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By Jeff Beresford-Howe | November 14, 2007

MONDAY, 10/15/07
Nothing like being hung over and jet-lagged, although for some reason, the jet lag doesn’t seem to be as bad as when you go to Europe or Asia. Maybe I’m crepuscular; Abu Dhabi is eleven hours ahead of California, so sunrise and sunset are about the same time, only reversed.

The hotel restaurant is a trip. I eat next to a woman in full native dress, no skin showing anywhere, even on her face. I’m too culturally sensitive to stare even though I really want to. I keep trying to peek and see how she actually gets food in there. We’re both sitting at tables overlooking the hotel pool, which is filled with young girls in bikinis bellying up to the in-pool bar. You wouldn’t call the woman oppressed, though: one of the more bizarre phenomena here is that wearing the traditional dress is a class signifier: very rich women are virtually the only ones I saw wearing it, and they have seductive walks, high heels, the kind of perfume that makes you swoon and some of the outfits, I discovered on a trip to one of the malls, cost as much as 100,000 durhams ($30,000 or so U.S.). “The girls can’t wait to start wearing them,” an Abu Dhabi schoolteacher from Tucson tells me at one of the screenings. “It means they’re part of the royal family.”

The highlight of the day is first thing in the morning and it’s one of those moments that you couldn’t put in a novel, even in a dark, comic one, because people would accuse you of losing your grip: a jet-lagged Harvey Weinstein lecturing at an Arab film festival. What could go wrong with that? It’s a scene that cries out for Hunter Thompson, or at least “Entourage.”

A lot of people show up just to see what’s going to happen and get disappointed, albeit in a good way: Weinstein is in excellent humor and gives a nice speech in which he emphasizes how important it is to be open to fresh, unheard talent. He does say one bizarre thing: at his press conference, someone asks him about Abu Dhabi’s attempts to establish a film industry and how censorship might figure into that – the country is not in any sense a democracy – and he says that Abu Dhabi is more free in that context than the United States.

Weinstein is here as part of one of the most interesting parts of the festival, the Film Financing Circle, which aims mostly to get together Hollywood finance people, filmmakers and the local money people from Abu Dhabi. It’s one of the things that’s going to make or break this festival: if it takes off, if it seeds the Abu Dhabi film industry, and in particular if someone goes on to make a successful movie after hooking up here, it will be the signature piece for the festival.

At the very least, it’s a rare chance for all these people to spend a few days together cut off from virtually everything else in the world. “I can talk with people who wouldn’t give me the time of day in Hollywood,” one filmmaker told me. “It’s the best thing that I’ve run into since I started trying to raise money for my projects.” There are, however, mixed reports about whether the financers are really taking advantage of it, and even a few dark whispers about whether the money is going to materialize.

This is the first day of four on which there’s a full day of films, and it’s a pretty good selection for a festival that’s just starting out.

The first one I see is “Owl and the Sparrow,” a very low budget American film written and directed by Stephane Gauger, shot in and around Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), in Vietnamese with English subtitles, about the abused homeless orphan girl Thuy; a zookeeper whose favorite elephant is about to be sold into god knows what by the financially struggling zoo’s owner; and a depressed flight attendant with self-esteem issues in a sleazy relationship with a pilot from her airline.

It sounds like a set-up for something unwatchably didactic, but instead what you get is one of the best small films you could hope for. One of the “characters” is Saigon itself: it’s an emerging capitalist economy, where being a flight attendant is good enough to make you one of the “haves.” The economic choices Thuy, the zookeeper and the flight attendant have to face are not easy, and Gauger doesn’t stint on how difficult their lives are, but these are people who manage in the course of a week to find grace anyway.

Next, I’m off to “The Good Night,” written and directed by Jake Paltrow, a movie about a former rock star turned commercial jingle writer living with a whiny, washed out bitch played by his sister Gwyneth (Freud much?), and with a great performance by Martin Freeman as Gary, who’s on camera for virtually the whole thing. As good as he is, the real star of the movie is Penelope Cruz, who essentially has two different roles: Gary’s dream girl (literally), and later a tequila-shooting model. She’s hotter than I’ve ever seen her. The girl can work a white tuxedo. The ending’s a cop out – Paltrow’s deft and original take on Hollywoodish dream sequences leaves him at the end – but it’s more than worth it. Simon Pegg, as Gary’s best friend, turns in a comedic performance that might get him an Oscar nomination if the movie blows up.

Finally, a movie called “The Last Lear” dropped out of the festival at the last minute, so we’re treated instead to an extra showing of the new Claude Lelouch movie, “Crossed Tracks (Roman de Gare).” (He produced, wrote and directed it, but contracted out craft services.) Lelouch has been making movies since Elvis and Ann Margaret roamed the earth, and it’s a pleasure to see him try his hand at a murder mystery. This is the one he submitted anonymously to Cannes earlier this year, revealing himself as the director only as it was about to play for the first time. I have to say that the story sounds fishy to me: the movie has some of France’s most famous actors in it. How is it possible that word didn’t get out? One of the real pleasures of this movie is watching Lelouch clearly and effortlessly guide you through a complex plot that turns on itself a number of times.

“Crossed Tracks” has one big thing in common with “Atonement”: the story turns on the reliability and honesty of a writer, but unlike “Atonement,” which makes you feel like writers are hopeless liars and a******s, “Crossing Tracks” let’s you see two working writers (well, one anyway) and where they’re coming from. You even get a sense – and this is rare in a movie – of how a writer gets a story.

