The 13th Dubai International Film Festival draws to a close on Wednesday, with the regional premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Whether you are a film buff, a casual movie fan, an industry guru or an aspiring filmmaker, it is safe to say that this year’s edition was one of the best. The number of films was up on last year, to 156, after a couple of years where the festival seemed to have been scaling down a little. The number of international celebrities who flew in was genuinely surprising and the films were of a calibre that, even by Diff’s traditionally high standards, amazed. Chris Newbould and Rob Garratt pick a few of their favourite moments.
Andie MacDowell is a hit ≥
Four Weddings and a Funeral and Groundhog Day star Andie MacDowell was a popular draw when she gave an acting masterclass at the festival on Monday. The event was more like a Broadway opening than a festival event, as eager fans rushed to present the actress with bouquets of flowers. Although MacDowell is best known for her blockbuster movie roles, she is also a long-standing supporter of independent cinema – her award-winning breakthrough role was in Steven Soderbergh’s indie classic Sex, Lies and Videotape – and was in town in part to promote the Sundance Channel, OSN subscribers’ first port of call for lovers of the less mainstream side of cinema. “I love independent movies and when I first started making movies I always chose to do an independent movie and then a studio film because the roles and the stories are more interesting to me. People take more chances,” she said. MacDowell spoke at length about her career as an actress and a model, and also offered tips on achieving Hollywood success to any budding thespians in the audience.
A Worthy homecoming ≥
The local industry was out in force on Friday night for the regional premiere of Emirati director Ali F Mostafa’s new movie, The Worthy.
The film had a relatively low-key world premiere at the London Film Festival in October, but the team pulled out all the stops for its home debut, with a full complement of cast and crew in attendance, including Homeland’s Ali Suliman and producer Steven Schneider, who was also behind the Paranormal Activity films. Fast and Furious star Tyrese Gibson, who is not in the film but a regular visitor to the UAE, added a spot of Hollywood flair to the red carpet. Mostafa, meanwhile, was clearly pleased to see his latest movie finally screen on home soil. “I debuted my first film, City of Life, at Diff’s sixth edition, so this is a really special moment for me,” he said. “It’s great to be home with the movie.” It looks like we may soon see a Mostafa cinematic dynasty emerge, too – his brother Mohammed played Daoud in the movie, and says he hopes to appear on screen again before too long. “It’s the first time I’ve ever acted in a film and it’s been an amazing experience,” he said. “I’m really excited to do more work and hopefully learn as much as I can about the whole industry.”
There was a bumper crop of A-listers at this year’s event and, as ever, autograph hunters were saturating the red carpet. The big attractions on opening night included Samuel L Jackson, Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, Gibson, veteran British actor Bill Nighy and his countryman, director John Madden. Hollywood royalty including Meg Ryan, MacDowell, Melanie Griffiths, Eva Longoria and Will Poulter, plus Westworld TV stars Luke Hemsworth and Jeffrey Wright, and pop star Anastacia also graced red carpets or appeared at special events.
There was plenty of talent from closer to home, too, including Turkish actress Tuba Büyüküstün and Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh, Rekha and Om Puri. As the Middle East’s biggest film festival, there was also plenty of Arab talent to spot at Diff, including Ahmed Magdy, Amr Saad and Ali Suliman. Dubai has long enjoyed a reputation as a location where celebrities like to take a break, but rarely will so many be found in one place at the same time.
Luke Hemsworth was in town (with co-star Jeffrey Wright) to promote the hit HBO sc-fi drama Westworld, which is broadcast here on OSN – and we discovered that there’s nothing like brotherly love, especially when it comes to acting siblings trashing each other’s films.
When we mentioned to Luke that we’d recently spent time with his younger brother, Liam, when he was in town this year to promote Independence Day: Resurgence, the elder sibling was scathing. “Oh – that film no one went to watch?” he said with a laugh. “Yeah, that was a solid six out of 10. No, who am I kidding? It wasn’t was it? It was a dreadful film.” It was indeed a dreadful film – though having spent several years appearing in Australian soap opera Neighbours, Luke should perhaps consider the well-known proverb regarding people in glass houses and stone projectiles …
Carnage on the big screen
This year’s event featured what might be one of the best films I have seen at Diff. As a huge fan of director Ben Wheatley – from his earliest feature Kill List, which was essentially a brilliantly twisted unofficial remake of Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man, to the spectacularly dark caravan-holiday horror of Sightseers – he can do no wrong in my eyes.
His latest, Free Fire, was simply the most high-octane, stupidly violent, comedically gruesome film to hit the screen since Tarantino was in his prime.
