My Top 30 Picks of Films for Dubai International Film Festival 2015

Here's my follow up to the post about the upcoming Dubai International Film Festival which will run from 9th-16th December. 

This festival includes 134 films (full features and shorts) from 60 countries and in 40 languages, in the following categories - Arabian NightsCinema for ChildrenCinema of the WorldMuhr EmiratiMuhr FeatureMuhr Gulf Short and Muhr Short.  

Here's my top 30 list in alphabetical order. I've included running time, film rating and also added a link to the online ticketing page below each film. Please note films are not censored at the festival, never have been. If you're concerned films with adult content will be edited, fear not. You will get to watch the film in original format. 

As I Open My Eyes
Director : Leyla Bouzid
Arabic dialogue with English subtitles / 102 mins
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Adult References, Brief Sex, Coarse Language, Male Nudity and Violence)

Summer 2010. Tunis. It is a few months before the revolution and 18-year-old Farah has just graduated. Her family has charted out her future as a doctor, but she doesn’t share the same view.

She sings in a political rock band and clearly has a different approach to life as she embraces alcohol, love and her city by night – all against the approval of her mother, who knows Tunisia and its dangers better than Farah.


The Assassin
Director : Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles / 105 mins
Rating: 15+ (Contains: Violence)

Acclaimed Taiwanese minimalist filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien takes a bold and enjoyable change of direction with this long-in-the-making film, balancing moments of classic wuxia martial arts action with a beautifully shot and staged delve into the power struggles and politics of the 9th Century Tang Dynasty.

Set in provincial China, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been raised from the age of 10 to be a deadly assassin. Her latest mission calls for her to kill the man she was once supposed to marry. She must decide to carry out the assassination or stand against the group of killers, who have been her only family since she was a child.


Director : Zhao Liang
Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles / 90 mins

A visually striking documentary that raises comparisons between heaven and hell, Liang Zhao’s Behemoth focuses on the striking grasslands of China that are becoming submerged in a layer of dust from iron mines, with traditional herdsmen forced to move on, as the meadowlands slowly vanish as the mines work through the night.

The film dwells not only on the dwindling, once lush lands, but also on the plight of the miners, who feed a seemingly endless line of trucks waiting to pick up the iron ore. From the mines to the hospitals where respiratory disease awaits many, Zhao makes it clear that they endure a grim and harrowing life.


Blind Sun
Director : Joyce A. Nashawati
English, French and Greek dialogue with English subtitles / 88 mins
Rating: 12+ (Contains: Adult References and Brief Nudity)

A seaside resort in Greece is plagued by a heavy heat wave. Water is rare and violence is ready to explode. Ashraf, a solitary immigrant, guards a French family's villa while they are away.

In this dry land, crushed by the sun, he is stopped by a policeman for an ID check and thus pushed towards a new adventure.


Cemetery of Splendour
Director : Apichatpong Weerasethakul
English and Thai dialogue with English subtitles / 122 mins   
Rating: 15+ (Contains: Adult References, Adult Themes and Brief Nudity) 

Art-house lovers of ‘slow cinema’ will be drawn to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, his first major film since his Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee (2010). 

Weerasethakul uses his film to dwell on past lives and shared memories with his story focusing on an unusual sleeping sickness that has taken over a group of soldiers, who are being treated at a clinic that was a school, whose grounds was once a graveyard for kings. A young medium suggests that the spirits of those kings could well be linked to the sleeping soldiers.


The Clan
Director : Pablo Trapero
Spanish dialogue with English and Arabic subtitles / 108 mins
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Adult References, Sexuality, Violence and Sex)

A raw and bitterly clever film, Pablo Trapero’s The Clan is a dramatic thriller and political commentary. It astutely uses the highly charged 1970s and early 1980s period in Argentina as its backdrop; the period when the military junta brutally ruled the country and made those with vaguely subversive tendencies ‘disappear’.

The film follows the apparently God-fearing Puccio family, who kidnap for ransom but still kill their victims after receiving the ransom, with Trapero using their brutality as a link to their behaviour of the junta. A dark and violent film, made with real energy and commitment.


