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.


Sundance movies explore the terrifying impact of authority on human behaviour

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Participating movies in the Sundance film festival are usually made on shoestring budgets and often by first-time directors, but they are rich in their substance, bold in their themes and unique in their subjects. This year, movies have touched on controversial issues such as nature vs nurture (Stockholm, Pennsylvania), homosexuality (I am Michael, D Train), teens in pornography (Hot Girls Wanted), religious cults (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and more. One topic that grabbed my attention was the perplexing transformative impact of authority on human mind and behaviour.

My interest in the topic sparked when I saw the Israeli documentary “Censored Voices”, which exposes atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers during the 6-day war in 1967, which ended with the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai peninsula, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. The disturbing revelations were made by soldiers from the left-leaning Kibbutzim in interviews conducted with them by renown author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira, 10-12 days after the conclusion of the war. This is the first time that the Israeli army consented to release them.

While the western world was praising their heroism for defeating the “monstrous” Arab armies with an astonishing speed, the Israeli soldiers were busy murdering Arab civilians and war prisoners and uprooting villagers from their homes and creating a refugee crisis in the Middle East. One of the interviewees says: “We were told not to show mercy, and to kill as many Arabs as we can.” So they did, shooting at soldiers and civilians alike. “We saw people walking in Sinai; they were not running, so we shot them. We could see them falling, but they didn’t run. So we killed them all,” another soldier confesses.

The first moral shock hit these soldiers when they met the Egyptian captives. “They were just kids. They kneeled down kissing our feet and begging for water. They were not the monsters we had imagined. Suddenly, we started to feel bad for them, but at the same time I thought that they would’ve done the same to us, had they been in our position,” the soldier says. He also reveals that Egyptian prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before they were executed and buried in the desert.

Another interviewee says that he witnessed a paratroopers’ battalion apprehending the men in one convoy of Syrian villagers, who were forced out of the Golan Heights to Syria, and executed them, leaving the women and children with their heavy chattel and domestic animals. The Palestinians in the West Bank were not spared either. The soldiers killed anyone who dared pop his head from a window or a roof top. “I said to myself ‘they are civilians, should we kill them or not? I didn’t think much about it. Just kill! Kill anyone your eyes could see,” the soldier says.

The interviewees sounded so traumatised by their own actions, that they compared their behaviour to the Nazis, who drove the Jews out of their homes to death camps. “We are not killers, but the war turned us all into killers,” laments one soldier. Interestingly though, the film’s director, Mor Loushai, firmly rejects this comparison when I speak to her, insisting that, unlike the Nazis, Israeli soldiers feel the pain of the other side. And when I suggested to her that the Israeli soldiers were acting then in the way that Islamic State (IS) fighters do now, she was loath to compare the two. Admittedly, unlike the Israeli soldiers, IS members gloat about their crimes. But that makes no difference to the victims; who are either dead or refugees. “War corrupts the human soul,” Loushai concedes. “But you must know that our soldiers had no choice and were fighting to defend their homeland from the attacking Arab armies.”

The truth is that each side in every conflict believes that they are just in their deeds. Do the Israeli soldiers possess higher innate moral codes than the rest of humanity or are they just as flawed as everybody else?

This question was tackled in two other Sundance’s movies: Michael Almereyda’s “The Experimenter,” and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Both movies are based on real scientific experiments conducted in the early 1960’s and early 1970’s respectively.

“The Experimenter,” tells the story of a Jewish psychologist, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), who devises an experiment in

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Yale university in order to answer the question of whether we could call the Nazi soldiers, who were following orders, accomplices in the Holocaust?

There are three participants in Milgram’s experiment: the Experimenter (the authority figure), the Teacher (the volunteering subject) and the Learner (a confederate, who informs the subject that he has a heart condition). The Teacher punishes the Learner, who sits in an adjacent room, with an electric shock every time he fails to answer a question correctly.  The intensity of the electric shocks increases gradually to 450 volts (the death blow) until the Learner provides the right answer. The Experimenter instructs the Teacher to proceed in fulfilling his role in the experiment in spite of the Learner’s screams of agony and pleading for mercy. Astonishingly, 65% of the subjects continued to electrocute the Learner until the death shock, albeit they did express their dismay at the experiment. The rest didn’t stop before the 300 volts shock, which inflicts excruciating pain. Furthermore, not a single one of them deigned to check on the Learner’s well-being before they had left.

