x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Freida Pinto's star shines

MEIFF Diary: Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto spent only a day in Abu Dhabi but charmed those working behind the scenes.

Demi Moore, Hilary Swank and Freida Pinto all flew in for the MEIFF opening ceremonies. Although certainly a trio of truly beautiful women, if there is one that really captured the hearts of those who have devoted themselves to the success of the film festival, it is Freida Pinto. She spent only a day in Abu Dhabi but managed to take a bit of a tour of the festival offices, where the unsung, finger-to-the bone workers spend long, hard days making sure everything is in the right place for the filmmakers, the press and the audiences. "How're you guys doing?" a volunteer reported Pinto saying to those ensconced behind long tables. Not a lot of conversation, perhaps, but it worked its charm.

Son of Babylon, directed by the Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed al Daradji, tells the story of a young boy and his grandmother who journey across Iraq in search of a missing loved one. It was the recipient of a MEIFF grant that helped the director finish the film. The problem of identifying those lost during the recent war, not to mention others who simply disappeared during the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, is becoming increasingly dire as mass graves are discovered across the country. According to Hana al Hirsi, head of international press and publicity at Pyramedia, one of the film's producers, the production partners are seriously considering a campaign to build a DNA bank in Iraq which would help identify remains. "DNA would be taken from the victims and put into a 'bank' and those searching for family members could give DNA and it would be compared against that on file," Ms al Hirsi explained. The current Iraqi government, she continued, is very much willing to undertake the project but wants UN backing before it will commit itself. The target then of the campaign will be the UN and its member states.

Anders Østergaard, the director of the documentary Burma VJ - Reporting from a Closed Country, arrived in Abu Dhabi just before his film's first screening and was whisked directly from the airport to Marina Mall Cinestar Theatres for a post-screening Q&A. The film centres on a group of Myanmarese journalists who film events in Yangon using tiny hand-held cameras and then send the footage to Oslo where it is distributed to news agencies across the world. The original idea was to focus on this small group of extraordinary journalists who risk their lives in exposing the atrocities of what its critics say is one of the world's most brutal military dictatorships. By chance, however, the protests initiated by Buddhist monks and then joined by students and the general public broke out in 2007 and Østergaard found himself in league with those covering the events at ground zero. At that point, the director said, raising the money for the project ceased to be a barrier. "TV stations all across Europe gave money."

The film is pieced together almost entirely of footage shot by the video journalists (the VJs of the title) and involves some harrowing clips, especially when a Japanese journalist is shot point-blank by government soldiers descending on a peaceful demonstration. At another point, a camera man records secret police who have discovered the group's Yangon headquarters and are carting off computers and other office equipment. According to Ostergaard, the group was decimated by the government crackdown on the demonstrations in 2007 with some VJs arrested and others fleeing the country. The film's narrator, a central figure in the group, has coordinated a new team of some 80 videographers who will continue the work.

jsipe@thenational.ae