Dark in the White Light   
Director : Vimukthi Jayasundara  
Sinhalese dialogue with English subtitles / 82 mins
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Male Nudity, Nudity, Sex, Violence, Gory Images and Rape)

Sri Lankan auteur Vimukthi Jayasundara's dark film charts dangerous territory as he tells the story of a doctor (Steve De La Zilwa), who may well save lives while on duty but after hours sets about raping and assaulting young women.

There are clear links to classical horror tales – whether it is the vampire myth of the Jekyll and Hyde story – but Jayasundara pushes the envelope in terms of screen violence and dangerous morality.


El Clasico
Director : Halkawt Mustafa
Arabic, Kurdish and Spanish dialogue with English subtitles / 97 mins  
Rating: 12+ (Contains: Adult Themes and Violence)

A unique cinematic love story of young Alan and his girlfriend Gona. A captivating adventure, EL Clasico sees Alan and his brother undertake a risky trip all the way from Iraqi Kurdistan to Spain, to meet Cristiano Ronaldo and win over Gona's father, who is a true Real Madrid fan.Ásico.html


Embrace of the Serpent
Director : Ciro Guerra
Spanish, Amazonian and German dialogue with English subtitles / 122 mins
Rating: 12+ (Contains: Adult References and Violence) 

A beautifully strange journey into darkness, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is a rewardingly oblique tale, an epic black-and-white journey that veers between two time periods and embraces the strange and the wonderful. It juxtaposes two men – Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis) – and their journeys across the Amazon, 40 years apart.

The film opens in a standard fashion, but this is something of a feint, with the story heading off into weird and dark directions as the men venture deeper into the Amazon and into dreamlike territory. It’s a hypnotic, bold and mesmerisingly unique film.


Director: Alexander Sokurov
French, German and Russian dialogue with English subtitles / 87 mins
Rating: PG 

An enthralling, free-flowing and interweaving documentary from Alexander Sokurov as he muses art preservation, war and history, largely set against the backdrop of the Louvre in Paris.

In his enthrallingly complex Russia Ark, he reveled in the magnificence of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, but in Francofinia, his film journey is far more philosophical, as he introduces characters – from Napoleon who parades through the galleries through to Count Franziskus Wolf-Metternich, the Nazi appointed to oversee France’s art treasures during the First World War – and merges archival footage with fictional scenes. It is a challenging documentary that is both rewarding and intriguing.


The High Sun
Director: Dalibor Matanić  
Croatian dialogue with English subtitles / 123 mins
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Adult References, Brief Nudity, Drugs, Sexuality and Violence)

Three love stories act as a moving and at times powerful catalyst for reexamination of the ethnic wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001. While never sugar-coated, the three stories – all featuring young local performers Tihana Lazovic and Goran Markovic as lovers caught up in a maelstrom of war and hate – offer hope as well as sadness and drama.

As directed by Dalibor Matanic, The High Sun offers intelligent and at times delves into the issues that divided the country – the stories as the war is about to start; in the years just after the end and finally in 2011, when some wounds are still unhealed – but also hints at the possibility of some kind of redemption.


Home Care
Director : Slávek Horák
Czech dialogue with English subtitles / 92 mins  
Rating: 15+ (Contains: Adult References and Brief Nudity)

An engaging slice of bittersweet Czech village life, Slavek Horak’s debut as writer/director is given real charm and zest by the lead performance by Alena Mihulová. She plays home care nurse Vlasta, who is at the warm-hearted core of this film, as she travels around South Moravia giving out advice and compassion (and medicine when needed) to her oddball patients.

At home she has to deal with her work-shy husband Lada (Boleslav Polivka), who is hardly handy when it comes to domestic matters. But after an encounter with a local motorcyclist called ‘Speedy’, Vlasta heads off on her own journey of self-discovery and ends up having an impact on those around her. Engaging, life affirming and all built around Mihulová’s delightful lead performance.


Director : Jayro Bustamante
Kaqchikel and Spanish dialogue with English subtitles / 91 mins    
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Adult Themes, Harsh Images, Nudity and Sexuality)

A striking debut film from writer/director Jayro Bustamente, who makes great use of his actors, all non-professionals he found through theatre workshops and community meetings. He uses Guatemala’s active Pacaya volcano as the backdrop and the metaphor for the counterbalance between modern attitudes and ancient traditions.

