Saturday, 29 December 2007

Surya: From Eloquence to Dawn at DIFF

SURYABelgium/2006/Dutch, French, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Nepali, Chinese, Vietnamese & Roma dialogue with English subtitles/Colour/35mm/76 mins
Director: Laurent Van Lancker (Polymor Films)

I cannot remember the last time I saw such an innovative and original piece of filmmaking. Although shown as a documentary in the Dubai Film Festival, Surya completely defies simple categorisation. It is a movie in its own right, a kind of non-fiction as fiction. It is an international odyssey, a cultural anthropological study and a humanist's dream.

Surya’s underlying concept is a children’s game where a story is created as each child adds their own part to it. The filmmakers applied this concept to an international journey in which they travelled as far as they could over land without the need for boats or planes. This epic trip began in Belgium, took nine months and ended in Vietnam taking in Slovakia, Turkey, Syria, Kurdistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal Tibet and China on the way.

The film opened with a storyteller in Belgium who starts the story off. In each subsequent country the filmmakers found a well-known local storyteller and asked them to continue the tale. Each of them added their own part to it until the story was complete.

It was an amazing trip and an amazing story that unfolded as the camera moved through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Each new part of the tale was told in the language of the storytellers and in very different styles depending on where they were. Many of the storytelling traditions were accompanied by music and in some cases the story itself was sung rather than told. Sometimes the settings were quite informal and the additions to the tale quite spontaneous. At other times the stories were given very much as normal performances to local audiences. This was a particular delight in the case of Syria, Iran and India where you felt like you had been transported to that location and were part of that audience.

As well as the narrative thread of the ongoing story there was fascinating footage of border areas and passing scenes, including extra songs and performances from people encountered en-route. The visual splendour of many locations in terms of landscape and colour, plus the palpable excitement of all those participating, added to the feeling that you too were part of something very special.

In the Q and A at the end the filmmakers said this project had been regarded as too risky to secure funding so they ended up making it largely at their own expense. Since production the response has been much better but at present the film is only showing in festivals, universities and small art house cinemas. It really should be put on general release. Not only because it's a fantastic film but also because it demonstrates that positive and innovative interpretations of what globalisation can be are still possible. It is also a welcome reminder of our common creativity and humanity, a fact not reflected in political and economic reality for some time.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Emirati Films at DIFF 2007

Emirati Voices at the Dubai International Film Festival

Altogether there were 9 short films in this section of DIFF some definitely better than others but they were all interesting in terms of what they communicated about the UAE. That said there’s a good chance that I’m reading too much into them anyway. I do have a habit of seeing things that aren’t there!

Hadiyat Eid Al milad (The Birthday Gift - Dir. Ali Jamal)
This had a quite well developed storyline revolving around a favour done for a friend and although the acting was occasionally over dramatic in Egyptian soap stylee there were some good moments. The first hospital reception scene was plausible (and funny) and some of the emotional scenes when the mother and son were in the house were also convincing. The device of reality crossing over with a novel that one of the main characters is writing was unsubtle but effective. It ensured that events conspired to raise a lot of issues… administrative incompetence, impotence, infidelity, suicide and the damaging emotional disconnection from children that a strained marital relationship can have. My biggest problem was not being convinced that the main character would have done the favour for his obviously dodgy friend in the first place!!

Houjas (Dir. Mohd. Abdullah al Hammadi)
This was creepy and disturbing and the harsh uninhabited setting and cinematography contribute to this atmosphere of impending doom very effectively. The film begins with the funeral of a man whose daughter is then left orphaned. A male and wifeless neighbour then adopts the girl under the pretext that his son and her are like brother and sister having grown up together. This opening scene creates an immediate tension. This is enhanced by the apparent inability of the son and confusing appearances of the ghost of the girl’s father to have any impact on what inevitably follows. The strange thing is that the rape (or attempted rape) scene still comes as a shock even though you are expecting it.

