My top 20 picks for Dubai International Film Festival 2010

The 7th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival is 4 days away. Since I was travelling the past few weeks, I did not have a chance to look at the film schedule till yesterday. The line up this year includes 157 films from 57 countries - with a very heavy focus on cinema from the Arab world. 

Here is my list of top 20 films, in no particular order, covering a wide varierty as possible. I would have included opening and closing films for this year's festival, The King's Speech and TRON: Legacy, plus 127 Hours, but since  they will be released in our cinemas soon, I decided to exclude them from this list. 

Let me know if you have your own list and see you at the festival, front row and centre.

Imams go to School
A group of apprentice imams at Paris's Great Mosque undergo a programme of secular training, in order to comply with new social regulations. They train at the Catholic Institute of Paris.

Harud (Autumn)
Rafiq and his family are struggling to come to terms with the loss of his older brother Tauqir, a tourist photographer, who is one of the thousands of young men who have disappeared since the onset of the militant insurgency in Kashmir. After an unsuccessful attempt to cross the border into Pakistan to become a militant, Rafiq returns home, frustrated by his own failure to escape. But when he discovers his late brother's cherished camera, complete with a roll of film, his life finds a new sense of purpose. The almost talismanic power of the cheap camera serves as a means to connecting to the past and offers Rafiq a new perspective on his troubled world. Actor Aamir Bashir's feature debut, 'Harud' is filmed with the muted, earthy tones of autumn flooding the screen with soft natural energy and light. And this emphasises the contrasting tension, generated by warring men and the dismal futility of their collective rage. Anchored by a quietly devastating performance from Shahnawaz Bhat as Rafiq, 'Harud' is a brilliantly dynamic yet subtle work that marks Bashir as a director to watch.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The final part of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's multi-platform art project 'Primitive' - which includes 2009's short films 'A Letter to Uncle Boonmee' and 'Phantoms of Nabua' - 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' won the coveted Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival. With its unorthodox structure, esoteric themes and dreamily impressionistic atmosphere, the award serves as ultimate vindication of the depth of Weerasethakul's vision and his mastery of a complex and delicate narrative. The film is built up of set-pieces, loosely based on the memories of the dying Buddhist Boonmee's life and those that came before. As he lies in bed, deep in the Thai countryside, his mind ranges over vast territories, his recollections weaving in magical or supernatural elements in compelling and gorgeous detail. But Boonmee's memories are contextualised within the beauty of nature and conversely, the immediate history of war in the region. A gentle, meditative film of uncommon beauty and rich with allusion and invention, it manages to surprise and enchant in every aspect.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
One of the most influential figures of the 1980s New York art scene, the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat continues to fascinate critics and art-lovers over 20 years since his death, aged 27. From early days, tagging subway trains along the grimy Lower East Side to being feted by Andy Warhol and becoming the unlikely hero of the early 80s art scene to his drug-fuelled descent and demise only a few years later, filmmaker and friend Tamra Davis has created an authoritative and insightful account of this troubled genius. The film features a super-rare and fascinating interview with Basquiat, filmed by Davis in 1986, contributions from the key figures from the New York art world and images of his work that cannot fail to excite and confirm his status. A fascinating, tragic story that nevertheless crackles with the sheer verve and energy of Basquiat's unique, crudely beautiful work.

Jimseung Ui Kkut (End of Animal) 

A disaster film like no other, 'End Of Animal' will terrify, exhilarate and shock in equal measure. Heavily pregnant Sun-young is in a taxi returning to her hometown Taeryong. She is sharing the taxi with a mysterious man, who appears to know a lot about her. On a deserted back road, he makes the car stop and begins counting down to zero - whereupon a cataclysmic event occurs. Upon regaining consciousness, Sun-young tries to find help, but no-one is around. Instead, a walkie-talkie in the cab begins emitting cryptic instructions, telling her to stay with the car. As she meets a range of eccentric characters, the extent of her desperate situation becomes more and more apparent. This surrealist nightmare is a gripping and absorbing psychodrama from one of the most exciting new talents to have emerged from South Korea in recent times.