This is a beautifully shot story centering on the pre-marital pregnancy of young peasant girl Maria (Mercedes Coroy). The elegant widescreen cinematography from Luis Armando Arteaga helps give the film a real sense of majesty, as Maria and her mother juggle a world caught between spirits and the lure of the United States, a place dubbed by one character as simply “on the other side of the volcano”.


Macadam Stories
Director : Samuel Benchetrit  
French and English dialogue with English subtitles / 100 mins
Rating: PG  

A delightfully oddball and quirky French film that focuses on a series of characters all linked in some way to a rundown Parisian apartment house. Macadam Stories is an often-engaging film brimming with fine performances – the cast includes Isabelle Huppert and Michael Pitt – with an underlying warmth and affection. 

The film’s vignettes are told with a real sense of playfulness that works nicely alongside the gloomy backdrop of the apartment house, and the performances are all top-notch, especially Huppert and Pitt who, of all things, plays an American astronaut who turns up out of the blue.


The Man Who Became a Horse
Director : Amir-Hossein Saghafi   
Persian dialogue with English subtitles / 110 mins   
Rating: PG 

Amir-Hossei Saghafi’s impressive Iranian film received a Special Mention at this year’s Fajr Film Festival in Tehran. It follows an elderly man (Mahmoud Nazar-Alian) who is desperate to keep his adult married daughter (Levon Haftvan) close to him.

She is attached to a horse, the one thing that she has left of her deceased mother, but as the old man grows increasingly disturbed; he plans to set the horse free in a desperate bid to keep her to stay with him. Elegantly made, with great sense of the old man’s increasing descent into madness, the film is strikingly moody.


Director : Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Turkish dialogue with English subtitles / 97 mins   
Rating: 15+ (Contains: Adult References, Coarse Language and Sexuality)

Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut film proved to be a success at its Cannes Directors’ Fortnight premiere. Mustang is an impressively structured film that begins in the familiar territory of playful rebellion before transforming into a moving and empowering story.

It may seem like a simple and familiar story – five sisters rebel against their oppressive uncle, who is their overly protective guardian after the death of their parents – but Ergüven and her co-scriptwriter Alice Winocour have also crafted a film that is blessed with strikingly well rounded characters and resonates with a sense of anger about how these young women are treated.


Our Everyday Life
Director : Ines Tanović Bosnian dialogue with English subtitles / 89 mins
Rating: 12+  

Low-key but intimate and deceptively astute, Ines Tanovic’s impressive film takes a thoughtful look at middle-class Bosnian life and offers a fascinating perspective on normal goings-on. The film dwells on the Susic family who appear to live a straightforward life – near-retirement age parents and two adult children – but whose relationships are more fractured than they first appear.

The dramas might appear to be relatively ordinary, but in the hands of Tanovic’s talented group of actors, the film is always thoughtful, engaging and at times moving. It is an intelligent film that presents an alternative look at a region usually seen through stories of political or violent drama.


Director :Santiago Mitre
Spanish dialogue with English subtitles / 103 mins
Rating: 15+ (Contains: Adult References, Strong Language, Violence and Rape) 

This intense Argentinean film is driven by a powerful lead performance by Dolores Fonzi, who plays the title character; a young woman dealing with the physical and emotional strains of a sexual assault as she – and her friends and family around her – struggle with how best to handle the fallout of the brutal incident.

Santiago Mitre’s film (a modern-day remake of the 1960 Argentinean classic La Patota) is a tough and at times bruising experience, but the film raises important questions and never takes any simplistic melodramatic routes, with Fonzi powerful and poignant, in an at times harrowing role.


Director : Grimur Hakonarson
Icelandic dialogue with English subtitles / 92 mins
Rating: 15+ (Contains: Adult References, Male Nudity and Strong Language) 

A delightful oddball Icelandic delight, writer/director Grimur Hakonarson’s film is rich in humanity and humour. Bushy-bearded Icelandic brothers Gummi and Kiddi have not spoken for 40 years and communicate only through written messages carried by sheepdog Somi.