Similar results of the same experiment were observed in different countries. All subjects, regardless of race, creed or gender, acted the same way, prompting Milgram to conclude that human nature can’t be relied on to prevent cruelty and immoral behaviour, when it’s instructed by a corrupt authority. The majority of people are willing to carry out actions, incompatible with their principles or morality, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” which features a psychological experiment headed by Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), goes a step further in exploring the impact of Authority on human behaviour in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

Twenty-four male students are selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in the prison. The guards are provided with actual prison guards uniforms, wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact with the prisoners, who wear uncomfortable ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle, and their names are substituted by numbers, which are sewn on their uniforms.

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

From the first day of the experiment, the guards, who are granted absolute power, act callously towards the prisoners. And when the prisoners rebel, the guards respond  sadistically with varied forms of psychological torture and humiliating practices, such as spraying prisoners with a fire extinguisher, depriving them of their meals, forcing them to urinate and defecate in a bucket in their cell, and then placing the bucket next to their dinner table, taking away their mattresses from their cells, leaving them to sleep on concrete, arbitrarily locking them in a solitary confinement and stripping off their clothes in order to degrade them. The prisoners react in three ways: resistance, total collapse or complete obedience, but all express their willingness to forfeit their pay in order to leave. Matters deteriorate to such an extent, the experiment has to be halted after 6 days. Disturbingly, the guards are disappointed.

At the end of the movie, a prisoner asks one of the guards: “Why did you act like an asshole?”. The guard replies: “I was doing my job, and I wanted to experiment with it, and see how far can I go. I am sure you would’ve done the same. Authority changes you.” And that was what the scientists confirmed: it seems that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behaviour.

Interestingly, one of the Israeli soldiers in “Censored Voices” reveals that the authority that the war has bestowed upon him over his Arab victims filled him with a sense of invincibility, and he derived joy from harassing and humiliating them. He was surprised by their total obedience even when they were ordered to leave their own homes and do the most degrading acts, adding that the Jews also submitted to the Nazis when they led them to the death camps.

This soldier was as young as the volunteering students in the Stanford Prison experiment. Is he a war criminal, or a victim of the situation or is he just obeying the commands of his superiors? And is he different  from a Nazi soldier or an ISIS terrorist or the infamous American Sniper or a Syrian soldier who murders his own people in order to save the throne of his president?

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Great performances but no clear winner at Toronto International Film Festival

Robert Downey Jr good performance could not save The Judge

Robert Downey Jr good performance could not save The Judge

In the last 10 days, hundreds of thousands of film fans and experts descended on Toronto charged with great expectations and hopes to discover next year’s potential Best Picture Oscar winner. Armed with their precious tickets, they stood patiently for hours in long lines in the sweltering heat, longing to witness film history again.

On its first day, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) unspooled the highly anticipated David Dobkin drama “The Judge,” about a lawyer (Robert Downey Junior) who have to confront his past and his relationship with his family when he returns to his hometown to defend his father judge (Robert Duvall), who has been accused of murder.

In spite of impressive performances from Robert Downey Junior and Robert Duvall, the film failed to meet the expectation of  festival goers, who swiftly pushed it out of the way and went scurrying around looking for magic elsewhere. The lukewarm reception of The Judge represented a setback for TIFF, considering that just a week earlier the opener of Venice Film Festival, The Birdman, had the industry and the press salivating and showering it with praise and Oscars predictions.

Nonetheless, hope was still alight at TIFF. After all, last year’s opener “The Fifth State,” was an abysmal failure, sinking into oblivion as soon as the final credits rolled out, but it was quickly followed by masterpieces such as “12 Years A Slave,” “Gravity,” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” which injected a new life into the festival and infused its attendees with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. This year, however, the pervading mood was a sense of disappointment and a longing for something unique and special that could ignite the engine for this year’s awards race.

Indeed, there hasn’t been an outstanding best picture contender, but there has been so many Oscar-worthy male performances that

Eddie Redmayne has a decent chance of snatching an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne has a decent chance of snatching an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

rendered best picture debate almost irrelevant. Instead, fans and experts were embroiled in a discussion about next year’s Academy winner in the best lead actor category.

What makes these performances so captivating is the fact that they are drawn from real life and bring to life real people, both dead and alive, with uncanny authenticity.  Some are so equally compelling that it’s virtually impossible to choose a winner among them. But judging from past Award winners, British actor Eddie Redmayne has a decent chance of snatching an Oscar this year for inhabiting the famed disabled physicist, Stephen Hawking, in Oscar-winning James Marsh “The Theory of Everything,” which, based on the book of Hawking’s wife, Jane, follows the physicist’s race against time and a cruel disease to unlock the mystery of the universe. Felicity Jones also delivers a poignant performance, portraying Jane Hawking whose undying love for her husband kept him alive and lead him to glory.

Another British genius, mathematician Alan Turing, who broke the German enigma code during WWII, which led the allies to victory over Germany, was brought to life in “The Imitation Game” by Benedict Cumberbatch, who, in one of the best works of his career, leads us in the emotional journey of Turing as he saves his country from a certain defeat, only to be later condemned and indicted by the same country for being homosexual.

In “Foxcatcher,” Steve Carell, who is known for making us laugh, instills fear and awe in the hearts of the festival audiences, in his portrayal of the dark, self-obsessed, John Du Pont,  one of the richest men in the US and the heir of the Du Pont family, who invites an Olympic wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother, David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), to his estate to train for the Wrestling World Championship, providing all their needs, but behind his altruistic veneer there is a self-destructive motive that leads to a horrific tragedy.

There were other impressive performances that kept the festival on its toes, including Bill Murray in the comedy “St Vincent,” Jack Gyllenhaal in the thriller “Night Crawler,” J.K Simmons in the music drama and Sundance Winner “Whiplash,” and Cannes’ winner Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.”

Steve Carell may get the Oscar for inhabiting John Du Pont in Foxcatcher

Steve Carell may get the Oscar for inhabiting John Du Pont in Foxcatcher

The question on people’s lips was: where are the ladies? Indeed there has been a dearth of outstanding performances from women. Even those whose name were dropped in conversations, such as the aforementioned Felicity Jones, Reese Witherspoon in “Wild” and Cannes winner Julianne Moore in “Maps to the Stars,” and “Still Alice” were not on par with their male counterparts. The hope is that other actresses will shine in upcoming releases and ignite the talk of best actress Oscar contenders.

No doubt TIFF is feeling the heat from other competing festivals, who are also trying to be relevant in the awards race. TIFF’s recent attempt to dissuade filmmakers from opening their films in Venice and Telluride film festivals, both held a week earlier, by disallowing their film from being screened in the first 4 coveted days, before the press and the industry leave the city, has backfired. Many important films, that had opened in other festivals, were jammed in a very tight schedule and others such as the solid Oscar contender, Birdman, have  skipped Toronto altogether and headed directly to The New York Film Festival.

That said, TIFF is not only about predicting awards, it’s about film commerce too, where movies are sold and projects are financed. Setting a record, Chris Rock’s “Top Five” sold to Paramount for $12.5 million. This kind of figure is an anomaly, for the rest of the deals averaged around $3 million. Among them was John Travolta’s heist movie “The Forger,” and Michael Douglas’s “The Reach”  for $2 million each. Clearly big star names don’t yield big money in the age of Hollywood blockbusters.

As TIFF wraps up its activities without providing clear runaways, eyes will be shifting to New York, where the festival will open this month with David Fincher’s  highly anticipated “Gone Girl”, and will also premiere Paul Thomas Anderson “Inherent Vice.”


Why does Toronto International Film Festival matter?

Last week, Venice Film Festival rocked the film industry with the opening of Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” which has become an instant favourite to dominate next year’s Oscars. Other movies such as Reese Witherspoon’s starrer “Wild” and Alan Turin’s biopic “The Imitation Game” generated no lesser enthusiasm following their premieres at the Colorado-based Telluride Film Festival.

Today, it’s Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) turn to start unveiling its roster of movies. North America’s biggest and most prestigious festival will open its 39th version with John’s The Judge, which follows a lawyer (Robert Downy Junior) as he returns home to defend his father – a judge – who is accused of committing a murder.

TIFF’s opener last year, the Wikileak’s founder biopic “The Fifth Estate” failed to impress audiences and the industry, and was quickly overshadowed by Venice’s and Telluride’s openers, “12 Years A Slave” and “Gravity.” Hence TIFF is under pressure to deliver headline-grabbing masterpieces in order to survive the competition from other festivals.