100 Miles (Dir. Mustafa Abbas)
This initially seemed little more than a flimsy plot upon which to hang lots of violence….. a kind of pornography approach to film making! The director did fairly claim that it is a genre film in which violence is essentially the genre but I struggled to find anything that hadn’t already been done better by others. Being the first of its kind to be home-grown doesn’t give it automatic credibility but I suppose another element to this genre is serious homage to predecessors. The best thing about it was the character of Miles who was quite compelling and he was certainly the most developed and interesting character. He also acted the role very well and the mirror scene where he is struggling with his own schizoid self rang very true once I had forced Taxi Driver out of my mind! The fact that it was an Emirati film made entirely in English with Emirati actors playing westerners doing a western genre resonated on a number of interesting levels that could possibly stretch to a thesis but … whatever!

Ramad (Ashes – Dir Hamad Al Hammadi)
According to the Director, Ashes is about discovering how all you have achieved has turned to nothing and I really, really enjoyed it! This is probably because my capacity for being a surreal, detached, philosophically troubled and visually appreciative, arty type meant that it all made instant sense to me! As the opening credits announced it was from the Reflective Art Group I relaxed into my seat and then just drifted emotionally and sensually through the whole thing. Consequently my critical faculties were temporarily suspended during this film, which is what I loved about it but that means it’s not much use as a review! Sorry!

Wajeh Alilq (Stuck Face – Dir. Manal Ali Bin Amro)
This was another creepy and disturbing film that maintained a sense of fear and confusion throughout, enhanced by the remoteness of the setting and a discordant soundtrack (or did I imagine that?). We see a girl drawing circles obsessively on a blackboard in a crumbling school building with water dripping constantly from the ceilings and down the walls. Next we see her on a beach desperately trying to remove a pot stuck to her face and finally we see her bloodied legs hanging above us. These scenes are interspersed with an older woman walking purposely through a village past doors that are slamming as she passes. It was very effective in creating tension despite the fact I had absolutely no idea what the film was about. In the Q & A at the end Manal bin Amro explained that it was about growing up with a fear of circumcision. This was a big surprise to me because the focus on this practice has been almost exclusively confined to Africa and I did not know that it was an issue across to the Gulf. I assume that it's now rare if it happens at all but would like to know.

Ana Rajul (I am a Man - Dirs. Shamma Abu Nawas and Sahar al Khatib)
This was absolutely hilarious. Essentially a documentary about hair and fashion trends among young Emirati men it provided an incisive snapshot of west-east crossovers and contradictions, modern vs traditional views and everything in between. It also introduced its audience to some fantastically eloquent and funny modern cultural commentators. Asked to comment on subjects pertinent to contemporary male fashion such as wearing pink, wearing jewellery, waxing, piercing and hair colouring, all had something to say. The discussion centred on how far it was acceptable to go before being considered unmanly or gay and opinions were as diverse and interesting and amusing as the men and women who gave them. A lot of fun!

Bain Shamsain (Between Two Suns - Dir. Rehab Omar Ateeq)
This film contrasts the lives of a blind Emirati boy and an Iraqi refugee girl with two young and very rich Emirati men. The film shows excerpts from interviews with all of its subjects juxtaposed in a way that exacerbates the massive disconnections between their lives. The Iraqi girl lost her mother and most of her siblings in a bomb attack, which left her severely burned. Her painful matter of fact articulacy about this experience and a current situation of extreme financial difficulty and disfigurement are galaxies away from the two young men. Living with blindness and how the boy deals with his situation has no relation to the lives of the men either. Their problems are finding things to fill their time, finding new places to go and finding new ways to spend the money they have never had to earn. What they say is definitely exaggerated to highlight the extreme wealth gap but it also highlights the extreme and often wilful ignorance of less fortunate lives that privilege affords. The parallel dialogue technique makes this film perhaps too black and white sometimes but it was compelling from start to finish.

Bela Qalb (Heartless -Dir. Ahmed Zain)
This is a story of bitterness, selfishness and revenge in an unhappy marriage. Each partner mercilessly exploits the third character of the woman’s simple, dependent and emotionally fragile brother. Manipulated by both, he becomes the vehicle by which they try to eliminate each other. Despite occasional flashes of anger at what he is being asked to do the brother complies, powerless to act in any independent way. Ultimately his sister’s expectation that he will do all the dirty work and be on her side proves wrong and it is she who ends up paying the ultimate price.

