By Jeff Beresford-Howe | November 14, 2007

WEDNESDAY, 10/17/07
Nothing says “Middle East” to me like a Belgian movie in Flemish about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism) who loves video games. But f**k that: “Ben X” is one of the highlights of the festival.

Ben, a high school boy, is virtually non-verbal, but he has one of the sweetest home electronics set-ups you’ll ever see, top of the line computers, phones and video equipment. Mostly, Ben relates heavily to a massive multi-player on-line role-playing game called ArchLord, where he’s risen to Level 80, become a hero and is eloquent enough in deeds at least to have won the heart of another player, played by the Portman-ishly cute Laura Verlinden. Besides playing ArchLord, Ben (Greg Timmermans) uses the game to try and interpret what’s happening to him in real life.

Ben is plainly bright, so instead of being warehoused in a special education program, he has been placed in a conventional Belgian school, where he is mercilessly bullied. There’s a scene in which he’s stripped of his pants in front of a class full of students, and another a few minutes later in which Ben is beaten and then forced to swallow an Ecstasy tablet, with unexpected results. Timmermans gives a skilled and brave performance, the kind that would win an Oscar if that happened to Belgian movies in Flemish.

(On that subject, I’m guessing the movie has virtually no chance to make any money in the U.S., but if I’ve ever seen a foreign film that’s absolutely perfect for an American adaptation, this is it.)

Producer Peter Bouckaert is there after the screening to answer questions, and he’s plainly excited – “We kicked ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’s’ a*s when we opened in Belgium,” he crows. Not only that, but the story of the making of the movie turns out to be almost as interesting as the movie itself.

ArchLord, it turns out, is a real game, with thousands of players. After several frustrating attempts to program the game to create the character actions the director needed, the “Ben X” team gave up and played the game live for the movie. They had an “actor” play Ben’s avatar, another play his girlfriend, and a third as an invisible character who essentially is the camera. There were still more problems, though: other ArchLord players, unaware that they were on a movie set, would wander into the scenes, so the director had to create still more characters – Level 90 – who would stand in the vicinity of the shoot and kill characters who were about to wander into shots.

The movie has become something of a cause célèbre in Belgium. The Belgium school system is actually pulling kids out of the classroom and into the theaters to try and educate them about bullying.

Bouckaert also notes that the movie is based on a true story. There was a real “Ben X.” He didn’t survive the taunts and bullying, finally taking his own life.

The climax of the film-financing part of the festival is a party out in the desert, at the resortish Shangri-La Hotel, across from the enormous (capacity: 30,000) Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The plan was to give $100,000 to the nascent filmmaker who’d most impressed the financing people, but in the end, the prize was split among two filmmakers. Anand Amritraj, the improbably handsome former pro tennis player (a doubles specialist, almost as good as his brother ViJay) from India who’s become an entrepreneur, film financier and producer, gets the most attention, but everywhere you turn, there are Hollywood connections. On this point, the festival plainly worked: unlike a similar party you might go to in LA, people were relaxed, friendly and unhurried and talked happily to whoever wandered into their conversations.

I barely avoid an international incident while taking a picture of the mosque; I do it while holding a beer in my hand, which I’m informed is “disrespectful” to Islam and not allowed.

THURSDAY, 10/18/07
While U.S. and European films dominated the festival, the organizers made room for some Bollywood and even some Middle Eastern fare, including “Shadow of Silence (Dhilal Al Samt),” which director Abdullah Al Muheisen, here for the screening, describes as the “first Saudi Arabian feature film ever made.”

First, and definitely the strangest.

The plot goes something like this: (Spoiler Alert. Yeah, like you’re ever going to see this.) a dissident, Western-oriented writer (Abdullah Muhsen Al Nemr) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country is persuaded by the promise of personal enrichment to alter his new book to the satisfaction of a manipulative regime. He’s then recruited for a high level government position, but told he can take the post and its generous salary only after he’s spent some time in a remote desert location known only as “The Institute.”

