Points of view

As Abu Dhabil prepares for the Middle East International Film Festival, we look at this year's programme.

Dilip Mehta's 'Cooking with Stella'.
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"I thought this was a small festival, but talking to you about it for the last... whatever time," Peter Scarlet sighs. "I'm exhausted. I've caught up with the new executive director of the Middle East International Film Festival to talk through arrangements for this year's programme. We meet at his villa at 4pm, and a little over an hour later, we've covered the main points. "That's a lot of films in 10 days," he says. It is indeed: 18 films in competition for the narrative feature prize, to be chaired by the great Iranian artist and director Abbas Kiarostami; 15 films in contention for the documentary feature prize, presided over by James Longley, the director of Iraq in Fragments. There are to be eight non-competition gala screenings, plus 16 items in the World Cinema Showcase - "Films that were either noted or prized at other festivals for one reason or another," Scarlet explains. There's a sidebar for environmentally themed films and a primer in recent Turkish cinema. Oh, and a brief excursion into silent film, with live musical support from the cinema accompanist Neil Brand. Plus the short films; don't forget the shorts. "The goal that we set when we came here was to have half of the competition films from the Middle East," says Scarlet, who until February served as artistic director at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. "A number of people in the field, when they heard that said: 'Good luck. You'll never get a strong programme,' and so on, and I think this pretty much gives the lie to that." It is, admittedly, a loose definition of "Middle East", which includes North Africa, Turkey and Iran. "But what the hell," says Scarlet; "they're all neighbouring countries." The opening picture will be The Traveller, the debut feature from Ahmed Maher, which premieres regionally on October 8. This was, Scarlet notes, "a film long in gestation. It's a filmmaker who's in his early 40s who's never made a feature before. He's worked a lot in Italy, made shorts and taught filmmaking". It's an unusual apprenticeship for an Egyptian director, and indeed, the results, Scarlet says, are "very much influenced by Fellini. It doesn't look like any other Egyptian film I've ever seen. It's kind of like an Italian-Egyptian film... And then suddenly, there's Omar Sharif, appearing for the first time in 15 or 16 years in an Egyptian film". The big finale picture will be Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats, a madcap political satire based on the journalist Jon Ronson's research into the US military's psychic arm. "There are a lot of oddballs in this film," Scarlet says, including ones played by George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. "It's an exceedingly intelligent, very well-written and acted and very funny comedy. It's the kind of film you could imagine that, if Preston Sturges came back to life, he might make a film like this." At the time of writing there was no word on which stars might attend the festival, but Scarlet was optimistic. Shorts is another highlight of the gala programme, a Day-Glo children's extravaganza made by Robert Rodriguez with funding from the Abu Dhabi Media Company. The plot concerns a magic rock which has the power to grant wishes, occasioning a series of linked vignettes. "I was surprised when I finally got to see it last month," Scarlet says. "I think he's wound up making a film which is in some ways formally like Scheherazade's tales because it's a story that keeps doubling back on itself. It starts, stops, then another story starts." Scarlet saw the film with a group of Emirati children. "They loved it because it's not a conventional linear narrative. Who said that you have to have a conventional linear narrative? Scheherazade certainly didn't. Rodriguez has gone back to that form." Another high-profile US film to get a gala screening will be The Informant!, the latest effort from the increasingly unpredictable Steven Soderbergh. This one appears to be a sort of screwball satire on the grain-processing industry, starring an uncharacteristically doughy and mustachioed Matt Damon. Following hard on the heels of The Girlfriend Experience and Che, the film means Soderbergh is emerging as one of Hollywood's most prolific, most surprising talents. He strikes Scarlet - like the British director Michael Winterbottom, who is also on the programme - as "the Louis Malle of his generation. He's impossible to typecast". Then there's Blue, a big-budget Bollywood spectacular starring Sanjay Dutt, Akshay Kumar and - only the latest in a series of western stars to make Bollywood cameos - Kylie Minogue. It is, says Scarlet, "the first underwater Indian film", and contains sunken ships, lost treasure and sharks. Minogue contributes a musical collaboration with AR Rahman, titled Chiggy Wiggy. As her sister Dannii once sang: "everybody changes under water." It will be interesting to see Kylie put this theory to the test. Among the movies competing with The Traveller for the narrative prize is Son of Babylon. Mohamed al Daradji's earlier film Ahlaam was the first feature to emerge from post-Saddam Iraq. "Then he went back and made a harrowing film about how he made that film," Scarlet notes, a documentary called War, Love, God