The problem is that most the highly-anticipated movies in TIFF have already been screened in other major festivals, such as Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” which tells the true story of an eccentric rich heir (Steve Carell), who lures an Olympic wrestler (Channing Tatum) and his brother (Mark Ruffalo) to move into his estate to train in for the Olympic games, with a tragic outcome. The picture was premiered at Cannes International Film Festival in May to a rapturous reception, sparking Oscar predictions for its cast.

Other Cannes favourites, such as Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a dark biopic of 19th-century British painter J.M.W Turner, and David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” have also found their way to the Canadian city.

Even Al Pacino, who will be honoured in Toronto, will be bringing his two movies “The Humbling” and “Manglehorn” after they opened in Venice earlier this week. In the former, he portrays an aging actor who falls for a young lesbian, and in the latter he plays an eccentric man who struggles to come to terms with the loss his beloved wife.

Other movies arriving in Toronto via Venice include: Abel Ferrara’s “Passonlini,” Rami Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” and David Olehofen’s “Far From Men.”

In addition to “Wild,” which follows a broken woman as she embarks on a rediscovery journey in the wild, and “The Imitation Game,” a biopic of the British WWII code breaker Alan Turing, several of Telluride’s selections will be featured in Toronto such as Andrew Piccolino’s “Good Kill,” in which we see Ethan Hawke playing a drone pilot who begins to question the morality of his work, and Jon Stewart’s directorial debut “Rosewater,” which depicts the ordeal of a journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) who was falsely accused of spying for the United States during the 2009 presidential elections in Iran.

Having not been forgotten since its premiere in January, Sundance Film Festival’s winner the musical drama “Whiplash, ” which depicts J.K. Simmons as a cruel music teacher tormenting an aspiring young drummer, is  also a guest at TIFF.

Having all the aforementioned titles being touted to feature in next year’s Academy awards’ different categories, prompted some to wonder whether TIFF has lost its exclusivity of being the Oscar compass? After all, many of the past Academy best picture winners were introduced to the world in Toronto, such as Slumdog Millionaire, Argo, The King’s Speech.

Unlike other festivals, Toronto remains the gates to the coveted North American market, and thus attracts more stars, filmmakers, sellers and buyers, distributors, publicists and media outlets from all the over the world. So while other festivals discover movies, Toronto acts as their springboard to commercial and awards success. Hence it’s incumbent on any awards-hopeful movie to be seen in Toronto, even if it wins accolades in big European festivals or smaller US ones, if they wish to attain global visibility and avoid sinking into oblivion.

Last year, both Oscar winners “12 Years A Slave” and “Gravity” opened in Telluride and Venice respectively, igniting an industry buzz, but it was TIFF that introduced them to the wider world and propelled them on their journey to the coveted Oscars, thanks to its far reaching media coverage and the massive presence of the global film industry.

Of course, TIFF will unspool its own premieres including: Jason Rietman’s “Men, Women and Children”; “This is Where I Leave You,“ starring Tina Fey and Jane Fonda; “The Theory of Everything,” with Eddie Redmayne portraying physicist Stephen Hawking; Bill Murray’s “St. Vincent“; and “Nightcrawler,” featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a drifter who becomes a freelance videographer.

Within the next 10 days, one or more titles will emerge from the mist of over 300 movies and rise above the fray. And whichever does, will be taking the long tumultuous journey to Oscar’s night next February.

TIFF will close with the British film “Little Chaos” from director Alan Rickman, who will also star in it next to Kate Winslet.

Overlapping Dark Themes at the Cannes Film Festival

Following a limping opening with the controversial biopic “Grace of Monaco,” that was panned by the critics, condemned by the royal family of Monaco, and avoided by its American distributor Harvey Weinstein who was glaringly absent from the red carpet, the 67th Cannes Film Festival picked up steam and offered a delicious feast of international movies that kept film fans and critics drooling for 10 days. The movies in the competition selection were so compelling that punters struggled to pick one clear winner.

Although the films were varied in their style and subjects, their themes were sometimes strikingly similar. Ken Loach’s “Jimmy’s Hall,” which depicts the Catholic church’s pernicious hostility towards liberal thinkers in 1930s Ireland that led to the extrajudicial deportation of activist James Gralton to New York, echoes elements from Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” a grim portrayal of life under strict Islamic law imposed by fanatic Islamist group, Boko Haram, who ruled Mali for over a year in 2012 before they were pushed out by French forces, and currently are holding a group of Nigerian young girls hostages.

Meanwhile, three movies dealt with aging artists, who refuse to accept the passing of time and defy its impact on their health and career. Mike leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” offers an unflattering portrayal of celebrated 19th century British artist J.M.W. Turner (brilliantly played by the festival’s Best Actor Award winner  Timothy Spall), who denies his children, sexually abuses his maid, badly treats others and recklessly rejects his doctors’ advice to take care of his health, While Cronenberg’s satire on Hollywood, “Maps to the Stars,”  and Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,”  both focused on middle-aged female actresses (played rivetingly by the festival’s Best Actress Award winner Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche respectively) mentally crumbling under their desperate attempts to assert their relevance and regain deserving roles that are being awarded to younger peers.

“Maps to the Stars,” expands beyond the subject of aging actors and exposes the moral decadence in Hollywood, where people are ruined by their own arrogance and vanity and where one’s tragedy is another’s celebration. This subject resonated in Bennett Miller’s real-life wrestling drama “Foxcatcher,” in which a vain, self-possessed tycoon, John Du Pont (Steve Carell) inflicts pain and destruction on himself and olympic wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz, who come from a humble background.

By and Large, films in this year’s prestigious film festival across the different competitions dealt with dark subjects, grim themes and tragic events. Un Certain Regard competition was no different, with offering like the Hungarian winning film “White Dog,” a dystopian Canine thriller that delves into contemporary ethnic cleansing, and one of the most pre-festival hyped movies and later one of the festival’s grandest disappointments, Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, a bizarre violent tale of a fractured family trying to survive in violent Detroit.

A particularly dark film from the out of competition official selections was post-apocalyptic thriller “The Rover” from Australian David Michod, in which life is cheap and humanity is stripped off its values as loners Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce wreak havoc and leave a mountain of dead bodies on their road trip to seek revenge from a gang of thieves,

In spite of their grim themes, the majority of the movies in the main competition selection have found buyers, in addition to winners in other competition. “White God” was snapped up instantly by international buyers when it was announced as the winner of Un Certain Regard Friday evening. Having said that, other films, including the ones in the market, attracted little attention, and many left the festival empty-handed.

How New Wave was François Truffaut’s cinema?

In its 18th edition, Colcoa (City of Lights, City of Angels) Film Festival, which is considered the biggest French film festival
outside of France, screening this year 61 films this year, celebrated the legacy of iconic French director, François Truffaut, who passed away 30 years ago, with a screening of one of his movies The Man Who Loved Women (1975), ensued by a panel discussion that injects doubt into his allegiance to the New Wave movement that he had spearheaded.

Like in many of Truffaut’s films, The Man Who Loved Women, a comedic tale of a serial womaniser, Bertrand, whose obsession with the opposite sex leads to his demise, has an underlying autobiographical resonance. In this case, the flashback sequence of Bertrand as a child struggling to connect with his mother clearly refers to Truffaut’s own loveless childhood, which was the topic of his feature debut The 400 Blows (1959), which garnered him the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival in 1959.

Ironically, it was his difficult childhood that impelled him to seek refuge in cinemas from the exigencies of reality, and later became a source of inspiration for his films. Speaking at the panel discussion, his daughter Laura Truffaut said that she had met her grandparents only once when she was 8, because they didn’t like children.

Truffault began his professional career as a film critic  for Cahiers du Cinema, where he lambasted the contemporary traditional French cinema, for its overt sentimentality and lack of innovation. Panelist Oscar-winning director Claude Lelouch, whose film We Love You, You Bastard opened the festival, said that Truffaut’s writing often dismayed him because it disparaged some of his favourite classic directors.

Soon, the young critic swapped his pen for a camera and became one of the pioneers, alongside other critics most notably Jean-Luc Godard, of the New Wave Cinema movement, which rejected the conventional filmmaking methods and espoused shooting on location and using natural light.

He became the face of the New Wave movement, because the world became aware of it thanks to the sensational success of his film The 400 blows at Cannes Film Festival in 1959.