There was some nice camerawork in this film and the issues raised in terms of the attitude towards the brother and maybe even congenital weakness were interesting. However, it wasn’t entirely convincing as a plot. I think that several of these films suffer from the fact that the story lines are actually too psychologically complex to be condensed into a short film format. There is not enough time for fundamental background information which would make the characters more credible, nor is there time for character development within the narratives of the films themselves.

Al Ghobna (Dir. Saeed Salmeen Al-Murry)
This was a vaguely disturbing film as well. I found it very interesting that so many of these films had a slightly menacing atmosphere where you are never entirely sure of anything except a constant low level tension. The innocence and surreal beauty of many of the scenes between the two children in this film were lovely to watch but it was impossible to escape the feeling that it couldn’t last. The realities of life and the adult world with its norms and prejudices were closing in and doom was inevitable. Despite this, the delicate openness of the boy’s acting left you convinced that within his sadness, his faith in this love remained. I really liked the yellow silk trailing everywhere especially in the desert scenes. The landscape was actually a very strong feature of this and several of the other films which were shot n Ras Al Khaimah (I think there's a film studio there).

The landscape itself became a dominant character and there seemed to be a very strong relationship between this constant presence and the atmospheres created in the films, often symbolically. In one Q and A, an Iraqi theatre director complained that there was too much symbolism and that they really didn't need it. Another older critic seemed to dismiss the lot in saying he found nothing there for him. One of the Directors responded by pointing out that there are no academies here to teach flashy techniques so the fact that these films have been produced at all is remarkable. He then dismissed his second critic by rather sweetly saying that the films were made for the shabab!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Dubai Film Festival

This could be a bit dull.. no pictures, no fun just three serious and long reviews of three serious documentaries. I got a sneaky press pass to the Film Fest so I realise that I should have tried to snog George Clooney or put my hand up Sharon Stone's skirt or whatever real journalists do but I'm not a real journalist!

So here we go.... mujahadeen, taxi drivers and hizbullah!

Jordan, USA, Germany & Netherlands/2007/Dir: Mahmoud al Massad

“This is our reality, you can’t deny it can you?”

Recycle tells the story or a former mujahadeen soldier Abu Ammar who is now collecting cardboard for recycling from the streets of Zarqa in Jordan. This job cannot sustain him, his two wives and eight children and a book he is writing about Islam doesn’t get anywhere. The only option seems to be to emigrate. The documentary reveals his struggle over this move and how the action of his own government ultimately forces him to make the decision.

Zarqa is also the home town of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (Al Qaeda in Iraq) a fact that opens up some fascinating social and theological comment from Abu Ammar and his small group of friends. In one discussion the group try to find reasons for Zarqawi’s behaviour and point out that he led a life of drink, drugs and women in his 20s and was never seen in the mosque. They initially conclude that a dissolute life overturned by a personal religious re-evaluation with its accompanying zeal is the deadliest factor. However they also consider that radicals are more likely in a situation where men are unable to express themselves freely especially in an overlooked provincial town with few jobs or prospects.

Although this was certainly a critique of Jordanian government policy (or lack of it) this documentary was a vehicle for criticising more than national government. It was a critique of its neighbours (i.e Iraq), of US policy in the region and of the local unscrupulous making money out of the local unfortunate! Most interestingly it was a critique of radical Islam from the point of view of a conservative Muslim. In another discussion they essentially damn Bin Ladin for his arrogance in taking a decision like 9/11 without any theological basis or blessing and making life much more difficult for Muslims as a consequence.

This is interesting because it is the liberal Muslims who are most often heard public rejecting Islamic radicalism especially in the West. Arguably it is the conservatives rejecting the radical creed that will have a much greater effect on hearts and minds. In the eyes of many conservative Muslims the liberals have already gone way too far to have any credibility anyway!

