Hollywood heavyweight Lee Daniels no longer a ‘brainwashed’ American after Dubai visit

This year's Dubai International Film Festival has been an eye opening experience for the Muhr Features Jury president, who is also a multiple Academy Award-winning director, producer and actor.
Jury president Lee Daniels attends a photocall on day two of the Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 11, 2014 in Dubai. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images for DIFF
Jury president Lee Daniels attends a photocall on day two of the Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 11, 2014 in Dubai. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images for DIFF

This year’s Dubai International Film Festival has been an eye opening experience for Muhr Features Jury president Lee Daniels. The Oscar nominated director, producer and actor pulled no punches when we caught up with him ahead of this year’s Muhr Award ceremony to ask about his experience of the festival.

“I was originally supposed to come to be on the jury last year, but because I was still doing The Butler I didn’t make it. When they asked me to come this year, I really wanted to come because I really wanted to learn. You think at 55 you know everything there is to know, but what I’ve learned is that I’ve been brainwashed. I’ve been brainwashed since I was a child about Arabic culture. I have been brainwashed and I am embarrassed about that. I’m ashamed. In America we have a very specific view of Arabic culture and it is not one of peace.”

Daniels explains that watching the Arabic films in this year’s Muhr competition has given him an entirely different perspective.

“I’ve learned that this is a peaceful people. That the injustices and atrocities that have happened to them are insurmountable. That America does not lend the support that they should, and that it’s not right.”

Daniels adds that he will be taking that message back to the US with him, seeking to spread it “loud and clear”. He may even be making a film in the region himself soon.

“I’m talking about doing something, possibly, here. Only because I’ve been so impressed by it. I’m that arrogant American that thinks he knows everything, and this just proved that I’m arrogant. I came here thinking I know it all, and I don’t. I think that’s the reason why God put me here, to look at all of the films and learn.”

Despite Daniels’ awakening, the star was not afraid to offer constructive criticism where required.

“I always like to give back, and as a jury we unanimously decided that what we could give back to the Dubai film Festival was to say ‘ok – you should be more selective. The films should be a little better’’ really being snobs I guess.

“I spoke to the head of the festival about it, I think on Sunday, and he said to me, I think, the most powerful thing I’ve heard, ever. He said that ‘this is all new. Cinema is new. We’re like children and the filmmakers, especially the documentary makers that have gone to Israel to do things, their crews and the actors too, they’re not only first-time filmmakers, but they’re putting their lives on the line. Literally, their lives on the line’. And I went ‘oh my God.’ This is the truth, you know? This is not just cinema. This is something beyond cinema. And again I’m thinking ‘once again, arrogant American, coming in, thinking you know everything’, and I’m so happy and so humbled to have had this experience. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Daniels is well-placed to advise these first-time filmmakers as they embark on their careers: he came into the industry himself with no formal training and learnt his directing skills while working full-time at a nursing agency.

“What I knew was, I had life experience, and for filmmakers, no matter how great you are technically, you have to have that life experience to tap into the human condition,” he says. “You have to be a lie detector, to have a third eye. I didn’t go to college, I didn’t go to film school, my life was my training and I’m proud of my training. Most of my work initially came from theatre. I couldn’t afford film school, but I knew I wanted to direct, so I directed theatre off, off, off, off Broadway. That was my connection to this world, and I just knew that through determination you will be able to get your stuff to screen.”

cnewbould@thenational.ae

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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