Lelouch, though, insists that the New Wave movement would’ve not existed had it not been for the new developments in film technology, particularly fast film ASA 400, which enabled filmmakers to shoot in natural light, as much as paint tubes had enabled impressionist artists to paint outdoors. “It was not new cinema; but rather a new cinematography,” he stresses.

New Wave cinema, however, was also as innovative in its style and storytelling as Jean-Luc Godard demonstrated in his revolutionary, Trufault-scripted,  film Breathless (1961), which featured jump cuts, hand-held camerawork, a disjointed narrative, an improvised musical score, dialogue spoken directly to camera, frequent changes in pace and mood, in addition to the use of real locations.

“Godard, not Truffaut, personifies the New Wave,” said Lelouch, who is seemingly not fond of the Godard. “I learned from Truffaut how to make use of the camera and from Godard how not to use it,” he chuckled. “Truffaut directs the camera as if it were an actor, an invisible one, but for the Godard the camera is just an extra.”

Lelouch’s comment about Godard was met few groans from the audience. Nonetheless, one couldn’t deny the evident disparity in the two new wave directors filmmaking, in form and substance.

While Godard continued to audaciously experiment in his films, Truffaut retreated into classical methods of filmmaking, following the commercial failure of Shoot The Piano Player (1960); Godard’s cinema was poetic and rebellious and Truffaut’s was lyrical. Furthermore, Truffaut fiercely rejected Godard’s use of cinema to promulgate his radical political views, while the latter accused him of telling lies in his movies. The relationship between the two men reached a breaking point following the release of Truffaut’s Oscar-winner Day for Night in 1973, and they never spoke to each other again.

“My father’s movies were sentimental,” Laura confirmed. “They dealt with real people and their daily life, human relations and love.”

Lelouch nods his head in agreement. “It’s interesting that Truffaut ended up embracing the classic cinema that he had so aggressively attacked.”

Considered one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation and an inspiration for the younger ones, Truffaut made 25 films, 5 short of his declared goal. He still had numerous films in preparation when he died from a brain tumor at the age of 52.

What is buzzing in the 30th Sundance Film Festival?

Every year, tens of thousands of filmmakers, film lovers, buyers, executives and party goers flock to Park City in Utah, braving the subzero temperature, to attend the Sundance Film Festival, which has become the epicentre of independent cinema since it was founded 30 years ago by Robert Redford in order to give a platform for unknown filmmakers to show and promote their movies.

In its early years the festival was small and intimate. Only hardcore film fans attended and feasted on substance movies, that never saw the light of day after the festival. But that changed in 1989, when Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape screened there to critical acclaim, and then was picked up by movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, and turned a hefty profit in the box office.

The commercial success of Sex, Lies and Videotape piqued Hollywood’s attention. Since then, executives and buyers flocked to Park City every January to sift through the festival loot of movies made for a fraction of the cost of studios productions and turned them into profitable commodities and elevated their unknown makers to stardom. Some of the lucky ones are now the leaders of the film business, such as The Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David O. Russell, and many more. But the sobering reality is that those are a minority; a minority that seems to be shrinking every year.


This year, nearly 300 films and documentaries have been screened in the festival. However, the movies that are getting the buzz and attention are not the unknowns and obscure, but rather the star-studded ones, that audiences jostle and shove to see and the media clammer to review and interview their stars.

The festival opened with Whiplash,  starring Miles Teller as a drum student at a New York music conservatory where the reigning teaching god is a sadistic purist named Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Directed by Damien Gazelle, the film made a splash at the festival due to his impressive direction, and was napped by Sony Classics.

The heat of Whiplash fizzled quickly, prompting festival goers to seek inspiration somewhere else, and they found it in Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. The movie charts the life of a Texan boy from the age of 7 to 18.

Meanwhile, previously hyped movies such as Maya Forbes’ dramedy Infinity Polar Bear, which tells the story of a bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo) raising two young girls with his wife (Zoe Saldana) and  Frank, which features invisible Michael Fassbender playing a tensely charismatic leader of an indie rock group who never takes off his large fake plaster head. Both films stand out for the performances of their stars, failed to attain universal praise.

The former Twilight star, Kristen Stewart, has also received mixed reviews for playing a tough prison guard who forms a friendship with an inmate in Camp X-ray. The problem is not really in her delivery but with the story, which is utterly focused on the two characters’ interaction, leaving little time to explore their environment, rendering its Guantanamo setting redundant.