One of the festival’s oddities is that every theater has a number of seats marked off as “reserved” which seem to be going permanently unfilled; I overhear one of the festival’s organizers instructing an usher that patrons should be allowed to use the seats only if they give her the magic words: “I’m with the Sheik.” I swear to you I’m not making this up.

TUESDAY, 10/16/07
I’m walking into a charming champagne reception by – well, I have no idea who it’s by, but there’s one every day – when suddenly I hear someone shouting my name. This is a more than a little creepy. I don’t know a soul in Abu Dhabi. Turns out to be one of the festival’s publicists, Chandan Kaur, a good witch at the festival who has somehow recognized me and who has been desperately trying to call me on my cell phone to line up an interview for me with Gauger, the “Owl and the Sparrow” director. Of course, my cell phone is American, so it doesn’t work outside the United States, even after I ask about swapping SIM cards. Shoutout to Sprint/Nextel!

I’m not prepared, but he’s leaving tomorrow and it’s now or never, so we have a chat anyway. Gauger is the son of an American businessman who worked in Vietnam and fell in love with and married a Vietnamese woman, and brought her home to Newport Beach. Gauger’s Dad passed away when Gauger was young, so he grew up closely tied to Orange County’s
large Vietnamese community. Now a cinematographer by trade, the “Owl and the Sparrow” is his first feature. He and his crew shot it in three weeks on the streets of Saigon, just two guys with camera wandering around shooting their actors on unprepared streets. It gives the film something of a French new wave feel while being utterly of its time and place.

Of course, the guerilla thing only goes so far. Gauger had to get script approval from the Vietnamese government, which I find surprising because the movie does not paint a rosy picture of life in Saigon. There’s an exploitive factory owner who uses child labor and essentially sells his niece for a nice cash bonus, more than a few homeless orphan girls sleeping on cardboard down by the Mekong River and an overall sense of economic dislocation. It’s not exactly Chamber-of-Commerce stuff, but Gauger says that officials were open to his script because the movie’s characters at least slightly resolve these problems for themselves in the end.

Gauger also gives me an update on Pham Thi Han, the little girl who plays Thuy and steals the film. She’s one of only ten girls he had time to look at for the role. “Obviously, I got very lucky,” he says. “She’s a natural in front of the camera, and she learned everything so quickly.” She’s now doing theater in Vietnam, which concerns him a bit: “It’s such a different style of acting. I hope she doesn’t lose what she has.”

The featured movie tonight is “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ fractured take on twenty-five years or so in the life of Bob Dylan. I don’t see how this is going to play in Abu Dhabi, and it doesn’t. A small crowd sits there confused and apathetic, but for a Dylan freak like me, it’s a miracle.

You can start with the music: Haynes mostly uses rare and previously unreleased versions of Dylan tunes by the man himself as well as oddball covers (you have to check out Sonic Youth’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, and John Doe, ex- of X, crops up with an ecstatic Pressin’ On, the highlight of Dylan’s shows in his born-again years). Haynes uses six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, to play His Bobness. All the buzz – Blanchett has a shot at an Oscar because Al Gore isn’t in the movie – is true. She is great playing Dylan at his most fashionable, confrontational and amphetamine-crazed. You can’t take your eyes off her.

She’s also the only one who makes much effort to look like Dylan. The actors weren’t cast for their resemblance to Dylan, although Blanchett is a dead ringer for him and Christian Bale gets the seedy born-again Dylan afro look just right. Instead, Haynes was going for what the actors could represent about a particular time in Dylan’s life. For example, Dylan spent a couple of years in the late ‘60s out of the public eye, recuperating from a motorcycle accident and doing nothing much more than writing oddball Americana tunes and raising his family. It’s maybe the only period in his life that’s still, and Richard Gere handles it beautifully.

All the familiar touchstones are covered – “Judas!” for example; or, the first meeting with Allan Ginsburg – but they’re all at least slightly altered. It’s a great idea that (1) makes the film a little more honest (every biopic changes stuff; this one has the balls to be upfront about it); and (2) makes you look at some stale stories with a fresh eye. In true Bob fashion, Haynes gleefully brutalizes some people who gave Dylan a hard time along the way: Julianne Moore obliterates Joan Baez, Saint Pete Seeger comes off like an axe-wielding psycho, and Bruce Greenwood, in a performance that will go unrewarded but which is outstanding, stands in for all the arrogant press fucks asking contemptuous questions at ‘60s-era Dylan press conferences.

Haynes has the stories of the six Dylans weave in and out of each other, unmoored from chronology and sometimes even reality, although there’s a sickness and anxiety to Blanchett’s Dylan and a frustrated isolation to Heath Ledger’s divorcing Dylan that’s as direct as you can get.

As the week has gone on, the festival is attracting a certain amount of talk among participants about whether it’s going to survive. Crowds at the screenings are small, despite breathless adulation from the Abu Dhabi press and free tickets for the public, and the people that do show up are mostly American and European ex-pats. The featured movies are European or very American, albeit American versions of what’s going on in the Middle East (“Rendition,” “Redacted,” “I Love Hip Hop in Morocco,” “In the Valley of Elah”). That said, there’s considerable courage in the film selections, including a Holocaust movie (“The Counterfeiters”), a lesbian short (“Her Man”) and a hit Lebanese hit movie with a lesbian character (“Caramel”), and of course the Haynes movie, but none of it feels very indigenous or organic.

The tale concludes in Part 3 of Memoirs of the 2007 Middle Eastern International Film Festival>>>

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