x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Special occasions

MEIFF diary: Notable faces in the festival tent, regional debuts, Cooking wtih Stella and The Long Night.

After several regional premieres, Sunday concluded with the Bedouin beach party behind the Emirates Palace hotel.
After several regional premieres, Sunday concluded with the Bedouin beach party behind the Emirates Palace hotel.

Now to the festival tent for a free lunch and the opportunity to mingle with the directors behind MEIFF's well-received short-film programme. The filmmakers had already achieved a sort of battle-hardened camaraderie after bonding at an industry event the night before, one that led them to Etoile and, perhaps inevitably, injury. Pegah Ghaemi, the Iranian-Australian director of Members of the Resistance, put her shoulder out "trying to do some kind of Spanish dance". Her partner spun her across the floor, "and I went crack" she laughs; "but all good things end in pain".

The French animator Hendrick Dusollier was particularly glad of the chance to socialise after "being in front of the computer day and night every day of the year", he explains with a wild look. His film Babel appeared unfinished at last year's festival, and the completed version had just played in this year's mystery-themed programme. "The fact is, animation is generally very long work," he says apologetically. "Last year, I thought I was going to have it finished for the festival. Three months earlier, I said: 'Yes, it's going to be finished, I can send it.' And look: one year later, it's done."

It was worth the wait, though. Last year's Babel "was a work in progress", he says. "This one is a movie." Start lobbying now if you want it to screen a third time. Who knows what it will be then? Amid an embarrassment of regional premieres on Sunday, a couple of features merit special mention. Dilip Mehta was on hand to introduce his debut film, Cooking with Stella, a class and cuisine-based comedy whose script was largely written by his better-known sister, the director Deepa Mehta. It certainly reflects her impish sense of humour: a Canadian diplomat and her chef husband (Lisa Ray and Don McKellar) move to Delhi and fall into the hands of Stella (Seema Biswas), an incorrigible old swindler who becomes their servant and cook.

The Canadians, guilty liberals to the last, try to make Stella a part of the family. In return, she pilfers their jewellery, skims from their grocery budget and hatches a scheme to corrupt their pious young nanny. She has all the moral complexity of a cartoon mouse in the grip of an Emmental jones, which rather sours the plotline involving her deepening friendship with McKellar's character, whom she consents to teach the secrets of Indian cuisine.

In the end, her unflinching duplicity makes her a charmless rogue, but the film remains oddly appetising all the same. Stella's clever slave routine, a narrative tradition that goes back to Plautus, combines with riffs on the right-on mores of hip north-Americans and mouthwatering evocations of India as a culinary wonderland: the result is breezy, idiosyncratic and enjoyably tart. Mehta admitted he didn't know how audiences would react to his villainous heroine, but he was sure they'd leave the film hungry. It worked on me.

Hatem Ali's The Long Night also looked back to some unexpectedly venerable sources. His tale of three Syrian political prisoners who are released after 20 years inside is book ended with speeches from King Lear and The Tempest. If the film doesn't quite live up to its Shakespearean precursors, it achieves a louring grandeur of its own. News of the prisoners' impending return prompts a night of soul-searching by their relatives on the outside, all of whom have made their different accommodations to the regime. Their various betrayals are weighed, as is the value of resistance itself. It's a theatrical set-up and long portions of the movie suffer from that constrained quality common to filmed plays. Still, there are some terrifically grave lead performances from Khaled Taja and Basel Khayat, and the retro digi-beta camerawork gives everything a wonderfully moody murkiness, as if each scene had been painted in indigo gouache.

The day wouldn't have been complete without a spot more revelry: this time the venue was the Bedouin beach party, held behind the Emirates Palace. Dancers danced, DJs DJed and filmmakers stopped being filmmakers. Among the notables were the Mehtas, Kathleen Gallagher, McKellar and at least half the judging panel. The Palestinian director Elia Suleiman almost got a break from being Elia Suleiman when I sleepily misidentified him as the actor Salim Sabri, to our shared confusion and my own huge embarrassment. He seemed tickled by the mistake, so no bones broken. And as Ghaemi can tell you, accidents happen.