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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Diff 2017: Festival to kick off with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike's Hostiles

The film stars Bale as a US cavalryman forced to address his own attitude to Native Americans during an arduous cross-country journey with an elderly Cheyenne chief

Christian Bale in Hostiles. Courtesy Diff
Christian Bale in Hostiles. Courtesy Diff

The Dubai International Film Festival (Diff) opens tonight with Scott Cooper’s Western, Hostiles, and the film has a lot to live up to looking at the success of its other opening movies.

Diff may not have quite the same cache as big-name festivals such as Cannes, Toronto or Venice, but it's become an increasingly significant event in the global film calendar over its 14-year existence, as evidenced by the accolades bestowed upon opening films from the past few years.

Kidnap drama Room, 2015’s opener, brought success for lead actress Brie Larson, who took home numerous awards for her performance including an impressive quartet of Oscar, Bafta, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards, while the film itself was nominated for three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay.

The previous year’s opener, James Marsh’s biopic of British scientist Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, was similarly praised, picking up no less than 10 Bafta nominations, and winning three, plus a Best Actor Oscar for lead Eddie Redmayne.

Hany Abu-Assad’s 2013 opener, Omar, may not have had quite the same international profile as these films, but as a regional festival, Diff could hardly have served its purpose better than by giving a regional premiere to this Enjaaz-funded film from probably the Middle East’s most successful director. The festival’s faith was rewarded when the movie was shortlisted for the following year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

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Read more about Diff:

Film festival announces 140-film line-up

Emirati cinema takes centre stage at this year's festival

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This is a line Diff has successfully walked over the 14 years of its existence – mixing the very best of local movies with the finest that Hollywood and Europe has to offer. The festival has screened plenty of box office smashes over the years, from blockbusters like last year’s closing film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (this year’s event will also close with a movie from the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi, which opens in cinemas a day later) and 2011’s world premiere of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which was filmed extensively in the city.

This is countered by a healthy dose of local fare, from big name releases such as Ali F Mostafa’s City of Life, which premiered in 2009, and Majid Al Ansari’s Zinzana, which took a global bow at 2015’s event, to the less well-known local and regional shorts and features that make up the Muhr and Muhr Emirati awards section of the festival’s programme.

This year’s opener, however, sits firmly in the Hollywood camp. A-listers Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike team up for Hostiles, in which Bale’s US cavalryman is forced to address his own attitude to Native Americans during an arduous cross-country journey with an elderly Cheyenne chief.

So will the film join Diff’s recent Oscar contenders when the shortlist is announced in January, or will films like the hotly tipped Call Me by Your Name, Get Out and Dunkirk be telling Cooper and Bale that this awards ceremony ain’t big enough for the two of them?

Westerns have been somewhat out of favour in recent years. There have been outliers, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant (2016), but the very fact it’s so easy to pick out two such rarities is testament to the fact that the genre’s heyday, when names like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood could guarantee packed cinemas week after week, is long gone.

Hostiles debuted at the Telluride Festival in September, and critics were split following the screening. Most seemed in agreement that the film was visually stunning, and that Bale and Pike turn in solid performances, but the movie did raise some hackles.

Films dealing with race relations can generally be expected to pick up bonus points when the Academy nominates for Best Picture, particularly in the wake of recent accusations of institutional racism and the #Oscarssowhite campaign, but there was some criticism of the film’s simplistic portrayal of its Native American characters.

Peter Debruge, for example, writing in Variety, described the movie’s indigenous characters as nothing more than “abstract plot devices in service of the white folks’ enlightenment”. The natives, Debruge claimed, are portrayed as either bloodthirsty savages, in the case of the troublesome Cherokee who hamper our heroes' journey, or wizened oracles, in the case of Wes Studi’s ageing chief, with little room for character development between the two extremes.

We’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that front when the film screens this evening. One thing we know for sure is that, Oscar contender or not, Hostiles will kick off the most exciting week of the year for movie buffs in the region, and with 140 films set to screen over the following seven days of the festival, you’re sure to find something you love.