x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Film festival promises great things

What a week awaits us in the capital as the city opens its arms to the world and UAE residents.

George Clooney, left, and Ewan McGregor star in The Men Who Stare at Goats.
George Clooney, left, and Ewan McGregor star in The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Of all the sorts of festival that there are, film ones might be the nicest. Musical events too often involve mud and aggro. Book fairs can make for good conversations but they do require you to look at the exteriors of writers, which aren't on the whole designed for it. Art fairs are fun - well-dressed people and good lighting. Still, every now and then, when presented with a couple of bits of glued-together chipboard and a million dirham price tag, vertigo overtakes you and you have to go for a lie down. No, film festivals are the best: the most civilised surroundings, the most presentable company and not too much in the way of confounding nonsense. Bliss!

It so happens that Abu Dhabi's entrant in the increasingly crowded Gulf movie festival derby is springing out of the gate this week. The Middle East International Film Festival opens at the Emirates Palace hotel on Thursday with a screening of The Traveler, the first film by the Egyptian director Ahmed Maher, though very much not the first film featuring Omar Sharif. The veteran actor stars alongside Cyrine Abdel Nour and Khaled el Nabawy in a tale featuring all of auteur cinema's old faithfuls: lost love, failing memory, encroaching mortality, the works. It sounds a bit downbeat for an opening gala but Meiff's director, Peter Scarlet, assured me it's wonderful in a very Italian and surprisingly un-Egyptian fashion, so that's all right. A bit of Felliniesque finery ought to fit the occasion nicely.

The remainder of the programme walks a careful line between the cautiously mainstream and the fascinatingly recondite: major Hollywood and Bollywood titles include Blue, billed as the first underwater Indian movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats, a screwball military satire starring George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, and Shorts, Robert Rodriguez's Abu Dhabi-funded children's extravaganza about a wish-granting rock. But the slate's real strength is in the films you won't have heard of before. As far as they go, I'm particularly intrigued by Huacho, a piece of Chilean naturalism documenting the daily life of a rural family and boasting, to judge from the publicity stills, cinematography of exquisite beauty, and Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, a ground-level account of Burma's 2007 anti-government uprising. Take a look at the festival programme and I'm sure you'll be struck by other marvels from cinema's fertile margins.

Still, if you do nothing else, do make sure to check out Wild Grass, the latest from the octogenarian avant-gardist best known for Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais. His most recent film, in which a middle-aged family man becomes obsessed by a female pilot, is a triumph of lightness, charm and brain-melting weirdness and might just have been the best thing in the main competition at Cannes this year.

The preliminary celebrations for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix get underway this week with an event called The Art of Racing. It's part of the Yasalam programme which will, in the fullness of time, include musical performances, al fresco cinema and a good deal besides. This opening event sounds like fun, though: the UAE's resident artists are being let loose on replica F1 cars - let loose with brushes and pots of paint, that is. They won't, as far, as I know, be fishtailing down Hamdan Street leaving a trail of carnage. But as of yesterday morning the ubiquitous Wasel Safwan will have been hard at work decorating a handsome set of wheels in Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall, while Mizmah is doing something similar at Zayed University.

Finally, The Ghaf Art Gallery has what looks like being a very moving photo exhibition opening today. Rebuilding Afghanistan: A Global Responsibility documents four trips that the Dutch photographer Hans Stakelbeek made to Kabul, Uruzgan and more remote regions to observe the postwar reconstruction. He was concerned more to reflect the texture of daily life than to get moments of grand drama on film, and the pathos of his work is all the greater for being understated.