and Madness. The new one, finished with the help of MEIFF's specially created completion fund, is getting its world premiere at the festival. The other world premiere in the narrative competition is True Colours, by Oussama Fawzi. "It's about the same character, Youssef, in his previous film I Love Cinema, but you wouldn't have to have seen I Love Cinema to appreciate this," Scarlet says. "He's now just out of adolescence and he goes to art school... And as the whole fundamentalist wave gets more and more in evidence, he becomes politicised and radicalised. "I guess in shorthand I could say that this is the film about the art school experience that Terry Zwigoff's Art School Confidential with John Malkovich promised to be but wasn't." There's an international premiere for Cooking with Stella, a comedy from Dilip Mehta, the brother of the Fire director, Deepa. She produced her brother's film and worked on the screenplay, so at least some of her signature tartness should be in evidence in this fable about an ambassador's chef with fingers in too many pies. There are some notable carry-overs from Cannes, too. In some respects it's remarkable that Bahman Ghobadi's high-spirited account of Tehran's illegal indie rock scene, No One Knows about Persian Cats, got made at all. Filmed without authorisation, outspokenly critical and co-written by the jailed journalist Roxana Saberi, it's a blast of exhilarating punk energy. Meanwhile, Elias Suleiman's The Time that Remains, a Pierrot-ish history of Palestine since 1948, makes its way onto the competition platter having already earned its director the title Middle Eastern Filmmaker of the Year from the trade publication Variety. When interviewed by the magazine, Scarlet says he told them: "You could have dropped the 'Middle Eastern' part... It's a really, really special film, quite wonderful." And looking beyond the borders of the Menasa region, expect interesting new work from the enigmatic French director Claire Denis: her White Material returns to the disturbing, visionary Africa she explored in her 1998 film Chocolat. Meanwhile China's Lang Zai Ji, best known for poetic studies such as The Blue Kite, makes a surprising swerve with The Warrior and the Wolf. "It's not a conventional martial arts film but something that's far more like an action film than anything we've ever seen him turn his hand to before," Scarlet says. "And it's a big, big, big spectacle film." Two films in the documentary competition also benefited from MEIFF's contingency fund: Port of Memory, a meditation on life in Haifa since 1948 from the Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari, and We Were Communists, a film from Maher Abi Samra about the tangled histories of four Lebanese leftist radicals since the 1960s. "It's another aspect of the political history of Lebanon that has not been on screen before," Scarlet -explains. In all, counting Son of Babylon, MEIFF helped three films get made this year. "I think we will probably mount a full-scale production fund project next year," Scarlet says. "We didn't have time to do it full-bore this year. But when, in the course of our research, we stumbled across three films that are damn good, and learned that they weren't going to be done in time, it was like: 'Can we help?' We did, and we're very happy that they're three solid films." There are a couple of intriguing British projects that merit mention, too. Franny Alexander's The Age of Stupid bends the factual format - it's "a documentary with an actor in it", as Scarlet says - to tell an ecological fable. Pete Postlethwaite stars as a survivor from some future apocalypse, replaying the video evidence for man's ecological self-sabotage. And the mercurial Michael Winterbottom, best known for The Road to Guantanamo and 24-Hour Party People, has adapted Naomi Klein's polemic on the 21st century's military-political complex The Shock Doctrine for the big screen. "I've heard that she's not happy with results and doesn't like the film," says Scarlet serenely. "Come and see for yourself." Some might raise an eyebrow at a certain fuzziness around the fact-fiction borderline in some of these competition selections. Scarlet isn't concerned. "Ultimately, if I had to let my hair down, I would say I think those appellations are probably of little use," he says. "Some of the most interesting films that are being made everywhere these days are either making you think: 'Is this fiction or documentary?' or straddling the two in a way that's very provocative." Thus we also get 1958, a novelistic memoir in film from the Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab, and Double Take, a "found-footage fabrication" that places Alfred Hitchcock amid the machinations of the Cold War. And that's before you even start on the World Cinema Showcase, which includes such buzzed-about festival hits as Precious, The Red -Riding Trilogy and the Vogue magazine documentary The September Issue. That's before you get to the Turkish cinema season or the special programme of ecological films or the silent comedy series. There's a great deal to provoke, and whether fact or fiction or some indeterminate compound of the two, there's a great deal to make the viewer think. "I'm not much of a believer in movies as candy - or even movies with candy," Scarlet warns. "But people can have fun with some of this work. If they have fun thinking, they'll have fun with all of it." elake@thenational.ae