Tuesday at MEIFF belonged to Elia Suleiman. First, though, the headline event: the world premiere of the spectacular undersea documentary Oceans, attended by the French ambassador Alain Azouaou and the film's directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud. The film is an odd fusion of the production values of the BBC Natural History unit and the aesthetics of Cirque du Soleil - short on narrative and exposition but brimming over with abstract, swirling prettiness. In light of the momentousness of the screening, Peter Scarlet announced that antipiracy patrols would be circling the auditorium in infrared goggles to prevent the film from leaking.
As it turned out, Oceans contained enough indelible images to make it certain that everyone in the audience will have carried large chunks of footage away, scorched on to their retinas. I shall not soon forget the sight of a diver swimming calmly along in the slipstream of an embarrassed-looking great white's lateral fin, much less the bizarre footage of diving iguanas. All the same, in the battle for the limelight, Elia Suleiman, Palestinian director of The Time that Remains, won on points. Variety magazine gave him its 2009 award for Middle East Filmmaker of the Year. The festival threw a lunchtime reception for him at Etoiles and then his film played to an enthusiastic reception in the early evening. It was followed by a press conference so arch and languid the director insisted on billing it as a "chit-chat", flamboyantly smoking and tossing a white scarf over his shoulder throughout.
Lest anyone think he might be enjoying the attention, he insisted that he wasn't "really obsessed" by red carpets. "I get narcissistic here and there," he conceded, deadpan. Variety's international editor, Ali Jafaar, was putting the questions; one by one, Suleiman dismantled them. "You became a filmmaker relatively late," was one innocent sally (Suleiman's career began when he was 30). "What is early and what is late?" came the coquettish reply.
Critical distinctions didn't have "any importance" for how he worked, he said, before launching on an impassioned essay on Palestine as a universal symbol of oppression, the artist's duty of fidelity to everything he values in life - people, possessions, pets - and the insights furnished by his diasporic existence. "It certainly makes one want to live and love, not just in one colour," he sighed. If it is possible to flirt with an entire room, that's what he appeared to be doing.
Incidentally, the accompanying photograph offers another glimpse into Suleiman's frolicsome disposition. It was taken by Pamela Gentile, an American photojournalist who has been coaching female students from Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology. Her group ran into the director at the festival and asked if they could take his portrait. Suleiman agreed, before turning the tables on the students.
"He ended up taking a picture of them," Gentile told me. "He really found it fascinating. He wants that photo for his wall." Earlier in the day I had a chance to talk to the producer and star of one of my favourite films to play at the festival so far, the downbeat, ultra-naturalistic Chilean drama Huacho, written and directed by Alejandro Fernandez Almendras. The piece takes a very unsentimental look at the costs of a traditional rural existence in a country that has embraced capitalism and modernity. Its moral, to oversimplify, is that it's no fun being picturesque if you're too poor to pay the electricity bill, though the picture dramatises its various dilemmas with remarkable subtlety. Cornelio Villagran plays an elderly peasant farmer in the film, which he says he did not find very difficult since he is one.
He had never acted before, and at 72 he doesn't expect he will again. Still, as he explained to our interpreter, Huacho's assistant producer Eduardo Villalobos, he will "always be in touch" in case another job comes up. When the film played at Cannes Villalobos started making a documentary about Villagran's time at the festival; it was, he said, the first time the older man had been outside Chile. They brought equipment to continue the film at MEIFF, but seem to have been too fazed to push on with it.
"It's a bit weird," Villalobos explains. "We were talking earlier with Cornelio about the gold things, how everything is like a fantasy... This is a very nice place and were glad to be here and so happy to be invited. But it's so different." For his own part, Villagran seems to have found a sane way of accommodating things. "I never thought I could be here," he told the producer. "I am just bringing all the memories in my heart to tell all my people in Chile about my experience."