Dubai International Film Festival empowers female directors in the Middle East

Director Leyla Bouzid and star Baya Medhaffer receive the Muhr Feature Best Fiction award for their film As I Open My Eyes at the 2015 Dubai International Film Festival

While the region around it has descended in political chaos and religious strife, Dubai continues to flourish and prosper, becoming an oasis of harmony and progress, where the natives constitute less than 12% of its multinational inhabitants. Its international film festival (DIFF), which was launched 12 years ago, in order to enhance understanding and form a cultural bridge between East and West, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, has become a thriving hub for Arab and international cinema. This year’s edition, which opened with Golden Globe nominee Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” on December 9th and closed with Golden Globe nominee Adam Macky’s “The Big Short,” screened 134 films, out of which, over half are Arab. There is also a significant presence of female Arab directors, who are presenting 24 films in and out of competition.

“That’s nearly 30% of the total of Arab films, which is much more than the percentage -around 6%- of films made by women in Hollywood,” boasts DIFF’s Chairman Abdulhamid Juma, who is cognizant of the negative perception held in the West of Arab society and its treatment of women. “This is a build up of hundreds of years of politics and media. We don’t get insulted, instead we respond with the same medium, telling our stories in films that show ourselves as humans, like everybody else, who want to educate their children and live in peace. And hopefully when they see this information, they will change their attitude.”

Juma concedes though that the Arab society has too many problems of its own to deal with. “These are difficult times and the Arabs and Muslims need an internal dialogue. We have to be patient and do the right thing from the right angle, like promoting women directors, encourage younger generation to get into cinema,” he explains.

Indeed, nearly all the festival’s female-directed shorts and features have received support from  DIFF’s partner funds such as Abu Dhabi’s Sanad and Dubai’s Enjaz and ImageNation. These films include Palestinian Mai Masri’s “3000 Nights;” in which a Palestinian teacher tries to survive an Israeli women’s prison; Lebanese Danielle Arbid’s “Parisienne,” a coming of age tale of an Arab teenager in Paris; Tunisian Leyla Bouzid’s “As I Open My Eyes,” a story of a teenager who defies her parents in order to become a musician;  Lebanese Jihane Chouaib’s “Go Home,” in which a ballet dancer returns from Paris to her hometown in Lebanon and relives her traumatic past; Egyptian’s Hala Khalil’s “Nawara”, a heartbreaking tale of a poor maid hoping for a better life after the 2011 revolution; and Emirati Nahla Al Fahad’s “The Painted Veil,” a documentary about the source of the veil and its impact on Muslim women around the world.

All the aforementioned movies are anchored by female characters rebelling against conformity in their conservative society or against political and social constraints in order to fulfil their desires, ambitions and dreams. Drawing from real life events and defying societal taboos, these directors unravel the complexity of women’s daily existence and expose the challenges they face in all aspects of life.  Speaking to some of the hundreds of women attending the festival in different professional capacities, I’ve learned that the lives of  Arab women differ from one country to another.

Saudi Arabia actress/director, Ahd Kamel (Wajda, Rattle the Cage), for instance, was arrested and interrogated by the chastity police in her country simply because she was having a meeting in a public place with two male producers without the presence of a male relative, like brother or father. “We are ruled by ignorant fanatics,” exclaims Kamel, who is donning Jeans and T-shirt in liberal Dubai.

On the other hand, the director of the children film festival in Shariqa (an Emirati city near Dubai), Fatima Musharbak, who dressed in the traditional black robe with a scarf covering her hair, insists that she enjoys complete freedom in United Arab Emirates, expressing amazement at my suggestion that her dress evokes the thought of religious oppression. “This is our national traditional dress,” she smiles confidently. “Wearing it here, or anywhere else around the word, is my own choice.” Like young Musharbak, who travels the world, on her own, seeking films for her city’s festival, many women in Emirate hold powerful executive positions in private and public sectors. “We are not Saudi Arabia,” Fatima laughs. Actually, we would’ve both risked prosecution in Saudi Arabia for confabulating at 11pm at one of Dubai’s sprawling malls.