In the Q and A at the end the director said that part of the reason he made this film was to demonstrate to a western audience that not all Muslims are terrorists. However, I don’t think it can work on this level for an average western audience. To understand much of this documentary you already need some prior knowledge of Islam, the region and its recent history. Furthermore, some of the ‘normal’ conservative Muslim sentiments expressed are already too far removed from what western ears want to hear. A good example of this is when Abu Ammar is truly struggling with his conscience as he considers the need to live in the land of the ‘infidel’ in order to provide for his family.

This move is forced upon him when the deadly bomb attacks on a Jordanian hotel in 2005 result in his arrest. On his release he concludes he will henceforth be one of the ‘usual suspects’ in the event of any further local terror attacks and it this which makes him leave. At the end of the documentary we see him heading to the US but in the Q and A the Director said that he was refused entry. He ended up in Venezuela along with many Iraqi refugees who have also been refused entry by the US. So perhaps Hugo Chavez does have foreign policy options other than Cuban buttlicking and insulting the Spanish!

Six Ordinary Stories
France & Syria/2007/Dir: Meyar Al Roumi

This documentary consisted of six short stories each based on a different Syrian taxi driver. Although each driver had a different story common themes started to emerge very quickly, one of which seems to be the parlous state of Syria’s economy. As a consequence more and more people are becoming taxi drivers often as a second job, in order to earn enough money to survive. The percentage drivers take is low which means that very long days are the norm and it is still difficult to support a family.

The first driver had been in the army for most of his life where he was responsible for vehicle battery maintenance. He was now driving because there seemed to be no such thing as an army pension although that was not exactly clear. Nevertheless his main criticism was that his health was deteriorating because of the toxic fumes and materials he came into contact with while in the army. He said that there were never any protective measure taken despite the fact that he was always asking his generals for gloves, masks and other safety equipment for those in the army that handled toxic substances.

The second taxi driver spent much of his screentime calculating the amounts he was earning that never added up to enough to support him and his family. He said it was impossible to get out of poor housing and accompanying health problems because landlords charge several months rent in advance which he can never hope to make. The very real fear of one of his children becoming sick, having to find hospital bills and then deal with the economic repercussions on the life of his family was also very clear. This expectation of having to pay for everything was made quite stark by another driver who was also a fireman. He said that there are countless times they have put out a fire or cut out someone from a car and been approached by an anxious family asking how much they need to pay. They don’t actually realise or expect that this service is free. He also made a comment about ‘civil servants’ who not only get paid a living wage but stop work at 2.00 in the afternoon as well. To him it was a crime that firemen and others who save lives and work all hours do not get paid a lot more but that is one of life's great mysteries wherever you live.

Another driver stood up very straight, stared intently into the camera and addressed his complaints directly to the ministry of transport. He went through a litany of accidents that could have been avoided simply by painting white lines on the roads, putting in cats eyes and just by some decent maintenance. He also talked about how Damascus had changed beyond recognition owing to intense construction. He said that there used to be many trees and green spaces that were the heart of the city but now the heart had been ripped out and replaced by concrete.

“The apricots of Damascus, we can’t find them anymore. There’s no control. It’s negligence”

Words in the Wake of War
Tunisia/2007/Dir: Anouar Brahem

Words in the Wake of War is the first documentary film directed by Tunisian musician Anour Brahem and consists of interviews with Lebanese artists and intellectuals about the impact of the Israel-Lebanon war of summer 2006. Most of the interviewees are friends of Anouar and in revealing how they had been affected personally, they also reveal much about the inner life of Lebanon. The interviews were spaced between different images, many of which were from the war itself with others used for historical or contextual reference. Other shots focussed on the stillness of the landscape or the ocean and accompanied by Brahems music, they provided short interludes of removal from the situation.

The necessity to disconnect from the situation was a theme that came up several times in the interviews. A singer and a dancer both said they assumed they would leave Lebanon in the event of another war but when the time came they could not actually bring themselves to do it. When the evacuation of foreigners was the main story on all the new programmes, one said she felt as if the Lebanese were being abandoned and left to die and for this reason alone she had to stay. The other concluded that having lived through war for most of her life she should be tough enough to live through another one.