He goes there, cut off from the outside world, and begins a paranoid program of being drugged, bored (or maybe that’s just the movie) and tortured by half-baked existential, bureaucratic bullshit. His wife, who’s sour and unhappy in their marriage but newly pregnant, decides this “institute” doesn’t sit well with her and wanders through the desert trying to find her husband. After meeting and enlisting the aid of a group of noble Bedouins, the wife and the Bedouins raid the institute and rescue the writer, at which time he and his wife (now smiling and completely covered in traditional dress) discover what they really want to be: fundamentalist Muslims in the Bedouin style.

The kicker: the institute was set up by the government to create precisely this result. It’s the Saudi version of a happy ending, I guess.

Al Nemr, a fine actor, is probably the only redeeming feature in the movie: he’s got a craggy, intelligent look to him that would serve him well in a better vehicle; it’s kind of like Robert Loggia guest starring on “Hawaii-Five O;” if he can get the hell out of crap like this and find something that suits his talent, the man could have a serious career.

Maybe the weirdest part of the screening is afterwards, when Al Muheisen invites questions. What happens instead is that four guys in a row in traditional Arab dress stand up and make statements about how grateful they are that Al Muheisen has recognized that fundamentalist Islam is the only true path. It’s scary, and highlights the problems Abu Dhabi might have in becoming an international film center.

On the other hand, Abu Dhabi is quite different from Saudi Arabia: women drive (even taxis), work, dress in Western fashion, and at the nightclubs (legally allowed only in hotels) they wear clothes that would make a South Beach girl blush. Christian worship, at least, is tolerated.

The Emirates are running out of oil (Dubai, another member of the United Arab Emirates, already has) and they’re searching for a new purpose. The emphasis is on education, health care (unlike the U.S., simply by being a resident of Abu Dhabi, you have a great health care plan) and contacts with the international business community. In particular, the Middle East has no real media centers (outside of Israel, of course, which no one at the festival mentions), and MEIFF is part of a larger attempt to make Abu Dhabi into that center, although the emirate is playing catch-up with Qatar, headquarters to Al Jazeera.

Besides Harvey Weinstein, the heaviest hitter the festival brought in is Paul Haggis (“Crash,” “thirtysomething”), who would win the MEIFF Most Valuable Player Award if there was one. Unlike Weinstein, who jetted in and out, making as little a splash as someone like Weinstein can make, Haggis spent the week visible and available, advising young filmmakers and financiers, teaching writing workshops and showing up for mingling purposes at events like tonight’s Variety party, where he affably talks to whoever walks up to him. Employing my killer self-marketing sense, I use the opportunity to talk with him about baseball, which Haggis hates, but h
e gets interested despite himself in my oft-repeated argument that baseball is and always has been a reflection of urban rather than rural America.

The featured shows at the festival tonight are “Caramel” and “Redacted,” as odd a pairing as you could imagine. (“Deep Throat” / “Thelma and Louise”? “Annie Hall” / “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”?)

“Carame”l is a Lebanese-produced chick flick directed and starring the impossibly beautiful Nadine Labaki, who is going to be a major international star one of these days. You can really see the possibilities of the festival at this screening: the Emirates Palace theater is packed for the first time since Opening Night with a festive, diverse audience that loves “Caramel,” which has a Western sensibility without sacrificing its sense of Lebanese place and culture and gorgeous, golden cinematography. There is some murmuring in the crowd when people catch on that one of the characters is a closeted lesbian, but the experience and the reception for the film couldn’t be more positive.

From a Lebanese beauty shop and a sweet romance we move to a harrowing security checkpoint somewhere in Iraq in Brian De Palma’s “Redacted.” The audience votes with its feet: only about a hundred people stay to watch.

De Palma’s movie requires context: the U.S. press, which helped get the country into the war by sticking its head in the sand, continues to burrow fervently, a*s end up. One of the ways this expresses itself is a near complete failure to depict in graphic terms the costs of the war: unlike the latter stages of Vietnam, there are no shots in the mainstream press of mangled bodies on the evening news, no napalmed girls running down the streets, no coffins being offloaded from cargo planes by the score, no firsthand accounts of village massacres.