Yet, like the rest of the world, the movies receiving the loudest buzz at the festival are male-directed.  Those movies, supported also by Gulf funds, were Emirati Majid Al Nasri neo-noir thriller “Rattle the Cage,” about a man finding himself in police cage when he wakes up from his drunkenness; Ayman Jamal’s $30 million budget 3D animation “Bilal”, which is inspired by the real-life story of an African slave who was emancipated by prophet Muhammad and became an Islamic leader; and Golden Globe winner Hany Abu Assad’s from-rags-to-riches “Idol,” which is based on the life of the Palestinian wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, Mohammad Assaf, who won the popular Arab version of Pop Idol in 2013 and became a sensation in the Arab world.

Evidently there is an abundance of talent in the Middle East and North Africa and plenty of resources to support it, however, Arab directors  complain that their movies don’t reach their populations, due to the shrinking number, or sometimes the lack, of cinema theatres in their countries- except in the Gulf states, where cinema has in recent years witnessed a renaissance. Hence, without the support of the local market, many filmmakers feel that Arab cinema will remain stagnant. Juma, on the other hand, disagrees.

“I see this as an opportunity,” he beams. “It means that there’s a huge potential for growth. Bear in mind that most Arab countries are currently facing survival issues, which takes precedence over building movie theatres. But once they settle their problems, we will start seeing theatres, like China, where they are building 10 theatres a day.”

In the meantime, a solution to the Arab filmmaker’s predicament was offered by Netflix, whose chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, announced in a conversation via Skype from Los Angeles,  the expansion of his web streaming service in the Middle East, promising to acquire Arab titles and work with Arab directors on film and TV projects, about contemporary life in the Middle East. “Most depictions of life in the Middle East are either historical or almost caricatures of what life for Middle Easterners would be,” said Sarandos, whose team was on the ground at DIFF looking for movies to acquire and talent to collaborate with.

“Netflix is the new face of distribution in the Arab world, giving support and a platform to a lot of films,” Juma confirms. “But we are having other problems than distribution.”

Juma is fully aware that every time an Islamist terrorist commits a murder in the west, his years of hard labour and DIFF’s millions of dollars of investment in talent and films are wiped out instantly. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic, inviting western talent to experience Dubai -Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Deneuve, Terrence Howard and Michael B Jordan were among this year’s festival guests, and traveling the world spreading DIFF’s message of tolerance and understanding among people.


Joaquin Phoenix: Actors don’t deserve credit for their performance

Husam Asi with Joaquin Phoenix

Recently Joaquin Phoenix rattled the film industry when he dismissed the Academy Awards during an interview with Interview magazine, as ‘bullshit’ and the ‘worst-tasting carrot’ he had ever had in his whole life. But when I chat to him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills where he has come to promote his new movie The Master, the two-time Academy nominee denied using the word carrot.

“I don’t know what the context of the conversation was. I don’t remember,” he says, recomposing himself. “I think there’s a lot of truth and wonderful things that are said at the awards and sometimes there are candidates that really deserve the kind of recognition up there, but often times there is the elements of political campaigns that feel false. I think that kind of phoniness overwhelms me and I think that’s maybe what I meant, but, listen, there are wonderful artists that wouldn’t have the opportunity to create if it weren’t for the recognitions that they get so it’s certainly not all bullshit.”

Phoenix’s main disdain for awards stems from their seductive nature, which he thinks everyone is susceptible to. “It breeds a sense of awareness that is not good, particularly when that becomes the goal of actors. So there are some potential hazards that I think you have to be aware of to not let it go to your head,” warns Phoenix, his shirt crumpled, his hair uncombed, his beard thick.

Having said that, Phoenix appreciates the profound positive impact his Oscar nominations – for portraying Johnny Cash in Walk The Line (2006) and Commodus in The Gladiator (2001) – have had on his life. “It’s undeniable that my career would be in a very different place if it wasn’t for that experience,” he says. “Typically I haven’t been in films that have made an exorbitant amount of money and that’s typically how actors oftentimes are allowed to continue to do quality work as they are considered successful.”

Nonetheless, the social aspects of the nominations were too uncomfortable for him to bear. “I don’t want to be around 200 people where you just make small talk,” he exclaims, waving his hand dismissively. “You’re going like fuck, I just spent 8 hours at this thing and I was with all these people and I never talked to anybody really. I don’t like that feeling; you always kind of leave feeling a little empty.”