Sundance veteran Lynn Shelton came back with a commercial film, Laggies, which tells the story of 28-year-old Megan (Keira Knightley) who is trying to find meaning in her life. Another veteran, Gregg Araki brought his 9th Sundance film, A White Bird in Blizzard, which follows teenage Kat (Shailene Woodley) as she comes of age amidst the disappearance of her disturbed trainwreck of a mother (Eva Green). Ira Sachs was also there with Love is Strange,  which enjoyed a warm reception.

Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here was another headline-grabbing film, not for its merit but for its crowd financing on the Kickstarter website.  Some of the donors fans showed up at the premiere, demanding the promised tickets. Braff, himself, failed to thank his supporters in his opening speech. Reportedly, he flew to Park City from New York in first class. Having sold his movie, he was probably able to afford a first class ticket back home.

In contrast, Anne Hathaway (Song One) and Brit Steve Coogan (A Trip to Italy) were cramped with us in the economy section of a sold-out flight back to LA.  Their attendance had helped their movies to get noticed, but not find a buyer.

The documentaries fared slightly better. Although celebrities’ movies such as Fed Up from celebrity broadcaster Katie Couric grabbed the headlines, there were others that drew audiences solely for their merit and substance, such as Return To Homs, a harrowing tale of a young Syrian, a goalkeeper who turns into a freedom fighter. The director Talal Derki takes us inside the battle, where we witness a city being leveled to the ground and civilians being murdered arbitrarily. It feels like a Hollywood thriller, but it’s real.

Unfortunately, the press screening of Return to Homs was not a busy one. The Sundancers no doubt were probably lining up for hours in the freezing cold longing to see one of the star-studded pictures.

Unlike previous years, when bidding wars over movies have erupted among buyers, there has been a dearth of acquisitions this year and the pay was the lowest in Sundance’s history -less than $3 million. Furthermore, all the purchased movies featured stars in their cast.

It hasn’t been a completely a lost battle for obscure filmmakers. A vanguard of VOD outlets, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, has invaded Park City seeking to enrich their online libraries.  However, their pay is so humiliatingly meager, one filmmaker moaned that he wouldn’t be able to afford his rent with this money.

Sundance Film Festival hasn’t discovered  a Tarantino or a Soderberg this year, leaving experts scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Some blamed it on the dizzying number of movies and others on lack of originality. Whatever the reason, hundreds of hopeful filmmakers will be leaving empty-handed and their movies will probably be forgotten. Perhaps, the lesson is that quality on its own doesn’t sell, you must have a hook in your movie, in order to break through the gigantic clutter. Otherwise you better feature a star to stand by you on the red carpet, even in the mecca of independent film.

Toronto Film Festival ignites the race to the Oscars

Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity

In the last few years, The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has increasingly become more of a barometer for Oscar contenders than a platform to discover small movies that often rely on festivals to gain some attention. Films are not measured by creative quality or commercial viability anymore but by their Oscar potential – a fact that was not missed, and even encouraged, by Hollywood Studios, who dispatch every executive and publicist in their armouries to form formidable attack lines with the hope that will eventually win them a trophy on the Oscars night next year. They are ubiquitous, feeding the information-hungry press with tidbits about their movies, leading talent from one interview to another, throwing glitzy parties in Toronto’s glamorous venues, where they urge the tipsy guests to believe that their movie is so good, it merits an Oscar.

Unlike the previous years, when one picture rose above the dizzying foray of over 250 movies and ended up winning the industry’s most coveted trophy,  the 38th edition of TIFF had several potential contenders this year, hence academic conversations often led to a passionate argument among fans of different movies. The awards war has indeed begun and it’s going to be ferocious this year.

One of the movies that produced a lot of buzz and ignited heated debate was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which tells the harrowing story of an African-American who has to endure the hardship of slavery for 12 years before he is freed by his white friends. Some audiences were dismayed by the sadistic violence portrayed in the movie, yet others hailed it as a bold depiction of the true hideous nature of the 18th century slavery in the US.

This was not the first time the British director has commanded such attention. A couple of years ago, his film Shame fired up Venice Film Festival, gaining a best actor award for its lead Michael Fassbender, but that fire dimmed quickly and the film eventually lost steam in its Oscar race. Will 12 Years a Slave do better?

