Review: Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2011

A bit of an overdue review, but here it is.

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival ran for 10 days in October, it brought us more than 150 films - short and full features, documentaries and special programs. The one major change at this year's festival was the venue of the official host hotel and headquarters, it moved from the Emirates Palace Hotel to the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr with its new open-air cinema. I didn't get a chance to check it out because it was almost half an hour drive away from the other locations that screened the majority of the films - the charming but underused Abu Dhabi Theatre and the very ordinary VOX Cinemas in Marina Mall (sadly, one of the most unpleasant malls I've been to).

I had a great marathon session of movie watching and glad to say there wasn't anything that I disliked from my list. I skipped the short films because of time and I avoided all films/documentaries related to the Arab Spring. The stories are still being told and I think it's too soon to objectively reflect about what's happening.

So here's a rundown.

Documentaries -  One thing I find the Abu Dhabi Festival do well is their selection of documentaires. The ones that stood out for me this year include:

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is about a collection of rare 16mm footage that was recently discovered in the basement of a Swedish television station. The archival footage was recorded by a group of Swedish journalists who followed the Black Power movement in the USA from 1967 to 1975. Co-produced by Danny Glover and directed by Göran Hugo Olsson, it is very thought provoking and left me thinking about what has changed and what has remained the same.

The Tiniest Place by Tatiana Huezo is a very emotional documentary about Cinquera, a small village in El Salvador and the trauma endured by its inhabitants during the civil war. We silently follow the day to day lives of its survivors on screen, but we hear them narrating their stories, their thoughts and feel the emotional and psychological damage that's taken place.

The City Dark, a documentary about light pollution and the disappearance of the night. We follows its filmmaker Ian Cheney, who moves to New York City and discovers the sky is almost completely devoid of stars. It's a lovely visual essay with some great astrophotography. The film questions what is lost when we because of light pollution and explores our relationship with the stars. It includes interviews with some very interesting (and quirky) characters in the field of astronomy, astophysics, biology and cancer research.

Project Nim, was the one I was looking forward to the most because I've been reading abut how great it is for months. I was not disappointed, how could I, its made by the same team behind  Man on Wire, which is one of my favourite documentaries. In Project Nim, James Marsh again brilliantly crafts a documentray with touching inerviews and amazing archival footage. Nim, a chimpanzee who was taken away from birth and was raised like a human child, part of a research project by Professor Herbet Terrace to study animal language acquisition. We see Nim grow, the impact he has on the lives of the people that take care of him and of the research project itself. The film really made me reflect on human behaviour which on many occasions is dark and frgtening.

El Gusto, the darling of this year's festival is a music documentary by Safinez Bousbia. Described as the Arab version of "Buena Vista Social Club", El Gusto is a nostalgic look at the origins of Chaabi music in Algeria and the men behind it. Bousbia started working on this from 2004 when a chance meeting led her on a mission to track down the key musicians from this period. It's beautifully filmed with very endearing personalities and storytellers. It's a reminder of a time long gone, when life in the Casbah inhabited by both Muslims and Jews was lively, bohemian and joyful. All that changed after the War of Independence in 1954. The film climaxes with an emotional reunion of the surviving members who all play again for the first time after five decades. The film received a standing ovation at both screenings and won the Best Director of the Arab World award. It's clearly a labour of love and I imagine it will make its way around the festival circuit in the coming year after it had its world premiere in Abu Dhabi. 

Full feature films - there was a good selection of films from around the world, but these four films stood out for me for their style and story telling.

Almost in Love by Sam Neave is decribed as "a love story in two takes". It is shot in two uninterrupted 40 minute takes and addresses love, friendship and loyalty in one of the most honest ways I've seen on the big screen. It is a very intimate film with great dialogue - watching it made me feel like I'm in the same room as the characters in the film.


Stories Only Exist When Remembered by Julia Murat is a beautifully made heart wrenching story about loneliness, old age and death. We follow the daily routines of a small and elderly community in a small village in Paraiba Valley in Brazil. Their daily routines are somewhat disrupted with the arrival of Rita, a young travelling photographer who stays on to photograph the people and the village and through her photographs we are left with some unanswered questions.

A Separation by Asghar Farhadi won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin film festival. It's about a married couple Simin and Nader and their desire to do the right thing. Simin wants to leave Iran with Nader and their daughter Termeh for a better future. Nader wants to stay back to look after his ill father. What happens over the next two hours of the film is a slow unravelling of events and secrets that lead to some dire consequences. A very well crafted film, with great acting and script - it ends with no definitive answers, because as Asghad Farhadi said at the Q & A session after the screening, even he doesn't know the answers. 

We Need To Talk About Kevin - an amazing film on every level - the acting, the visuals, the editing, the soundtrack. About a mother-son relationship that is one of the most uncomfortable I've seen on the big screen, we go back and forth between the present and the past to figure out what led to Kevin's murderous tendencies. Needless to say, it's very dark, very grim - the kind of film that leaves you speechless after the end credits roll. 

Other highlights of the festival include:

Sea Shadow was the only full feature film from the United Arab Emirates that screened at this festival. Directed by Nawaf Al Janahi (his second feature film after The Circle) and produced by Abu Dhabi's Image Nation, the film is set in a small seaside town in Ras Al Khaimah and follows teenagers and their teenage dreams amidst the emotional and generational divide between parents and children in the United Arab Emirates of today. It's a gentle film that looks good visually. But it had some dark undertones related to sexual abuse which wasn't addressed with depth. It made me wonder if it's the Emirati filmmakers or the Emirati audience who aren't ready to tackle deeper subjects on film. 

Between Heaven and Earth was part of the 'Naguib Mahfouz–Man of Cinema' series that celebrated his 100th birthday. Written by Naguib Mahfouz and directed by Salah Abu Seif in 1960, the film is set in an elevator on a hot Friday afternoon in Cairo. The elevator is filled with people that represent Egyptian society (a movie star, a thief, a madman, a cook and a pregnant woman to name a few) who are trapped in it for 12 hours. What is revealed in during the time they are trapped in the elevator is relevant today as it was 50 years ago. It was such so special for me to watch a classic Egyptian black and white film on the big screen for the first time.

But the most delightful highlight of the festival goes to...

I end my review with the most delightful moment of the festival which happened at the misnamed "Family Day Special Program". This section was presented by Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films, a film historian and an expert on film restoration. He screened a selection of restored silent film gems - fantasy films, travelogues, animation and Buster Keaton's long lost short The Love Nest from 1923 - all accompanied by live piano (well, actually a keyboard) played by Serge Bromberg. The cherry on top was the screening of the restored colour version of The Trip to The Moon by George Melies from 1902 - often described as the 'first science fiction movie ever made'. It was accompanied by the new soundtrack composed by French electro duo Air, who were also present to talk about the music and what inspired them to make it. As a lover of silent films and a fan of Air, this basically added the cool factor to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Here's a taster of what I saw.