Review - Dubai International Film Festival 2016


The 13th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival wrapped up on 14th December. The festival screened 156 films from 55 countries, of which I watched 20 features and 11 shorts (listed below). I shared daily reports which were mostly in the form of quick reviews recorded for the Tea with Culture podcast (all the episodes are added below), but here's an overall impression of this year's edition.   

Prepare Yourself
The theme this year was "Prepare Yourself" which just begged the question, prepare yourself for what? To watch films? I kept thinking of the early years of the festival which used "Bridging Cultures. Meeting Minds." as its tagline and made me miss it. 

Opening and closing films
DIFF takes pride in supporting Arab films, but I noticed this year's edition was heavy with "Oscar contenders" (including La La Land, Loving, Jackie, Manchester by the Sea, plus opening and closing films, Miss Sloane and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) which appeared to get more promoted and attention (on social media, English language radio and press) compared to the lesser known titles, including Arab films. 

The festival hasn't opened with an Arab film since 2013 (Omar, Dir.  Hany Abu- Assad), and was hoping this would be the year. The decision to open with Miss Sloane left me wondering why. I found the answer in an interview in Variety with DIFF's Artistic Director Masoud Amralla Al Ali

Why did you pick “Miss Sloane” as the opening movie? 

It’s topical, it’s recent. It talks about what’s happening in the U.S. and how this can affect the world. Also the female character is very strong. All of these elements played into it. We have lots of female directors in the Arab world, maybe more than in the West. This year for the first time we have three films from Qatar by female filmmakers. We also have three from Saudi Arabia. I just came from a press conference [for Lebanese film “Solitaire”] where the only male on the panel was the moderator. So “Miss Sloane” connects with everything we are doing.

An opening film normally serves as a statement for the festival. Personally, I am not sure how a film about political lobbying about US gun laws is topical in our region. I would have thought the Egyptian film Mawlana / Preacher (Dir. Magdy Ahmed Ali) about religion, fundamentalist views, politics and hypocrisy would have been more topical for a film festival in the Arab region. Or Tramontane (Dir. Vatche Boulghourjian), a Lebanese film about war amnesia would have been more relevent to this region compared to Miss Sloane. Or Ali, the Goat, and Ibrahim (Dir. Sherif El Bendary), an Egyptian a film about two male protaginists that feel like outsiders within their community, alienated, lost and vulnerable. And if DIFF wants to champion female directors, then why not open with a film directed by a female director? Some of the films directed by Arab and non-Arab female directors at DIFF included Solitaire (Sophie Boutros), Foreign Body (Raja Amari), Those Who Remain (Elaine Raheb), Honey, Dust and Rain (Nujoom Alghanim), Zaineb Hates the Snow (Kauther Ben Hania), Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt), Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell). 

As for the closing film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it was released in UAE cinemas a few hours afer the screening at DIFF which made me wonder, what was the point. To claim the Middle East premiere? 

UAE films
There were six full features and seven short films from the United Arab Emirates this year. The ones that stood out for me were Honey, Rain and Dust (Nujoom Alghanem) a documentary about beekepers in the Northern Emirates and Only Men go to the Grave (Abdulla Al Kaabi) which I talked about here and want to write about in the near future. The short film Shrimp (Yaser Alneyadi, Ali Bin Matar) was a film that felt absurd and surreal, a move away from the typical genres we see in UAE short films. 

I skipped The Worthy (Ali Mostafa) because it will be released in UAE cinemas in February, but the film was the only UAE film that was promoted heavily during the festival. It was even the cover story for December's issue of Empire Arabia (guest edited by the director himself). 

I attended a talk by Jeff Clarke, CEO of Kodak about the importance of film and how directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are championing this medium. He also talked about Kodak's role in film education and supporting filmmakers. I asked how is Kodak working with cinemas to bring back film projections. In addition to supporting indie cinemas in NYC & London, Clarke said he would ike to see multiplexes to have at least one screen projecting on film - even in the UAE. Here's hoping this happens in the near future.   

I also attended the Arab Cinema Lab, a symposium that invited filmmakers, creative producers, funders, distributors and broadcasters, to showcase and discuss the production of Arab films, film funding, the role of film distributors and cinemas. It was an information gathering session for me, but sadly there were no Q&As which I felt was a missed opportunity to ask why Arab films released in the UAE hardly get promoted, something that I think distibutors, cinemas, media are all guilty of, and an issue I've noticed happening a lot tihs year. 

Phones in cinemas
I want to commend DIFF for having a warning appear on the screen before each film against photographing and filming during the screenings and to switch off your phone till the end of the movie. One of my issues from last year's edition was the amount of people who would just turn on their phones to read, type messages with a complete disregard to anyone sitting near of behind them. Even if the phone is silent, the damn light from the phone is the problem. There were of course people who still turned on their phones and I do wish the cinema has staff to police this a bit more. This year I decided to sit in the first row at many of the screenings I attended which helped filter out this issue. 

Films I watched
I had already watched 14 of the films included in this year's DIFF line up other festivals/screenings (Certain WomenA Day for WomenThe Eagle HuntressHediHissein Habre-A Chadian TragedyHotel SalvationI, Daniel BlakeLayla M.Nocturnal AnimalsOne More Time with FeelingThe Red TurtleTramontaneVoyage of Tim,  Withered GreenYour Name).

The Cinema of the World section had the most films and was the most popular section at the festival. I do wish DIFF would consider in future editions a section dedicated to a film director, or a focus on films from a specific country. Maybe even screen them a few day leading up to the festival, something to feed the hunger of cinephiles in this city that don't get a chance to watch old films on the big screen. 

★★★★★ (Loved)
Sieranevada, Dir. Cristi Puiu) 
20th Century Women,  Dir. Mike Mills
Lady Macbeth, Dir. William Oldroyd 

★★★★ (Really Liked)
76 Minutes and 15 seconds with Abbas Kiarostami, Dir. Seifollah Samadian
The Challenge, Dir. Yuri Ancarani
Off Frame aka Revolution Until Victory, Dir. Mohanad Yaqubi

★★★ (Liked)
Ali, The Goat, And Ibrahim, Dir. Sherif El Bendary
After the Storm, Dir. Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Afterimage, Dir. Andrzej Wajda
The Cinema Travellers, Dir.  Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya
Gaza Surf Club, Dir. Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine
Honey, Rain and Dust, Dir. Nujoom Alghanem
The Man Who Saw Too Much, Dir. Trisha Ziff
Manchester by the Sea, Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
Only Men Go to the Grave, Dir. Abdulla Al Kaabi
The Preacher, Dir. Magdy Ahmed Ali  
Zaineb Hates the Snow, Dir. Kaouther Ben Hania

★★ (Didn't Like)
La La Land, Dir. Damien Chazelle
Like Crazy, Dir.  Paolo Virzì
I am Not Madame Bovary, Dir. Feng Xiaogang

Short Films
Animal, Dir. Nayla Al Khaja
Arabian Swan, Dir. Fahad Aljoudi  
Areata, Dir. Ahmad Al Terkait
The Choice, Dir. Eman Alsayed
Kashta, Dir. A.J. Al Thani
A Night in a Taxi, Dir. Aisha Alzaabi
The Republic of T.M., Dir. Masar Sohail
Shrimp, Dir. Yaser Alneyadi
Waiting Room, Dir. Hend Fakhroo
Wake Me Up, Dir. Reem Al-Bayyat
Take Me Home, Dir. Abbas Kiarostami  

Here are all the podcast episodes recorded during DIFF: