Archive for 2013

More Wisdom from the Chairman (of DIFF, that Is)…

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Back in April I wrote about Dubai International Film Festival and Gulf Film Festival Chairman Abdulhamid Juma, and gushed about what great insight and cinematic instincts he possesses. Well, since then I’ve been very fortunate to sit with Juma on a few other occasions and get more of his wisdom. Recently, I featured his insight in a comprehensive article on cinema in the Gulf for Shawati’ Abu Dhabi magazine. I mean it when I say he’s the voice I need in everything I write from and about the region, the one person who will always set me straight and supply wisdom.

So here is my second interview with Abdulhamid Juma, as he prepared for the 10th anniversary edition of DIFF, which was simply spectacular, all around. N-joy!

Few men embody the true grace, elegance and pride of the Arab world as well as Dubai International Film Festival Chairman Abdulhamid Juma. He’s an endless source of inspiration for a cinema lover like me and his generosity, of time and spirit, has helped to shape some of my most successful writing to date.

I’m also extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to turn to Juma on quite a few occasions, whenever a question arises or I need his insight to make something crystal clear. His no-nonsense, ‘few words to mean so much’ approach to life — and his work in encouraging, featuring and promoting world cinema — have provided me with priceless gems of wisdom. Walking out at the end of a screening of Enough Said in Abu Dhabi, I struggled to find the words to describe the film featuring James Gandolfini’s last performance. “Wonderful script” Juma quickly jumped in when I met him in the lobby, and with those two words, had the movie forever labelled in my mind.

So for this year’s special tenth anniversary edition of DIFF, I naturally turned to Abdulhamid Juma for ten concepts that could clearly define his festival. His words perhaps shed light on the reasons why Dubai, in ten short years, has become the Cannes of the Arab world, the go-to destination for world cinema in the region, and beyond.

Clear Vision

Juma explains “We really knew what we wanted from day one. What type of festival we wanted, because I think some of the festivals I hear about, or go to, they just don’t know what they want. Sometimes they are for the public, sometimes they are for the industry, sometimes they are for the local productions, sometimes for tourism, sometimes they are for no reason. We had a vision.”


This one more of a challenge, in Juma’s words “How do you differentiate yourself from other festivals?” And he continues “And that DIFF-erentiation came to us as part of our third reason which is…”

Focus on Arab cinema

In a sea of film festivals, one kicking off almost every day, Juma stresses what’s important “These last three points really go together. A clear vision, with DIFF-erentiation, through a focus on Arab cinema.”

For more insight, check out the original interview on the Huffington Post.

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The Omar Interviews — Love in the Time of Conflict

Friday, November 8th, 2013

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

In the first half of my profile of Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad — Omar in Toronto”: Nazareth, in the Land of Film and Hany — I wanted to showcase the city behind the man. Within its creative chaos and subtle but critical balances lie not only the clues to Abu-Assad’s genius, but many of the answers that could help us navigate today’s hyper-divided world. I also realize that Abu-Assad is a man whose ideas are groundbreaking and powerfully interesting, so here I left the talking to him. I simply guided some thoughts his way and let his personal truth, his voice, uninterrupted shine through.

Omar screened as a Special Presentation at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, starting September 10th.

Abu-Assad on tragic love

The greatest love stories are tragic, because they are reminding us of our own tragic love stories. I do believe, and for sure there are exceptions, that most people in modern time are not living with their great love, but with a stand-in. If you ask anyone “Who was your great love?” — it will be someone else than who they are with. And tragic love stories remind us of our deepest fear, that we lost the great love we once had.

Abu-Assad on love’s pain

Actually, the greatest thing about being so in love and the pain, is that it makes you so sensitive for art, for music, for food, everything then was so good. It’s love and the pain, and sometimes you miss the pain.

Abu-Assad on reaching audiences through entertainment

I believe that first of all cinema is entertainment. But you can be entertained and still it can touch you deeply or make you emotionally involved. What I personally try to do is go deep and entertain myself first, as someone who considers himself part of a sophisticated audience, but meanwhile I also want to reach the bigger mass, the people who don’t necessarily need to see film as a form of art. To bring these two together, it’s very difficult and most of the time, you are going to fail.

Read the entire piece on the Huffington Post.

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The Omar Interviews — In the Land of Film and Hany (Abu-Assad)

Friday, November 8th, 2013


From left: Adam Bakri, Hany Abu-Assad and Waleed Zuaiter, photographed by Joana Zuaiter
With the recent confirmation that Yasser Arafat was indeed poisoned (or as the news more diplomatically put it, “may have been poisoned”) I’m reminded once again of the dirty games politics play in dividing the world. Thank goodness for film and its power to instruct and unite. Even a stunningly strong, difficult, powerfully truthful film like Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar has the power to change the world for the better. Because learning and accepting are always the first steps in moving on.

Omar is getting ready to enjoy its Gulf premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival later this year, but I caught up with Abu-Assad at his home in Nazareth earlier this summer and the interview changed my life. Here is an excerpt, but read the entire piece on the Huffington Post.

“Transform the way people see the world through film.” This inspiring quote can be found above the desk of Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival, and has become the mission statement for TIFF 2013.

So it’s only natural that this year’s thrilling TIFF line-up should include one film which manages to do just that, more powerfully and unavoidably than any other: Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar.

Omar is a film filled with truths, heart and a talented ensemble cast led by Adam Bakri in the title role and Waleed Zuaiter as agent Rami. It screens as a Special Presentation at TIFF.

I first got to interview the much sought-after Palestinian filmmaker in Cannes, where his cinematic masterpiece won the “Un Certain Regard” jury prize this past May. Omar shattered me emotionally, I needed to go back to my room and take the rest of the day off after viewing it, because it destroyed my sense of what is right and what is wrong and how sure I was that I knew the difference. But since then, the film has also left me feeling strangely hopeful for solutions, for the magic of human intervention. It is what Abu-Assad does best, it turns out, make his audience “believe the unbelievable,” that the imperfect abilities of humanity can perhaps one day help fix this world, away from politicians, conventions and hidden agendas. But first we’ll have to be confronted by the difficult truth.

In person, Abu-Assad is a man bigger than life. Tall, with a hoarse, sultry voice, a soft hint of a hard-to-place accent, he’s both boyishly vulnerable and magnetically strong. Perhaps too inconceivably insecure for a filmmaker of his status. Yet while he talks, looking you straight in the eyes with his own captivating set, everyone else in the room disappears, even if that “room” happens to be a noisy beachside lounge on La Croisette, filled with media from all over the world.

What remained obvious to me from that interview was that I wanted to find out more and since he had extended a casual but hospitable invitation to “come see my Nazareth” so I embarked on a journey that would take me through Jordan, from Amman up to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing and into the Israeli-controlled, indisputably Arab city of Nazareth.

Arriving to Abu-Assad’s city using the Arab route turned out to be the most challenging journey I’ve ever undertaken. Crowded planes, long taxi rides with daredevil drivers, hot asphalt, buses that would stop and start and take hours to travel just meters across the border, unpleasant customs formalities, waiting, waiting and more waiting. But it was all worth it, for Nazareth and Hany Abu-Assad, its most brilliant son.

Nazareth is infectious. From the moment I set foot in town, I knew why the filmmaker had moved back to “the ghetto,” as Abu-Assad affectionately calls it — to his family’s building, where he’s now surrounded by uncles, aunts and his amazing mother who lives just upstairs.

(Continued on the Huffington Post)

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Class Enemy and the Tragedy of Generational Misunderstanding

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Most of us have come in contact with someone who changed the course of our life, at some time or other during our school years. Yet it may not always be the most lovable, kindest professor who had the biggest impact on our choices, career or how we turned out. Sometimes, hidden within the hard shell of the strictest disciplinarian or the most critical teacher, lies the key to our success. Personally, to all those who provoked and challenged me I owe my gratitude, because trying to prove someone wrong can be incredibly creative.

In his latest film Class Enemy, Slovenian filmmaker Rok Biček explores the impact an unlikable teacher has on his German class. When one student commits suicide, the abyss of generational distrust and miscommunication divides Robert, the teacher, played by the stoic and at times gloriously unpleasant Igor Samobor, from his pupils. The result brings the audience on a journey of self-discovery, lived right along with the students’ and guided by their insightful teacher. Class Enemy went on to win Best Film for 2013 in the International Film Critics’ Week in Venice.

The story is based on true events Biček experienced in grammar school, when, he says “a third-year girl committed suicide [and] this was followed by a spontaneous rebellion by her classmates, against the school system and teachers.” But at the center of his masterful film, which blends cool tinted cinematography with impulsive acting and important themes, lies not the reason for the girl’s suicide, rather an interpretation of what he calls “the classic pattern of revolutions, which need a common enemy to bring the group together.”

Read the whole article on the Huffington Post.

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An Unconventional Heroine, Julia Wins Over Venice 70

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

“I can’t say that I’m a woman, but I’m also not a man. I’m something… I’m a creation of God, but a warped creation of God. God wasn’t paying attention when I was born.” — Julia

I love it when a film has a backstory that is just as interesting as the one it is telling on the screen. The German documentary Julia tells the fascinating true life tale of a beautiful Lithuanian transexual prostitute living in Berlin, and accompanies her voyage through nearly ten years, thanks to the lens and love of filmmaker J. Jackie Baier. The film screens as a World Premiere at the 70th edition of the Venice Film Festival, in the “Venice Days – Giornate degli Autori” sidebar.

The backstory of this at times infuriating, at others desperately touching film involves Baier, herself a transexual, who shared life, work and experience with Julia, her subject but also her friend. The tenderness between the two is palpable and transcends the screen, jumping out at the audience in wonderfully candid outburst of emotions. The cinematography (by Dieter Vervuurt and Th. Schneider) is intimate, the music (by Christopher Franke and Princessin Hans) eerily evokes a Wong Kar-wai sequence and the true brilliance of Julia is a personal favorite theme in films: Making “the Other” accessible, exploring our differences, so that we may celebrate them instead of punishing each other.


For the entire piece, check out the Huffington Post.

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Best of Venezia 70: Turkish Film Nobody’s Home

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

There are films that hit you in the gut, powerfully and undeniably, at first viewing. For me, that is usually followed by a need to be alone, retreat to a place where I can decompress from the emotions I feel and which don’t leave room for talking, thinking or writing about it. Then there are films that need a day or so to sink in, films that slowly but surely insidiate themselves in your heart and soul, to form there basis for conversations and inspiration for months, years to come.

Turkish filmmaker Deniz Akçay debut work Koksuz – Nobody’s Home belongs to this latter category, and it has taken me at least 36 hours to fully understand the film’s might.

Part of the “Venice Days – Giornate degli Autori” sidebar at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Nobody’s Home is the story of a family in crisis. After the father’s death, the family dynamic has shifted and each person within the nucleus deals with this breakdown in a different, but equally alienating way.

The mother Nurcan, played by the spellbinding Lale Başar, has taken on the role of the helpless victim, while the elder daughter Feride, played by Ahu Türkpençe with grace and insight, has inherited the undesirable role of caretaker. The brother İlker, also played to brooding perfection by Savaş Alp Başar, the only male left within the family nucleus, misses his father and, in typical teenager fashion, acts this out through drugs and sex, instead of dealing with it head on. Then there’s the younger sister Özge, the lovable child actress Melis Ebeler, who wants desperately to be a part of the family, but only manages to feel ignored and forgotten. When Feride decides to marry, the fragile balances of this family’s codependency snap.

For the entire piece, go to the Huffington Post.

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Best of Venezia 70: “Miu Miu Women’s Tales”

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

The Venice Film Festival turned 70 this year, but the atmosphere on the Lido is far from being over-the-hill, more like fashionably casual and über-cool. And now that the reviews for the George Clooney and Sandra Bullock starrer Gravity have all been turned in, it’s time to get to the heart and soul of the oldest cinema festival in the world.

“Venice Days – Giornate degli Autori” is a prestigious sidebar to the competition films, and it turns out, most of my favorites so far are screening as part of Venice Days. Two such favorites are in a category I hardly ever give much thought to in festivals, short films, but when fashion house Miu Miu pairs up with Palestinian actress and filmmaker Hiam Abbass and African-American director Ava DuVernay for the last two installments of “Miu Miu Women’s Tales”, short films suddenly become high on my priority list.

And what stunning shorts The Door by DuVernay and Le Donne della Vucciria (The Women on the Vucciria) by Abbass are! While Abbass gets the Sicilian rhythms and passion down perfectly in her work, DuVernay creates a portrait of love, loss and LA that sent shivers down my spine. Both films are less than 10 minutes in length, with no dialogue, chock full of fantastic music, told in different shades of cool (DuVernay) and warm (Abbass) but each left me breathless and moved. Because a touching love story stands beautifully at the heart of each, and love stories in my opinion, are the key to our salvation as human beings.

Read this piece in its entirety on the Huffington Post.

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Cherien Dabis Talks May in the Summer on HuffPost

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

My journey through films has often taken me on a search for a place where my own issues of non-belonging are best explained. Cherien Dabis’ film Amreeka was one of the most meaningful stops on that voyage, because while her story dealt with a Palestinian woman (Nisreen Faour) immigrating to the US with her son only to be faced with a mixed American dream-slash-nightmare, the feelings within Dabis’ story felt very close to my own experience. It’s no surprise I awaited her next feature May in the Summer with bated breath.

Presented in the “Venice Days — Giornate degli Autori” sidebar at this year’s Venice Film Festival, May in the Summer is everything that I’d hoped it would be: profound, passionate, funny, romantic, empowering — the perfect half to the “diptych” Dabis admits she began with Amreeka, hinged by their common theme of “Otherness” and displacement. But where Amreeka dealt with the Arab-ness of Faour’s character as being “the Other,” May in the Summer brilliantly shows the challenges of being American, even Arab-American, in the Arab world.