Having won the best actor award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Phoenix may have to do it all over again this year thanks to his Oscar-worthy performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, in which he plays a wayward WWII veteran, Freddie Quell, who falls under the spell of a charismatic sect leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But the star insists that an actor’s performance is not solely the fruit of his talent and it should be credited to the director who guides him through the filming, the director of photography who makes him look good and the editor who selects his best takes.

“Sometimes, I think actors don’t really deserve credit for the performances in some ways because I’ve seen performances shaped so much by the director,” Phoenix exclaims. “I guarantee you that if you saw the unedited film, I don’t think you would talk about my performance in a positive way. I think you might say that there were some moments that were good and then you’d say there were things so fucking bad that you can’t imagine that I’m a paid actor. So it’s hard for me ever to take credit for a performance,” he laughs.

Yet, Paul Thomas Anderson told me earlier that he offered the 37-year-old actor little direction, allowing him to freely form the character as he saw fit. “Paul’s really humble,” Phoenix chuckles, shaking his head. “I know that he feels that he’s very free and doesn’t control things but he does in a very subtle way to allow actors to feel that it is their own experience. I think that really good directors sometimes won’t directly say do this but they give you information that you can derive something about the character.”

Phoenix confesses that although he found Freddie’s yearning for meaning in his life and his uncertainty exciting, he had no idea how to approach him when he read the script. “There is a lot of ambiguity and so there’s a lot to try and develop. It was such an interesting character because I never really had any clear answers for what motivated him. Typically, actors have all those cliched stupid questions that actors ask and I didn’t really have that. I was mostly attracted to it because I didn’t know what it was, which was scary.”

But after listening to songs that were sent to him by Anderson, Phoenix began gradually to shape Freddie’s character emotionally and physically. “I can’t remember the songs, but every song was about these broken men and the lyrics clued me in.

“I wanted him to be physically and emotionally damaged so it was like the toughest case possible which would be appealing to The Master. That he seems like a hopeless case,” explains Phoenix, who has built his career inhabiting such conflicted and broken characters.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1974 to parents who were missionaries with the Children of God, Phoenix grew in a bohemian environment. Only when his parents left the cult and moved to the US, did he and his siblings, River and Rain, begin performing music, gaining attention in local contests, which eventually lead to TV roles for himself, when he was only 10 year-old, and for his brother River, who flourished into a promising star.

Ironically, Phoenix’s first major role in feature films was in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), which he took following the tragic death of his brother River from an overdose at the Viper Room, which left the young actor with deep emotional scars, but charged him with a new energy that propelled him to stardom.

In 2009, he raised eyebrows when he announced his retirement from acting in order to focus on rap music, and began appearing in public with a scruffy beard, uncombed hair and dark sunglasses, giving the impression that he was suffering a mental breakdown. The entire episode of his fall as a movie star and his rise as a rap artist was recorded by his best friend Casey Affleck in I’m Still Here, a supposed documentary that was released in 2010.

Later Phoenix strenuously denied that he had ever retired from acting or taken on rap music, insisting that it had been an act for I’m Still Here. “You got to be fucking kidding me,” he explodes in incredulous laughter. “I don’t do music, I never have.”

Nonetheless, the experience of making I’m Still Here has profoundly changed his perspective on acting and deepened his understanding of himself. “I think that when I was younger I tried to really control my performances and I tried to really plan things out and I took a certain pride in the amount of work that I had done. At some point I felt in some ways that I was preventing myself from discovering things that maybe were beyond my understanding at the time when I was studying it and that the best thing was to study and work and come up with my plan but to be completely open to whatever may happen in the moment and that really came to pass when I did I’m Still Here and then led into this movie.”

Listening to Phoenix speaking about acting with such passion, enthusiasm and deep appreciation, one would doubt that he had or would ever contemplate quitting his coveted craft. It’s evident, however, that he loathes the inevitable social aspects and the hazardous fame that come with it.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m this different thing or that I am like special in some way; it makes me feel funny,” he reflects. “I’m shy and it’s uncomfortable, and you navigate it because you have no choice,” he laughs in resignation.

A lot has been said about Phoenix’s eccentric personality and unpredictable behaviour, which is evidently not completely untrue, but what I also sensed in him was frustration at being misunderstood, dismay at being judged and a yearning to be left alone.