Middle East International Film Festival: Programming for the Future

Above: Rigoberto Pérezcano’s border town film Northless.

With the programmers of the Middle Eastern Film Festival tasked with bringing cinema to Abu Dhabi—which has no alternative theaters beyond multiplexes—the lineup has taken several ways to introduce and encourage a cinema culture.

Masters are an obvious route; new films by Claire Denis, Alain Resnais, Steven Soderbergh, Tian Zhuangzhaung, and an omnibus of Romanian shorts as representative A-list world cinema is, I’m sure, welcome in the area, at least in theory.

Far more adventurous is MEIFF’s attempt to bring silent cinema to the Arabian Peninsula.  Backed by the bold statement that silent films with live musical accompaniment have never played there, MEIFF has generously brought in renowned silent film pianist Neil Brand to give a master class on his background in accompanying silent film and brief but delightful examples of the pleasures and challenges of the work.  Another master class, which I was unable to attend, was presented by Paolo Cherchi Usai of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, and was on the preservation of Arab film history.  These two strands of presentation and preservation united for what was undoubtedly the most pleasurable and gleeful of MEIFF’s screenings: the “landmark” silent screenings of four comedy shorts—a Chaplin and a Keaton courageously paired with lesser known Charley Chase and Charles Bowers shorts—at a show that brought in a terrific amount of laughing young children, guided along by Brand’s virtuoso improvisations.  Despite being an eye opening experience for the audience—a pre-film poll by festival director Peter Scarlett revealed that the majority had never seen a silent film in a theater—the house was notably lacking much of an Arab presence, for whom this screening was presumably fundamentally organized.

Whether the audiences in general—which are a hard demographic to pin down, seemingly made up most predominantly of ex-pats from the nationality of whatever film is playing, and a variable dose of upper-middleclass locals—are looking for or enjoy finding festival favorites and silent movies is a question I have no doubt MEIFF is losing sleep over, but the effort is admirable and clearly the beginning of something being built for the future.  At the very least—whether or not the audience is engaged, or if the right audience is engaged—carving out a space at MEIFF to ensure a respectable level of cinephiliac prestige did its job to help offset flashy galas (the abominable and falsely proclaimed “underwater” Bollywood film Blue) and supporting regional cinema of more questionable quality (No One Knows About Persian Catsand Son of Babylon both being particularly simplistic and intolerable).

But a far more interesting question—and opportunity—in Abu Dhabi is about how a restless and inquisitive festival lineup can interact with the city in which it is being presented.  Although no film has specifically mentioned Abu Dhabi or the United Arab Emirates, films like Tahani Rached’s Neighbors (from Egypt), Rigoberto Pérezcano’s Northless (Mexico), and Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s The Shock Doctrine (UK), look at situations with broad similarities and certainly with pertinent rhymes with the development of the UAE and their burgeoning new cities.  It is a remarkable mission for a film festival, which in the general sense serves to bring the outside world in.  Something more complicated is happening at some of the screenings in Abu Dhabi: the inside is being revealed from without.

Rather than focusing on an endemic problem, Tahani Rached’s Neighbors has a minute but allegorical focus.  It sees a chic 20th century neighborhood for the foreign elite in Cairo now serving as a reminder of the turmoil and changes Egypt, like a great number of post-colonial and post-imperial nations, have recently undergone.  In Neighbors, a neighborhood is indicative of a country, and a country implicitly indicative of the complicated post-imperial situation around the world.  Watching such a film in Abu Dhabi, which, like it’s more glamorous sister UAE city Dubai, are serving as exemplary, high-profile new developments intertwining wealthy local and foreign interests, one can’t help but draw lines between the height of Cairo’s Garden City neighborhood in the 1920s and the international image of the UAE right now.  That Dubai stands in the international spotlight as a unique kind of emblematic icon only further underlines Rached’s impressive use of locality to speak on global concerns.

From the elite neighborhoods of Cairo to the dusty Mexico-U.S. border of Tijuana. Rigoberto Pérezcano’s impressive fictional feature debut Northless, while not as directly related to the UAE phenomena as either of the two documentaries discussed, nevertheless rounds out the picture by focusing on unhappy people on the edge between desperation and bountiful hope.  Focusing on a Oaxaca man who takes a temporary job with two women who run a bodega along the Tijuana fence while he tries and waits and tries again to cross over to the U.S., Northless’ quietude and unassuming beauty precisely notes the allure of a modest life living in the shadow of infinite promise, an allure that can live both modestly and in conflict with the desire and hope for better things.

The two women—both married, both waiting for long-gone husbands to return—are drawn to the border jumper, and try to placate his need to leave with reasons to stay.  Sitting in air conditioned plush red seats in an upper-class mall’s multiplex watching Northless with an audience that most definitely included no locals on a level of lower-middleclass regularity as the two women in Northless—travelers setting root on the border of prosperity and unsure if it is for tomorrow or for ever—it was relieving to see this picture of two equally moving ways of life filled with entirely different kinds of longing on an amorphous border.  For a country that rarely grants citizenship in favor of workers contracted for time-limited employment, Northless’ calm and thoughtful go-or-stay concerns seemed especially relevant.

Minute focus and quietude were not the approach of The Shock Doctrine’s problematic envisioning of Naomi Kline’s book.  While too broad and action-oriented to wrest nuances from Kline’s global narrative of the terror of free market capitalism, the drearily televisual documentary is based around a central schema which is alarmingly, though equally broadly, applicable to the UAE.  The film posits the dangerous experimentation of extreme free market policies during the economic vacuum and amongst distracted and docile populaces of nations in crisis.  This experimentation, in order to be implemented thoroughly, in places such Chile, the UK, and Iraq, have ended up hurting the people and the economies more, and additionally encouraging (or even requiring) repressive regimes to enforce them.

The UAE’s recent boom to a degree is reflected in The Shock Doctrine’s picture of out of control capitalistic economic policies that rather than increase the general standards of living of a populace only serve to increase the gap between the rich in the poor while nevertheless serving as a banner advertisement for some kind of monetary success.  The opulent result of such practices is in evidence at MEIFF, being shuttled from the Emirates Palace to sprawling indoor malls with frequent stops at a cluster of international hotels, but any dark side to this bubbled wealth is difficult to find between the shuttle routes that take festival attendees around the outskirts of the city.  It was an immediate and tangible joy to hear the peals of laughter that accompanied MEIFF’s silent film screening, but much harder to qualify is whether Abu Dhabi residents—whoever those residents may be—find echoes of their local surroundings in the films at the festival which come from outside but look deep within.

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  • Michael Guillen

    Of the various journalists invited to cover and promote this year’s Abu Dhabi festival, only your dispatches seem to have matched the task. I appreciate not only your film commentary but—even more—your perceptions of the festival’s placement within its civic structure. Thank you for articulating them for us.

  • Daniel Kasman

    Thanks Michael! I did what I could inside an okay program and a city that mostly went unexperienced…

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