A moment comes when they have to deal with the discovery of a sheep disease and save their flock from mass slaughter. Will a plan to try and save their sheep bring the two feuding brothers together? Balancing deadpan humour with a real sense of warmth and affection, the film is a charmer, with the striking Icelandic landscape serving as a lovely balance to the rambling oddness of the farmer brothers.


Director : Lenny Abrahamson
English dialogue with Arabic subtitles / Colour / 118 mins
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Coarse Language, Adult References, Adult Themes and Rape)

A powerful and deeply moving story of emotional and physical survival, this absorbing adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 bestselling novel (she also handled the screenplay) is one of the year’s low-key gems.

Driven by nuanced and impressive central performances and poignant and controlled direction Lenny Abrahamson, it follows the dark story (and seen through his eyes) of five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who lives happily with his mother – who he simply calls Ma (Brie Larson).

But, they are held captive by a man, who kidnapped Ma seven years earlier. The only world Jack knows is the shed they are kept in or ‘room’ as he calls it. That is until they plan an escape and their world changes yet again.


Song of Lahore
Director : Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Andy Schocken
English, Punjabi and Urdu dialogue with English subtitles / 82 mins
Rating: PG 

An enthralling tuneful documentary about the magic of musical fusion. This impressively assembled film follows a small band of Pakistani classical musicians, who when faced with a shrinking audience for their music in their homeland, decide to work on an experimental album that blends jazz with their own South Asian improv style.

The group heads to New York to join Wynton Marsalis’ group for a concert at the Lincoln Center. Their zest and joy of being in Manhattan is balanced with the sheer hard work of bringing the two bands’ styles together, but it all leads to a gloriously moving concert, which shows quite magnificently how musical styles can work together to concoct something magical.

There will be a special live performance featuring musicians from the film on Monday, 14th December at the open air screening by the beach (DIFF's open air screening by the beach will run throught the festival and is free to attend. Complete line up and schedule can be found here.)


Starve Your Dog 
Director : Hicham Lasri
Arabic, Berber and French dialogue with English subtitles / 94 mins
Rating: 15+ (Contains: Adult References, Coarse Language and Violence)

A painful chapter in Morocco’s history is revealed through an interview with a notorious political strongman, about his role in the brutal former regime. Ambiguity still surrounds the country's present and future.


Sunset Song
Director : Terence Davies
English / 135 mins
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Adult References, Nudity, Sexuality and Rape)

Veteran British filmmaker Terence Davies has delivered a beautifully shot and impressively structured film version of “Sunset Song”, one of the most acclaimed literary works from Scotland. At the tender heart of the story is Chris Guthrie (an excellent Agyness Deyn), who gives up a career as a teacher to remain working the farm with her brutal father (a brilliant Peter Mullan).

She eventually marries a local farmer (Kevin Guthrie) but their relationship is trained and torn by the advent of the First World War. It is a film free of nostalgia, but which still pays homage to the beauty of the land.


A Syrian Love Story
Director : Sean McAllister
English, Arabic and French dialogue with English subtitles / 76 mins
Rating: 12+ (Contains: Coarse Language and Violence) 

A moving and provocative non-fiction (that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sheffield Documentary Festival) that offers a human story set against the backdrop of a country torn apart by war and politics. British filmmaker Sean McAllister follows the marriage of Amer Daoud (who McAllister meets in Syria while on a press trip) and his wife Raghda Hassan.

The couple had met while in prison years earlier, and when McAllister arrives on the scene Raghda is back in prison, while Daoud looks after their four sons. The film charts their relationship through the Syrian uprising in 2011, with the family eventually forced to flee to Lebanon and then to France and having to face the question of how they want to live their lives.


The Treasure
Director : Corneliu Porumboiu
Romanian dialogue with English subtitles / 89 mins
Rating: 15+ 

On the surface, Corneliu Porumboiu’s subtle and simple film (apparently based on a real story) may appear as a straightforward tale of ordinary Romanian folk doing all they can to find any way of making some money – in this case two men set about digging up a garden to try and find a rumoured lost fortune. 

But as is always the case with this thoughtful filmmaker, there is more lying beneath the surface than at first appears. The ‘treasure’ that may or may not lurk under the ground, also sees them digging up other things as they unearth aspects of their past and links to their future, as their simple bid to search for money becomes a much more nuanced tale.