Footage from 2006 of people wandering in rubble unable to identify where they were because no landmarks remained, led to a wider discussion of Beirut. One architect talked about Beirut’s history and identity and how much of both was shattered by the Lebanese civil war from 1975. For him a huge mistake was made after that war by focussing so much on rebuilding the city based on a past that could never be recaptured. Beirut was not the natural centre of Lebanon and was rebuilt at the expense of other parts of the country, the South in particular. In his view, this exacerbated the divide and made some of what has followed a historical inevitability.

One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary was how political allegiances shifted for many during the summer of 2006 and the consequences that remain. Some, whose intellectual and secular sensibilities put them in lifelong opposition to Hizbullah, found themselves on their side but via a shared cultural outrage. After the war some said that this feeling had made them stronger and more sure of their own singular identity as Lebanese. Others felt rather different with a sense that an internal contradiction had been created. There was almost a sense of being used with one poet saying that after the event when the connection ends you realise that “Hizbullah wants nothing from Lebanon. It will pursue its own revolution”.

Some were vehemently opposed to Hizbullah, blamed them and Iran completely and were in support of Israel throughout. However, after the event they too were left disturbed and disconnected because the degree of destruction wrought by Israel was so unjustifiable.

The documentary conveyed a sense that both the internal and external splits remain. There is also a sense of fear expressed disturbingly by one writer who said: “We must be ready for the resumption of war at any time”. An artist talked about how options were declining and that the 2006 war had not allowed for any third way resulting in new divisions often between friends that have also not recovered. In reference to wider issues one poet said: “The culture of death has taken over. Its like being in an ideological coma with no connection to the world. This struggle can only lead to a repeated cycle of trivial consequences.”

Rather than end on a grim Middle Eastern note let me say that the most innovative, positive and beautiful piece of filmmaking I have seen in millennia was Surya … makes me happy just thinking about it! I realise that this is a film festival in the Middle East and therefore Middle East filmmakers have to be promoted but Surya got my Gold Muhr Award! Haven’t had time to write about it yet but watch this space. Also to come ALL the Emirati voices!

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Art Paris-Abu Dhabi, Women in Art, Nja Mahdaoui and Warhol weirdness

This is really three posts in one so its very long. Each month I have a slot to write about art in the UAE on the US site Absolute Arts. So what is here is basically the same as my December post for them. I realise this is a bit lazy but am calling it an output optimisation strategy (corporate language can be useful sometimes) i.e. use the same material in as many places as possible to maximise efficiency, coverage and search engine results! The main difference is that all the pictures come up first here so if you just like looking at pics and can't be arsed to read the endless block of text this ones for you...... if not then here's the post...

1. Art Paris in Abu Dhabi

Art Dubai in March this year may have been the first ever regional Art Fair but I think Abu Dhabi trumped it this month with Art Paris-Abu Dhabi. It was held over three days in the Emirates Palace hotel, a rather appropriate venue seeing as its gold and marble ornateness does bear a passing resemblance to the Palais de Versailles. Art Paris has been a key event in the French arts calendar for the past 9 years. This collaboration gives French and other European galleries good exposure in the region and also provides a prestigious platform for the Middle Eastern galleries.
The Abu Dhabi and France connection is interesting. There is already a branch of the Sorbonne and a branch of the Louvre is coming soon. Interestingly, it was UK galleries that dominated Art Dubai in March so maybe there is some slight diversion in foreign cultural policy between Dubai and Abu Dhabi! The UAE as a whole, however, were represented at Art Paris-Abu Dhabi by four of the Dubai galleries. It seems that Abu Dhabi doesn’t have the level of galleries that can access this kind of event.

There were a number of publicity assured names such as Chagall, Dali and Picasso and given the absence of security concerns and alcohol it was possible to get very close which was a real treat. The most expensive piece in the show was the Olympic Rings collaboration by Warhol and Basquiat for a cool 7 million dollars (last pic above). I don’t think that this is a particularly interesting picture but it is certainly an excellent example of the triumph of branding and extreme commoditisation of art over the past few decades. Andy must be laughing in his grave.