De Palma apparently decided to remedy as much of this as possible in ninety minutes. A fictional work based on a true story revolving around the rape of a 14-year-old girl and the murder of her family, it’s as hard a movie to watch as I’ve ever seen, unstinting and graphic. De Palma refuses to look away from any of it. It’s not entirely successful – De Palma uses “video diaries” of the soldiers as a framing device and doesn’t quite pull it off, the introduction feels rushed and the ending ad hoc – but it’s impossible to ignore. Like most of the rest of the audience, I stayed in my seat for five minutes after it was over, devastated.

FRIDAY, 10/19/07
I have lunch with a fellow survivor of “Redacted.” We meet at the Lebanese Flower and have lamb so soft and sweet that it melts in your mouth. If you’re ever in Abu Dhabi, that’s the ticket.

It’s closing day. The only events scheduled are a closing ceremony, Haggis’s “In The Valley of Elah” and the closing night party, and the last minute nature of the festival finally catches up with the organizers. Otis Sallid has another dance number scheduled, but it starts forty-five minutes late because of technical problems, and then a series of speeches pushes the start of Haggis’s film back to about ninety minutes late, giving the film the same starting time as the closing night party. Tired, poleaxed by the movie, which is grim and slow-paced, and lured by free alcohol and the fantastic catering at the Emirates Palace that marked the whole festival, a pretty heavy percentage of the audience walks out of the movie right at the start, and they continue to trickle out for the next two hours. Haggis is pissed.

The party is as good as opening night. It’s held on a beautiful terrace on a temperate night with an exhausted festival staff stunned but gleeful that they’d pulled the whole thing off. The buzz is that despite some problems with focus and administration, the government of Abu Dhabi, i.e., Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Sultan Al Nahayan, is committed to the festival and in particular considers the Film Financing Council the road to an actual film industry in Abu Dhabi. From a western perspective, if you’re a filmmaker, writer or director with an idea for a movie, you’d have to be crazy not to show up at this thing next year and in succeeding years.

All that’s left for me is to drink up, get in a car – with a driver; drunk driving is harshly prosecuted in Abu Dhabi – and get back to the Dubai airport.

Any trip is easier if you meet cool people along the way, and I met several.

First was Khalid, a Kurdish Muslim sitting next to me on the Emirates flight into Dubai. He prayed five times during the flight, wouldn’t hold my beer when I struggle out of my little seat (“it is forbidden by my religion”) and tells me all about slaughtering his own goats to make sure they’re halal. (The key is, you open the jugular, but do nothing else.)

I didn’t take long to toss out my preconceptions, though: Khalid is a San Diegan and a thoughtful conversationalist on his way to Jeddah (in Saudi Arabia) to check on some investments. He’s an American citizen and a Democrat, not fond of his party’s spine-free performance of late. Khalid also correctly predicts that our flight will be a half hour longer than I think it will be because after crossing over the Black Sea, we do a left turn at the Iraqi border in order to avoid any contact with Iraqi airspace, which would normally be directly on the way to Dubai. (Our pilots thought Iranian air space was safer. Do insurgents have surface-to-air missles? Are we less likely to be shot down by Iranians than Americans? Unsettling thoughts at 37,000 feet.)

On the way to the hotel, I met Alan Sutovsky, who turns out to be one of the most popular people at the festival because he’s representing festival sponsor Mignon Chocolates (of Tehran and Los Angeles) and has a cache of them in his hotel room. He’s one of those people who’s naturally cool even when he’s jet-lagged and has to go to three hotels to find his room. (The same thing happened to me; that’s how we met.) He’s traveling with his dad Joseph, who’s a little grumpy at first, but hey, he’s 77 and been on a plane for 24 hours, so he’s entitled. After about ten minutes of griping, Joseph’s mood recovers and he’s a hit, especially with the ladies, who he charms with backstage stories about the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where he used to work.

Finally, on the flight home, I meet cinematographer Crofton Diack, who worked on the MEIFF documentary prizewinner, “Hear and Now.” She’s from Portland, Oregon, it turns out, and when I mention that I have family there, she rolls her eyes like, “Geez, you hayseed, you know Portland’s a big city, right?”, except it turns out that my cousin David Rees, an attorney there, is one of her best friends. Even in the Middle East, it’s a small world.

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