DUBAI // Away from the brainless CGI-loaded blockbusters churned out by mainstream Hollywood producers, the US is experiencing a golden age in documentary making.
Buoyed by new, cheap film and editing technologies, hundreds of independent filmmakers are using the medium to create the intelligent, probing narratives that are absent from your usual multiplex fodder.
To demonstrate the calibre of the scene, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and the US Mission to the UAE organisation have teamed up to present the American Documentary Showcase, in which eight of the most acclaimed documentaries of recent times will be screened.
The films, which are being shown for free at cinemas in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have been selected for their uncompromising takes on life in modern America. They explore a diverse range of hard hitting topics, including civil rights, the eradication of native cultures, the failing education system and racism against immigrants.
The screenings will be accompanied by workshops at universities in Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, in which some of the films' directors will share their talents with students.
DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali explains the purpose of the showcase. "Since its inception eight years ago, the Dubai International Film Festival has championed the concept of bridging cultures and meeting minds through cinema. The American Documentary Showcase is an opportunity to expand the cultural conversation by enabling audiences in the UAE to see different perspectives of the United States through uncommon, real stories told by its own people," he says.
The season kicks off with Louder Than A Bomb, which chronicles four Chicago high school teams as they prepare to compete in the world's largest youth poetry reading competition. This heartbreaking film captures the tempestuous lives of these inner city teens, exploring the ways writing shapes their world.
A similar exploration of the lives of underprivileged children is The Lottery, an Oscar shortlisted film which presents an unflinching critique of the US public education system. It follows four New York African-American families who enter their children into a lottery to gain a place in the elite, privately funded charter schools.
Then there's A Village Called Versailles, an empowering tale about a tight-knit Vietnamese American community living near New Orleans and their efforts to both rebuild their neighbourhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and then their fight to overturn a government decision to site a toxic landfill near their homes.
Meanwhile, movie buffs won't want to miss No Subtitles Necessary: László and Vilmos. This movie details the astonishing careers of László Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, who, with classics such as Easy Rider, The Deer Hunter and Deliverance on their CVs, were two of the most acclaimed cinematographers of the late 1960s and 1970s. Their friendship began as film students in Budapest, where they secretly filmed the day-to-day events of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet Union's brutal suppression of the uprising, before risking their lives to smuggle the the footage out the country the following year. Their lives are narrated through 300 film clips, screen tests and out-takes interwoven with conversations with movie-making luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
One Lucky Elephant follows the relationship between circus owner David Balding and Flora, an African elephant that he adopted as a baby after her mother was killed by poachers. Suffering from serious health issues and realising Flora will outlive him, David sets out on a quest to find his elephant a home where she can live safely among others of her species. This profoundly touching film explores the relationship between man and beast and the dangers of raising wild animals in captivity.
The plight of the Wampanoag Native American people is the subject of We Still Live Here. The film tells the story of the efforts of one indomitable linguists' attempts to revive the Wampanoag language, despite the fact all its native speakers had died out.
Time-pressed documentary fans should catch Corner Plot, which is a brief, 11-minute long look at the life of 89-year-old Charlie Koiner, who has steadfastly refused to give up working his one-acre tract of farmland, despite being encircled by office blocks, malls and highways as Washington DC's urban sprawl encroached the area.
And finally, there is Freedom Riders, a feature-length film about the band of civil rights activists who sparked the demise of racist Jim Crow laws in the Deep South with their bold and dangerous experiment to challenge racial segregation on interstate transport.
The films will be shown at Grand Cinemas Abu Dhabi Mall on September 30 and October 1, and then at Vox Cinema in Mall of the Emirates from October 6 to 8. For more information and exact timings, visit www.dubaifilmfest.com.