However, the point of the fair is not only to sell. There is an underlying desire on all sides to use it as a platform for cultural exchange and this is where it works best. To fully appreciate the work, a greater understanding of the culture and history from which it comes can be useful and these events do provide a neutral space in which to learn. It can also work the other way and render origin irrelevant if appreciation is based purely on sensual and emotional responses.

There was so much to see in this fair that I really needed to go twice but the regional galleries that stood out for me were Al Ayyam (Syria), Al Bareh (Bahrain) and Galerie El Marsa (Tunisia).The French Gallery that seemed to have the most interesting and diverse contemporary selection was the Thessa Herold Gallery Unfortunately they are not very forthcoming with images on their website which is a shame because the mix of Spanish, French, Chinese and other artists they represent was really impressive.

2. Woman in Art III

The theme of exchange also connects to a current exhibition in Dubai. A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in a show called Women in Art III at the Courtyard Gallery. This gallery was the first to be established in Al Quoz Industrial Zone 3 and is a great space with unusually high ceilings so it can accommodate huge pieces of work. (see June 26 post).

The Courtyard’s first “Women in Art” exhibition was held in November 2004 with the intention of showcasing female artists from different cultural and artistic backgrounds who were living in Dubai. This initial exhibition worked well and it has now become a regular event. Women in Art III opened on November 14th and featured 14 artists – six from the UAE, one each from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Germany and the UK and two from France. The work was accordingly very mixed and was an interesting show of contrasts in both content and form. However, given that I have been searching for Emirati artists, the four images from this show are all by Emiratis. The image that looks like a blue pearl is by Dr. Najat Makki, the abstract flower image by Hasna Abu Baker, the figure of the woman by Salma Almerri and the blue square by Mona Al Khaja.
The gallery organised the show in partnership with Art Connection, a small Dubai arts management and marketing company. Art Connection organises special events and exhibitions of both Emirati and international artists and also publishes great catalogues of key shows. Both the Courtyard and Art Connection want to promote ideas and art that not only reflect the diversity of Dubai’s population but also contribute to its cultural development by exposing these different ideas to each other. So the theme is essentially similar to that of Art Paris but on a local rather than international scale. I think this is becoming increasingly important in Dubai where it seems that different groups can so easily stick to their own with few opportunities for interaction, especially with Emirati nationals. Of course, it is a minority of any nationality that are interested in art anyway so I realise that this isn’t a comprehensive social cohesion policy!

There isn’t a link to this show because both the Courtyard and Art Connection have a website problem! One hasn’t been updated since October and isn’t great anyway (they’re working on it) and the other is being reconstructed but will be up soon. The only reference was in a review in Khaleej Times which is here.
3. Meem and Nja Mahdaoui

Last but not least, further exploration of the glorious Al Quoz Industrial Zone 3 has revealed another gem. The Meem Gallery only opened this year and specialises in Arab and Islamic art. Its opening show was of veteran Libyan artist, Ali Omar Ermes and the current show is of veteran Tunisian Nja Mahdaoui. Now 70 Mahdaoui is one of the masters of contemporary Arab art and in this show it is easy to see why. He uses Arabic script but unlike traditional Islamic calligraphy in which meaning is as important as form, Mahdaoui is concerned only with the form. As a consequence he has created huge scrolls, pieces on papyrus and parchment and huge colourful abstracted paintings of what appear to be words. However, they are only letters executed for the beauty of their form and thus freed from the tyranny of meaning.
I actually saw some of his work earlier this year in a fantastic British Museum exhibition called Word Into Art so it was great to see more in Dubai. As well as his calligraphy and painting, Nja Mahdaoui has designed tail fins for aircraft, fabric patterns for clothes designers and entrances for buildings. His website is in French but if you don’t speak it, just keep clicking and you’ll find some pics eventually! To read an interview with him about this exhibition see Letters from Tunis.
To end on a slightly bizarre footnote, the XVA Gallery is accompanying an exhibition of Warhol prints by screening the Warhol movies. Watching Chelsea Girls with its sex, drugs and tranny references, while hearing the call to prayer from the local mosque is a contextual inconsistency that is going to stay with me for some time….