El Mektoub (Taxiphone)


Oliver and Elena are a young Swiss couple, crossing the Sahara on a truck bound for Timbuktu, Mali. Along the way, the truck breaks down, in a tiny settlement in the midst of the Algerian desert. Impatient to get the truck repaired and back on the road, Oliver soon starts chafing at the slow pace of life in the desert oasis. Elena, meanwhile, is fascinated by the people she meets in the village and quickly establishes herself in the community. As the days wear on, the couple adapt to their surroundings in different ways. Exploring the local culture and lifestyle opens Elena's eyes to new worlds, while Olivier remains tetchily anxious and unsure of his new environment. Ultimately, the pair begin to question their own lives and fundamental beliefs - and are forced to make dramatic, life-changing decisions.

I Wish I Knew
Shanghai is a fast-changing metropolis, a port city where people come and go. It has hosted all kinds of people - revolutionaries, capitalists, politicians, soldiers, artists, and gangsters. Shanghai has also hosted revolutions, assassinations and love stories. After the Chinese Communists' victory in 1949, thousands of Shanghaians left for Hong Kong and Taiwan. To leave meant being separated from home for 30 years, but to stay meant suffering through the Cultural Revolution. In this fascinating documentary, based on personal recollection, 18 people from three cities - Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong - recall their lives in Shanghai. Their personal experiences, like 18 chapters of a novel, tell stories of Shanghai lives from the 1930s to 2010.


Khusel Shunal (Passion)

Set against the magnificent backdrop of the Mongolian landscape, Byamba Sakhya's 'Passion' is a fascinating look at Mongolian film history. He follows Binder Jigjid, son of the legendary Mongolian director Jigjid Dejid, as he takes his films from village to village trying to eke out an existence. 'Passion' tells the compelling story of a complex relationship between artists and the system and the impact of social and political transition on individual destiny.The question of whether film is primarily a business or an art form looms large over this beautiful film.


Amin is a postgraduate music student, researching for a doctoral degree at the Kiev Conservatory. As part of his study programme, he sets out to explore the increasingly elusive folk music of the ancient Qashqai tribes of southern Iran. This journey of discovery - a fascinating exploration into the heartlands of Iran and the uncovering of a once-vibrant cultural force now eroded into near-obsolescence - is absorbing enough. However director Shahin Parhami's beguiling film soon pulls back the film's focus to explore Amin's own life, his forlorn, threadbare existence forming a melancholy counterpoint to the haunting music he discovers in the empty pastoral landscapes and quiet back alleys of the district. The result is a powerful meditation on collective cultural loss as seen through the eyes of a man, as much on a quest to find himself, as the ancient music he so desperately seeks.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow
Legendary German artist Anselm Kiefer's work is known for its colossal intellectual scope, integrity and sheer physical heft. Using a variety of materials - including lead, ash, stone, glass, wood and concrete - over his 40 year career, Kiefer's paintings, sculptures and installations have consistently addressed big themes; social evolution, the paradoxical permanence and transience of collective consciousness, the intrinsic fabric of life. In this contemplative documentary, British filmmaker Sophie Fiennes takes us to the heart of Kiefer's process via a journey through the extraordinary 35-hectare work space he created amidst the hills of Barjac, France during the 1990s. A warren of twisting, subterranean chambers and tunnels incorporating his giant paintings and installations, it is where the artist devises and assembles his monumental pieces and as such, the definitive context in which to understand his work. Fiennes presents the viewer with a beautiful, almost wordless portrait of Kiefer at work. Seeing his breathtaking creations slowly, massively take shape in this surreal environment not only deepens our appreciation of one of the most important artists of our times, but invites us to marvel at the magic of the creative process itself.


Al Film Al Awal (The First Movie)
This very special documentary was shot in the sun-baked village of Goptapa, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Travelling through the region in 2008, British writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins discovered in Goptapa, a community thriving, yet still haunted by Saddam Hussein's genocidal massacres, twenty years ago. Wishing to try and somehow capture impressions of the village's collective memories of war and suffering led Cousins to tap the fertile imaginations of the village's children. This he did by assembling a makeshift open-air cinema and screening five classic childrens' films and then, giving the youngsters video cameras and inviting them to make their own films. In 'The First Movie' we witness the joy and excitement of the children as they encounter cinema for the first time and then, turn to their own stories. From the whimsical to the profound, the short films unleash a torrent of creativity and expression, which fit in perfectly with Cousins' own sensitive cinematography and narrative. Having drawn huge critical acclaim across the festival circuit, 'The First Film' resonates with life, imagination, beauty and inspiration.


Norwegian Wood
It's been dubbed the Japanese 'Catcher In The Rye' and now, Haruki Murakami's classic novel is a sumptuously-filmed feature from Tran Anh Hung. Perfectly capturing the nostalgic, languid sensuality of the story, Hung brings the book to life in an emotional and devastatingly beautiful piece of cinema. It's 1969 and Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a 19-year-old student in Tokyo, besotted by Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), a beautiful and introspective young woman. But their mutual passion is complicated by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Watanabe lives with the influence of death everywhere, while Naoko feels as if some integral part of her has been permanently lost. It is at that time Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a girl who is everything that Naoko is not - outgoing, vivacious, supremely self-confident - marches into Watanabe's life and he has to choose between his future and his past.


The Piano in a Factory
Chen (Wang Qian-Yuan) is a straightforward man, a steelworker in early 1990s China. All around him, political and social certainties are shifting rapidly. Yet for Chen, life is a simple round of work and then caring for his young daughter, left with him when his wife abandoned them, years ago. Chen's great love is music and he's a keen accordion player. He's managed to imbue his precocious young daughter with a love of music, so much so, that when his wife unexpectedly reappears, demanding custody of the child, the youngster informs her quarrelling parents that she will live with whoever can provide her with a piano. Determined to keep his daughter, but unable to afford a piano, Chen is forced to use all his ingenuity and resourcefulness. When in desperation, he finally hits upon a marvellous idea inspired by his workplace, it seems as if he might be in with a chance of winning his daughter back.

According to the director of this fascinating new documentary, Algerian filmmaker Rahma Benhamou El Madani, the traditional practice of trance has captivated her ever since she was a small girl watching her mother meditate and enter a state of self-induced hypnosis. Years later, working in a local radio station, she was surprised to hear the music she associated with her mother in an album sent in to the station. The band responsible was called Gnawa Diffusion and they played a beguiling blend of 'Gnawa' music, fused with Western and Arabic elements. Fascinated, El Madani set out on an odyssey to discover the roots of this ancient and haunting sound. Through interviews with Gnawa Diffusion's Amzigh Kateb and Aziz Maysour, El Madani delves deep into the heart of traditional Moroccan and Algerian culture in a fascinating journey of custom and rituals across the Maghreb and Mali.

Shi (Poetry) 
A profound story of an elderly woman in search of the fundamental poetry in her life. Mija lives with her young grandson in a small suburban city located along the Han River. A lively, exuberant character, Mija has a bird-like curiosity and is always up to something. One day, she happens to take a poetry class at the local cultural centre and finds herself inspired and excited by her new hobby. Her imagination soars, as she sees the world around her in a new, tantalising light, rich with potential poetic inspiration and beautiful in its infinite possibility. When she is suddenly faced with a reality harsh beyond her imagination, she realises perhaps life is not as beautiful as she had thought.