Director : Sebastian Schipper
German, English and Spanish dialogue with English subtitles / 140 mins
Rating: 15+ 

An astonishing exercise in technical expertise, as well as in impressive story telling, German director Sebastian Schipper’s fourth film is a striking success – he shot his freewheeling crime film in one single take. 

A young Spanish woman’s night out takes a dark turn when she hooks up with four Berlin men after clubbing, as the film turns into a heist movie. Perhaps the real star is cinematographer Sturua Brandth Grovlen who follows the action and helps create the atmosphere.


Wednesday, May 9
Director : Vahid Jalilvand
Persian dialogue with English subtitles / 102 mins
Rating: PG 

Debut drama director Vahid Jalilvand offers up a delightfully compassionate, moving and affecting film, with its series of eventually interweaving stories delving into the dilemmas faced by the have-nots of Iranian society. The various strands are ignited by a philanthropist, who offers a large sum of money in a bid to ease his own sorrows, but whose act also spurs on the hopes and dreams of those who desperately need money for their own reasons.

These include a working wife and mother (the excellent Niki Karimi) who wants to pay for her husband’s operation and an orphan (Sahar Ahmadpour) desperate to get the man she loves released from prison – with this act of generosity having an impact on all of those involved.


Yallah! Underground
Director : Farid Eslam
Arabic and English dialogue with English subtitles / 85 mins
Rating: 12+ 

A tour that introduces bands from the underground music scene in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan, as well as the bands created by young Arab artists in Europe and America.

Music transcends everything to become a message - a symbol of the revolution, perhaps, - and definitely a way for the guitar to replace the rifle. Many musical experiments were born prior to the Arab Spring, in its anticipation, while many others were born either during the protests, or right after.


Director : Paolo Sorrentino
English, German and Spanish dialogue with English subtitles / 118 mins
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Adult References, Brief Sex, Coarse Language and Nudity)

A lavish and beautifully bold film made with flamboyant energy by writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, Youth is a thoroughly enjoyable musing on age and art. Set against the delightful Swiss backdrop, it is given verve and energy through its fine cast, headed by Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz.

Sorrentino’s dash of impressionistic panache gives the film its almost operatic tone as the story of two old friends – Caine’s retired composer happy in his Alpine retreat and Keitel’s still-working veteran film director – as they ruminate on life, memory and aging. There is so much to enjoy – from singer Paloma Faith’s pop star cameo to Jane Fonda’s turn as an aging diva – in this free-flowing and lush tale.


Director : Majid Al Ansari
Arabic dialogue with English subtitles / 92 mins

Trapped in a prison cell ("Zinzana") in a remote police station, a man named Talal (Saleh Bakri) is tortured by visions of his beloved ex-wife and son as he waits to hear his fate.

When officer Daban (Ali Suliman) from a neighboring town stops by, Talal watches as the friendly visit suddenly turns into a bloodbath. Being behind bars is now the least of Talal's problems, as he is forced to play a madman's game to save his family's lives.


A special mention to the Arabian Nights trilogy. All three films will be screened back to back on Sunday, 13th December. I watched all three at the London Film Festival. I liked part one and two, part three was tough through. I went through a range of emotions watching all three, from laughter to frustration. There is a lot of anger in the film, but there is beauty too. If you're up for it, I do recommend you dedicate that day to watch all three films, the only way I think you should watch this trilogy. 

Arabian Nights: Volume 1 - The Restless One (125 mins)
Arabian Nights: Volume 2 - The Desolate One (131 mins)
Arabian Nights: Volume 3 - The Enchanted One (125 mins)
Director : Miguel Gomes
Portuguese dialogue with English subtitles / Colour / 125 mins  
Rating: 18+ (Contains: Adult References, Coarse Language, Nudity, Sexuality)

An extra special mention, the screening Jaws on Saturday, 12th December to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The screening will take place at the open air screening by the beach (DIFF's open air screening by the beach will run throught the festival and is free to attend. Complete line up and schedule can be found here.) 

The film will be presented  Richard Dreyfuss who will be in Dubai for the event. Will be quite special to see this at the open air screening by the beach.