Venice is the oldest film festival in the world, and for the past decade it has been showing its age. Founded in 1932, this year is the 70th edition (it started off as a biannual festival and was postponed during the Second World War) and complaints about the poor facilities, the expense and the bureaucracy grow louder each year.
The big problems with the festival started when it had to abandon building a new festival centre after the discovery of asbestos on the site sent costs soaring. Coinciding with the global credit crunch and Italy’s troubles with the euro, no more funds have been forthcoming. An abandoned building site has been left as a reminder of what might have been. In the intervening period, the Toronto International Film Festival has grown to become the big industry event of the autumn. It’s in Canada, where many films that will be vying for the Oscars will launch, and not in Italy’s water city.
Yet what is remarkable about this gloomy picture is that Venice still clings to its status as a major film festival, with history and tradition seemingly able to carry the festival through troubled times. The stars still turn out in force for its much-anticipated world premieres. Tonight, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are scheduled to attend the opening night space disaster picture Gravity.
In the competition for the coveted Golden Lion, Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton star in Terry Gilliam’s mad scientist tale The Zero Theorem; James Franco brings his latest directorial effort Child of God, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel; Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in the Ireland-set drama Philomena; Scarlett Johansson is in the alien adventure Under the Skin; Nicolas Cage appears in the adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel Joe; Zac Efron and Billy Bob Thornton stir things up in the JFK assassination thriller Parkland; Adam Driver stars alongside Mia Wasikowska in John Curran’s walking adventure Tracks; and Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard are fighting it out in the environmental drama Night Moves.
It’s a solid rather than spectacular line-up of English-language feature films, and as such, the Golden Lion for best film is likely to come from elsewhere. Among the selection are films from France, Japan, Canada, Greece and Taiwan, as well as the usual smattering of Italian films that are usually best avoided. Rounding off the competition line-up are three films of great note to those interested in the Middle East and Arab affairs.
The drama Es-Stouh (The Terraces) is set in Bab El Oued, a working-class neighbourhood of Algiers. The director Merzak Allouache says: “As the Arab world is rocked by a series of crises without precedent, Algeria seems to be, paradoxically, serene, turned onto itself, almost indifferent. It cherishes its new peace after a decade of bloody terrorism. However, the reality is quite different.
“Es-Stouh is a fiction in which I continue my exploration of this complex and troubled Algerian society.”
Then there’s the director Amos Gitai’s Ana Arabia, filmed in one shot of 81 minutes with no cuts. “It’s something of a political statement, commenting that the destinies of Jews and Arabs on this land will not be cut, will not be separated,” he says about the technique.
Ana Arabia is set in a small community of outcasts, Jews and Arabs, who live together in a forgotten enclave at the “border” between Jaffa and Bat Yam. One day, Yael, a young journalist, visits the community and discovers a range of characters far removed from the usual clichés offered by the media about the region.
And finally, there’s an entry from Errol Morris, one of the great documentarians of our times, who has turned his gaze onto Donald Rumsfeld, one of the key architects of the Iraq War, in The Unknown Known. The title refers to a famous quote by the former US secretary of defence in which he identified three categories of knowledge: known knowns, unknown unknowns and known unknowns. It sounds a bit like a film journalist trying to guess the winner of a film festival prize before seeing any of the films.
• The 70th Venice Film Festival begins today and continues until September 7. For more information, visit www.labiennale.org
Of Middle Eastern interest
The Venice Film Festival is about more than winning the Golden Lion. In the other sections of the festival, there are films that are often better than those selected for the main competition. It’s a feature of film festivals that sidebars are often more meritorious than the political and headline-grabbing official selection. Here are three films of regional interest to look out for
Le Donne Della Vucciria
Filmed in Palermo in June, this film by the Palestinian actress and director Hiam Abbas springs from her previous collaboration with the Venice Film Festival. The film is also a collaboration with the fashion brand Miu Miu.
Traitors was commissioned as a 30-minute short by the Sharjah Art Foundation, and Sean Gullette has created a feature-length version of the tale of a girl who leads a double life. By day Malika is a call-centre worker and by night she is part of an all-girl punk band, Traitors.
¬ May in the Summer
Cherien Dabis follows up her successful 2009 debut Amreeka with a story about May Brennan returning to her childhood home of Amman, Jordan, for her wedding. Myriad familial and cultural conflicts lead Brennan to question the big decision she is about to take. Dabis says the film is “inspired by my brilliant sisters who are constantly feeding my creativity”. It stars Hiam Abbass and Dabis herself. “Putting myself in the position of actor/director simultaneously for the first time left me in a much more vulnerable position than I would have ever thought. I often found myself struggling to manage my own natural insecurities.”
Since its world premiere at Sundance, the film has had some finishing touches, including a new sound mix and score. This is the international premiere.
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