The tonal triumph of Miss Sloane
While the red-carpet galas grab most of the headlines – 2016 certainly attracted a bumper collection of A-list celebrity guests – the festival’s tone is invariably set by the choice of opening-night film. There have been no hard and fast rules to previous choices, with openers ranging from big-budget Hollywood crowd-pleasers such as Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Life of Pi, to the dark regional triumph, Omar, and last year’s tear-jerking indie, Room. We reckon a perfect balance was struck this year with the international premiere of Miss Sloane – a demanding, meaty thriller that explored the ongoing debate in the US about gun control with wit and finesse, largely thanks to the film’s titular anti-heroine, played grippingly by Jessica Chastain. Director John Madden flew in for promotional duties and was among the stars hobnobbing at the glitzy opening-night party, last Wednesday. “They [the programmers] saw an early cut … and asked if we would come and open the festival, and I said ‘no contest’,” said the British filmmaker, who won an Oscar for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, and also made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. “It is a very exciting, fantastic festival, clearly, and it’s very special to be invited and be a part of it.”
Desert blues on the beach ≥
In was a fittingly windswept night when Malian guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi took to the stage at JBR’s The Beach to perform a haunting set of desert blues grooves under the stars. Friday’s free public performance was the real-life coda to an open-air screening of Mali Blues, an artful documentary about four prominent but diverse talents from the musically rich West African nation, which was shaken by a violent civil war in 2012. The film shows how, when Islamist militants took control of his northern homeland – banning music, smashing instruments and threatening performers with violent punishment – Tuareg musician Ag Kaedi was forced into exile in the government-held south.
Diff initially advertised a concert from the film’s ostensible star – Fatoumata Diawara (of Timbuktu fame), whose return from France to perform her first homeland concert was Mali Blues’s framing device – but the surprise appearance by Ag Kaedi was no disappointment.
Performing alongside a stripped-down trio version of his group, Amanar, the guitarist’s music and spiritual chants echoed out over the sands, locked into a primordial groove generations older than any of the venue’s looming skyscrapers.
Home help under the spotlight
The murky moral maze of the Middle East’s burgeoning home-help industry came under the spotlight in A Maid for Each, a stark documentary that might have been particularly pertinent to UAE expats.
Largely set in the cramped confines of a small, thriving Beirut agency, the cameras are static observers as would-be clients size up potential employees based on age, nationality, height, religion, or even looks.
The maids appear only as they do in their clients’s lives – off-screen, utterly voiceless, nothing more than goods to be exchanged.
Business owner Zein draws a complicated diagram explaining how women are imported like livestock – or, in some cases, smuggled – from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
“When they become servants, all their rights no longer exist,” said producer Sabine Sidawi, during a heated post-screening question-and-answer session on Saturday.
“This is a phenomenon which is not unusual – this is the capitalist system. We are opposed, but we also rely on these workers inside our homes.”
Lumière! lights up the screen
Perhaps the biggest treat for hardened cinephiles was the chance to see newly restored prints of films by Auguste and Louis Lumière, the French brothers generally regarded as the first filmmakers. Simply titled Lumière!, this 90-minute compendium – which received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September – collects 98 of the hundreds of shorts, each running less than a minute, that the brothers shot with their pioneering, patented cinematograph between 1895 and 1905.
Best of all, it was live-narrated by the project’s director, Thierry Frémaux, best known as director of both the Cannes Film Festival, and the Institut Lumière museum in Lyon. Frémaux’s warm, witty commentary was the ideal complement to these historic masterpieces, guiding the audience as the camera moved through France to exotic excursions across Europe, North Africa, the Far East and the Middle East, including fascinating turn-of-the-century stops in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.
Highlighting the filmmakers’ intricate flair for framing, self-aware actors, use of gags and special effects, Frémaux’s message was clear – the Lumière brothers were not only documentarians – but artists in their own right.
Samuel L Jackson opens up
Judging by the sense of hysteria in the queues of fans waiting for Friday’s intimate “In Conversation” appearance by Hollywood legend Samuel L Jackson, it was a clear contender for the title of Diff’s hottest ticket.
Despite a reputation in the media for exhibiting a certain air of aloof antagonism, the 67-year-old actor appeared warm and relaxed during his hour-long talk as he candidly reflected on his extensive screen career, which spans 44 years and more than 160 films.
“People tell me I’m in every movie ever made,” he began with a chuckle, before talking at length about breakthrough roles in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. His notoriously blunt wit was not entirely dulled, however, as he proved when he poured scorn on two of this year’s Oscar hopefuls – both of which also screened at Diff. “I guess it is amazing – to some people,” he deadpanned, talking about Kenneth Lonergan drama Manchester by the Sea. On the Will Smith film, Collateral Beauty, Jackson was more openly scathing: “I’m like, really? Another one of those ‘life is so wonderful, if you just make time to sniff the roses’ [movies]? If that’s what you want – great.”