reconciliation and peace for families who had lost dear ones in the massacre. Poetic and heartbreaking.

Champ of the Camp

Director: Mahmoud Kaabour

Champ of the Camp is a documentary set in Dubai, which follows the lives of contestants in an annual Bollywood style singing competition which takes place in the labor camps of Dubai and across the UAE, told and sung entirely in the voices of the migrant laborers who built this city.

It’s a heartfelt documentary and features some great Bollywood classics and heartbreaking songs. You can feel the sense of longing to be back home, to be with families and loved one as these workers live on the margins of society in this country where they are hardly made to feel comfortable or welcome outside the work and living environment.

I did find the documentary slightly restrained from making any judgements or statements on the living/working conditions of these migrant labors (which is often written about and critiqued in the press outside this region). Whether this was deliberate or not, I do think it is a good story that needed to be shared with a wider audience and a laudable effort by Mahmoud Kaabour.

Smash and Grab: Story of the Pink Panthers

Director: Havana Marking

Smash and Grab: Story of the Pink Panthers is an amusing documentary (also featuring Dubai) about the Pink Panther gang, one of the most successful jewel thieves (same gang that broke into Wafi Mall in 2007 and stole AED 14 million worth of jewelry).

The film explores the background to led to the creation of the Pink Panthers – the fall of Yugoslavia, the wars, the corruption and the rise of the black market. The film also gives high praise to the Dubai Police force that played a big part in cracking the case and finding the thieves which led to the demise of the Pink Panthers – so needless to say, this was a crowd pleaser at DIFF.

The Last Impresario

Director: Gracie Otto

The Last Impresario is a fun documentary about the life and legacy of British theatre impresario and film producer Michael White, the man behind some of the most iconic productions of all time, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Rocky Horror Show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Oh! Calcutta!, A Chorus Line, Annie, Sleuth, Jabberwocky, My Dinner With Andre to name a few.

He played a great part in UK's cultural scene in 1960s/70s and yet not many know him, but this film is set to change that. Today, Michael White is 77 and despite his old age and frailty, he still likes to go out to socialize and party. I suspect he will be doing that till his last breath.

The Unknown Known

Director: Errol Morris

A fine piece of interrogative documentary by Errol Morris. It's quite an experince to watch Donald Rumsfeld being interrogated and contradicting himself, and being totally unapologetic about it.

A couple of facts I learned from this documentary, the existence of a "Pentagon Dictionary" which basically has its own and convenient definitions to justify any action taken by the Pentagon, and Christina Aguilera songs have been used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Particle Fever

Director: Mark Levinson

Particle Fever follows six scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet.

"As they seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe, 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries joined together in pursuit of a single goal: to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter." 

I found it a bit dry, but interesting to see and hear how passionate the scientists are about the work they’re doing.


Here are the rest of films I watched, I enjoyed them all except for the last one, The Ugly One which I found tedious, fragmented and dare I say pretentious.

  • 12 Years A Slave
  • American Hustle
  • Abuse of Weakness (Abus de Faiblesse)
  • Factory Girl
  • Grigris
  • Ilo Ilo
  • Inside Llywen Davis
  • Nebraska
  • Rock the Casbah
  • The Selfish Giant
  • Under the Starry Sky
  • The Ugly One


The Radio Show

On the second day of the festival, Wael Hattar and I were on the radio on Dubai Eye 103.8 to talk to Zahra Soar about our film selection and our experience at DIFF.

© Hind Mezaina - Top: Muzna Almusafer and Wael Hattar | Bottom: Waleed Zuaiter

We were on air for 40 minutes and it was a lot of fun. We even had Muzna Almusafer (director of short film Cholo) and Waleed Zuaiter (my favourite actor from Omar and also the producer) joining us on air. If you are interested, you can listen to the show by clicking on the image below.

The Awards

I was glad when some of my favourite films won awards at the end of the festival. Although I couldn't understand how two films won People’s Choice (Frozen and The Brain That Sings), I always thought only one film could win that award. Here's a list of my favourites that won:

Muhr Arab Feature

Best Actress - Yasmine Raees (Factory Girl)

Best Director - Hany Aby Assad (Omar)

Best Film - Omar

Muhr Asia/Africa Feature

Best Actor - Irrfan Khan (The Luncbox)

Best Acress - Yeo Yann Yann (Ilo Ilo)

Best Film - Ilo Ilo

Special Jury Prize - Fish and Cat

Special Mention - The Lunchbox


Best Arab Feature - Factory Girl

You can see the full list of winners here.

The Party

© Hind Mezaina - DIFF 2013 Closing Party

The closing party was a good way to celebrate with Wael the end of DIFF and our movie marathon sessions. We even managed to mingle with folks from some of our favorite films, Waleed Zuiatar from Omar, Shahram Mokri (Fish and Cat director), Themis Panou (actor from Miss Violence), Kaouther Ben Hania (Challat of Tunis director), Julie Paratian and Habib Attia (Challat of Tunis producers), Rok Biček (Class Enemy director and writer). And by mingle, I really mean that I just gushed profusely and told them how much I admired their work.

This wraps up my review of the 10th edition of DIFF (and if you are still reading this, thanks for still hanging around).

Although I couldn't see all the films I wanted to see, I loved the nine days of the festival. Thanks to the DIFF team for a great 10th year of films and here's to many, many more.

[Images via or the film's official website. Trailers for each film can be found here, here or here.]