A poignant yet comedic tale set in Belgium. Isabelle Huppert shines in this unusual role as Babou, a charmingly eccentric lady whose love of exuberant Brazilian music (hence the film's title) is at odds with the straitlaced dullness of Belgium. Her daughter Esmerelda (Lolita Chammas) is quite the opposite, dissolving into a lather of embarrassment whenever her mother's around. Matters come to a head when Esmerelda forbids her mother to attend her imminent thoroughly conventional wedding to a rather dull executive type. Devastated and determined to win Esmerelda over, Babou flees to the grim northern city of Ostend where she has found a job selling timeshare flats to tourists. A new life beckons and Babou's effervescent nature flourishes amidst the bleak streets of the port city. Will she be able to reconcile with her daughter? This charming, bittersweet tale blends humour with very real pathos in the central characters played by real-life mother and daughter Huppert and Chammas.

Uxbal is a forlorn, middle-aged single father living in a run-down part of Barcelona. Estranged from his irresponsible wife, engaged in all manner of illicit activities and running a surreal sideline as a medium whispering to corpses in order to communicate with them in the hereafter, his life is a tangle of loyalties and broken dreams. When Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal cancer, his outlook is forced into a radical shift, forcing him to reassess the squalor of his activities (exploiting illegal Chinese and African immigrants) and consider anew the life he has made for his two children. As Uxbal grapples with his imminent death he comes to a realisation and understanding of the redemptive power of love. A beautiful, meditative and heartbreaking film suffused with a deep melancholy in which Bardem confirms his status as a great actor and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu reaffirms his reputation as one of the most perceptive and lyrical filmmakers around today.

Jack Goes Boating
Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 40-something average Joe, a New York limo driver who drifts gently through life without unduly bothering anyone. His best friend and mentor is his co-worker Clyde (John Ortiz). Jack thinks that Clyde is great; he's everything that he is not, extrovert, self-assured, confident. Clyde is married to Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who works at a funeral parlour with the shy, timid Connie (Amy Ryan). Clyde and Lucy think the pair would be perfect together and heartily encourage something more than friendship. And indeed Jack and Connie begin shyly, almost reluctantly, dating whilst, ironically, their matchmakers' own marriage faces serious problems. This beautifully-acted four-hander is at times reminiscent of Woody Allen's classic 1970s relationship comedies or even Mike Leigh's parables of social conventions gone awry. Its theatrical roots (a play by Bob Glaudini) make for an ordered, graceful opened-out structure that first-time director Hoffman realises fully through the superb cast. Schedule and ticket information.

Malameh Filistinia Dai'a (Fragments of a Lost Palestine)
Filmmaker Norma Marcos has both French and Palestinian passports, yet finds herself a citizen of nowhere. Denied entry to Palestine by the Israeli authorities, she is unable to visit her ailing mother, and spends much of her time on the phone being given the runaround by civil servants. When she is finally allowed home to visit, she is keen to show her friend Stefan how normal people try to live normal lives outside of the occupation, and that there is a vibrant side of Palestine that exists outside of grim reports of violence and war. 'They never talk about the beer festivals', muses one friend, who, like Marcos, is tired of the way the world sees Palestine as nothing but a land of conflict. In a wide-ranging essay, through a series of conversations with friends, family and strangers, Marcos demonstrates that despite the inescapably tense political environment, life goes on. The film is a subjective journey, shot as fragmented memories of Marcos's country of birth, Palestine, as she remembers it. Schedule and ticket information.


When Khaled returns to Alexandria after years of travel he discovers that things aren't going too well. His girlfriend greets him with the news that she is packing up and emigrating. His relationship with his ailing, aging father has deteriorated beyond repair. Confused, depressed and alone, Khaled walks the city streets at night, brooding over his life. But one night, he chances upon the city's hidden subculture - rappers, rockers, graffiti artists, a whole world of creativity, expression and art. Khaled is fascinated and begins a new life, full of excitement and discovery. As he moves deeper into this new world, he becomes a vociferous champion of the local art scene. With his limited resources and connections, he tries to support and raise attention to the diverse facets of his city. 



(Film synopsis from the Dubai International Film Festival website.)