May in the Summer also stars Dabis as the lead character May, with beloved actress Hiam Abbass playing the silently, and sometimes not so silently opinionated mother, Nadine Malouf and Alia Shawkat as May’s sisters and a cameo by favorite romantic hero Alexander Siddig, as Ziad.

I sat down with Dabis on a balmy afternoon on the Lido. Our talk felt more like catching up with a girlfriend than an actual interview and that’s because Dabis is never the filmmaker, or the movie star, opting instead for the more challenging role of being a real woman.

Check out the full interview on the Huffington Post.

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My Own Six Fave Arab Films of All Times

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

So I read a wonderful list on The Guardian and could not leave it at that. It’s inspiring to find more films and more to love and so I added my own voice to the conversation, on the Huffington Post. Here is a teaser of two, but you’ll have to read the whole piece to see the rest and why…

While I deeply admire filmmaker Omar al-Qattan, for obvious professional reasons but also for putting together his short guide of must-watch movies from the past 50 years of Arab cinema, I must also respectfully disagree with his list of “The 10 Best Arab Films,” published this past Saturday in The Guardian. As someone who believes, perhaps misguidedly but never quietly, in the healing power of cinema and the ability of filmmakers to help bridge the divide, I could not imagine any list of Arab cinema that does not include these six modern masters: Hany Abu-Assad, Yousry Nasrallah, Annemarie Jacir, Nadine Labaki, Haifaa al-Mansour and Ziad Doueiri.

It is in this vein, slightly irreverent to those poetic works of olden days, but also looking at what I like to call “cinema with a conscience” — where you might actually leave the plush, dark comfort of your theater seat a bit enlightened, a whole lot inspired but also craving to be a better person — that I created my own, albeit it shorter list. In absolutely no particular order.

CARAMEL (Lebanon/France, 2007)
Nadine Labaki

Labaki’s film was my in. I’m a relative newcomer to the magical world of cinema from MENA, having been brought up on a mixture of Woody Allen, the works of Fellini and Visconti, all sprinkled with a bit of Lina Wertmüller, and Caramel got me hooked from the first frame. It’s sensual, full of life and each time I watch it, it makes me proud to be a woman. It’s also the reason I yearned to travel to Beirut, and once I got there, I could see Labaki’s lushly constructed characters at every turn. I may be a romantic, but it’s a must watch for anyone who has yet to discover the beauty of Lebanese cinema. And its people. Labaki’s follow up, Where Do We Go Now? is also a greatly entertaining lesson in peace.

OMAR (Palestine, 2013)
Hany Abu-Assad

All right, I’m cheating a bit, because most could not have watched Abu-Assad’s masterpiece yet. It just premiered in Cannes and it’s releasing in France at the beginning of October. Hardly a convenient trip to your local multiplex. But I include it here, because Omar is complex, shocking and absolutely gorgeous to watch and I’m positive it will be featured in my top tens for as long as I’m allowed to make lists. While waiting for Omar‘s release, catch up with Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now which should be on any movie-lover’s list of must-see.

Read about the remaining films on the Huffington Post

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Ship of Theseus Opens July 19th Across India

Friday, July 12th, 2013

“… For they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” from Plutarch’s Theseus

Ship of Theseus writer and director Anand Gandhi is one of those remarkable people who seem to know nearly everything and yet doesn’t boast about it or try to make you feel small. In my usual vein, I found in him a great example of why filmmakers would make the best world leaders, because their vision goes so far beyond the usual trappings of politics and, very often, religion too.

I met Gandhi last December, during the Dubai International Film Festival. Yet, I only recently managed to watch the film, in Cannes, with the help of their sales agents Fortissimo Films. Now, thanks to filmmaker Kiran Rao, in association with UTV Motion Pictures, Ship of Theseus will enjoy a theatrical release in India starting July 19th. And the film just won top prize, the “Transilvania Trophy” at the Transilvania International Film Festival.

To say Ship of Theseus is wondrous is an understatement. It is thought-provoking, visually stunning and the three stories that make up the film stayed with me, forever embedded in my imagination.

Of course, a film like Gandhi’s is difficult to describe in a couple of sentences. As hinted by its title, Ship of Theseus deals with identity, and the impact of choices made, on our lives. As we struggle with decisions, and opportunities grabbed or missed, things that in a split second can alter our existence forever, Ship of Theseus shines a light on right and wrong, without making any assumptions, or giving away the correct answer.

Make sure to read the full interview with Anand Gandhi on The Huffington Post.

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