Under the guidance of its new artisic director, the Venice International Film Festival has reduced the number but seemingly increased the standard of this year's flicks.
Venice film festival's quality outshines quantity
The Venice International Film Festival's new artistic director, Alberto Barbera, will open the 69th edition of "La Biennale" with the world premiere of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an adaptation of Moshin Hamid's post-September 11 novel.
The story describes how the vagaries of time can lead to shifts in attitudes and perceptions. As such, it could be a good allegory for the Venice film festival itself, which has had a rocky few years. Barbera's first move as the artistic director was to announce that the number of films screening at the festival would be dramatically reduced. His would be a festival of quality rather than quantity. It was a bold move in an era when most film festivals are getting bigger. Indeed, the previous Venice head honcho Marco Mueller took a job at the Rome Film Festival and announced that he would oversee a growth in the number of films shown in the Italian capital.
The good news for filmmakers from the Arab world is that Barbera seems to have a healthy appetite for films from the region. Funded by the Doha Film Institute, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, made by the Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair, stars Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schrieber. It tells the story of Changez, a Pakistani educated at an American university, who gives up a career on Wall Street to return to his homeland.
After the Cannes controversy early this year, where not a single film by a female director was part of the competition line-up, Venice's decision to open with Nair's film is a statement of intent.
Moreover, in the year that Saudi Arabia sent a female athlete to the Olympics for the first time, the country has also sanctioned the first feature-length film to be entirely shot within its borders, Wadjda, made by Haifaa Al Mansour, definitely a female talent to watch.
The director says of her motivation for the work: "I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia where there are many girls like Wadjda, who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will, reshape and redefine our nation."
Wadjda is a fun-loving 10-year-old girl, living in a suburb of Riyadh, who dreams of buying a new green bike so that she can beat her friend Abdullah in a race. Wadjda's mother refuses to buy the bike for her and the rebellious young girl starts getting into trouble as she looks for ways to raise the funds.
The film received post-production funds from the Dubai International Film Festival's Enjaz initiative, as did Yema, another film from the region showing at Venice, directed by Djamila Sahraoui. Cryptically described as "a Greek tragedy in an Algeria at war with itself", the film is set in the secluded Algerian countryside and tells of a mother's attempts to cope with her own grief and the violence that surrounds her.
The Palestinian actress Hiam Abbas is best known for her turns in Munich, The Visitor, Miral and Paradise Now. The 51-year-old is now using her experience on set to venture behind the camera. Her debut directorial work, Heritage - Inheritance, tells of a Palestinian family who live on the border with Lebanon. They gather for a wedding in the summer of 2006, as war between Israel and Lebanon rages. The film will hold its world premiere in Venice.
The Arab Spring
Films about the recent overthrowing of several regimes across North Africa are also being given prominence. Winter of Discontent is a drama starring and produced by Amr Waked, set during the 2011 demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The film focuses on the relationship between three characters: a computer programmer, his journalist fiancée and a security official, and how the protests affect their relationships.
Tunisia is the backdrop to Hinde Boujemaa's It Was Better Tomorrow. The documentary follows Aida Kaabi, a woman the director spotted in the street and who seemed disconnected from the historical events taking place around her. Her main preoccupation is to build a better life for herself and her family. Witness: Libya by Abdallah Omeish is a documentary set a few months after the death of Muammar Qaddafi. The war photographer Michael Christopher Brown retraces his journey during the civil war, which led to the mortar attack that killed two of his fellow photographers and wounded him.
The big prize at Venice is the Golden Lion, and several films in competition will be making the paparazzi snap-happy on the red carpet with their big-name stars. The most anticipated film of the festival is Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which is set in the aftermath of the Second World War in the US and bears similarities to the story of L Ron Hubbard and the early days of Scientology. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.
Zac Efron stars in At Any Price by the US independent filmmaker of Iranian ancestry, Ramin Bahrani, set in the world of agriculture farming. Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace star in Brian De Palma's new thriller Passion. McAdams also stars in the new Terrence Malick film To the Wonder, alongside Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko. The outside bet for the big prize will be Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, about college girls going off the rails during a holiday from school, starring James Franco, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens.
The 69th Venice International Film Festival continues until September 8. Visit www.labiennale.org