A lighter and less controversial film was Ron Howard’s car-racing thriller Rush, which follows two Formula One legends British James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda as they battle each other to win the world championship. The film was universally embraced and admired for its verisimilitude and the performances of its leads, Chris Hemsworth who plays James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl, who looked and sounded like the real Niki Lauda, who flew himself to Toronto in his own airplane from Austria, arriving two hours before the premiere, and attend the screening and the after party. Amazingly, when I left the party at 2 am, the 70 year-old racer was still entertaining the guests. Yet, when I sat to interview him at 8am, he was bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. After the interview, he flew himself back to Austria.

Daniel Bruhl didn’t excel only in portraying the legendary Niki Lauda, he also delivered a riveting performance in the wikileaks drama, The Fifth Estate, in which

Daniel Bruhl stars in Rush and The Fifth Estate

he plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who co founded the whistleblower website with Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film, which opened the festival didn’t live up to the preceding hype and quickly ceded to other competing high profile movies.

The performance of the year, however, was delivered by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, in which he plays a real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, who defies conventional medicine and stays alive for 7 years after being diagnosed with HIV in the early eighties, by relying on a banned alternative treatment. McConaughey, who shed 40 pounds for the role, is virtually unrecognisable as he leads us into the fascinating emotional journey of a man who refuses to die.

Away from the hardship of earth, Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi Gravity takes us to the silent loneliness of the heavens, where Sandra Bullock gets stranded in meteor-infested space after her partner George Clooney. Fresh from its dominance at The Venice Film Festival, Gravity continued to awe audiences and critics alike with its stunning visuals.

More high profile movies vying for Oscar attention were star-studded August: Osage County about a dysfunctional family, kidnapping thriller Prisoners, and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs for 11 days, but in reality most stars and industry professionals depart the city after 5 days, because all the big movies are screened in the festival’s early days.  So on my last day,  I went to check out the Palestinian movie, Omar, which had won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was a breath of fresh air, because the story, not the stars,  was the centre of attention. Following the screening, I attended the modest after-party, which lacked the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood bashes, but it was filled with movie lovers instead of star spotters.

It was not all doom and gloom for independent movies. In fact, it has been very bright this year with distributors competing over titles and paying handsome fees for their finds. Film mogul, Harvey Weinstein coughed up $7 million for Can a Song Save Your Life? 12 hours after its well-received world premiere. A similar sum was paid by Focus Features for Jason Bateman’s black comedy Bad Words. These deals are double last year’s top Toronto transaction of $3.5 million for The Place Beyond the Pines.

As The Toronto International Film Festival draws its curtains, Hollywood gets ready to march into a new battlefield that will eventually lead the victors to the that golden prize, the Oscar.

Lebanese and Iranian Directors take the spotlight at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Makhmalbat (right) at the Jerusalem Film Festival

The Jerusalem Film Festival, held at the Cinematheque, a modern four-story building built into a hill overlooking the walls of the old city, is the most important film event in Israel. In the last 30 years, it has screened hundreds of Israeli movies, some of which went on to win major awards around the world, including the coveted Oscars. This year, however, the stars of the festival are directors from Israel’s most hostile nations: Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Lebanese Ziad Doueiri.  Both directors are screening their movies, The Gardener and The Attack respectively, which they shot in Israel itself.

The executive director of the Festival, Alesia Weston, beamed with unbridled pride when she told me that Makhmalbaf, was attending the Festival as its guest of honour. But she couldn’t conceal her frustration and sadness for Doueiri’s absence. “We really wanted him to be here with us,” she lamented. Weston, who ran the Sundance Feature Film Lab before she took the helm of the festival 2 years ago, was also instrumental in bringing Doueiri’s project to fruition, helping in securing funds and resources.

Speaking to Doueiri in LA, before I left for Jerusalem, he told me that he was eager to come to the festival and join his Israeli and Palestinian production team at the film’s premiere, but doing so would certainly lead to his imprisonment upon his return to his hometown, Beirut. In fact, he is already in trouble with the Lebanese authorities for violating the 1955 Lebanon Israel boycott by shooting in Israel and working with Israeli crew and cast. His film, The Attack, has been banned in Lebanon and ignored by the rest of the Arab world. “This is hypocrisy,” he cried. “Why don’t they ban films made by Palestinian filmmakers, who make similar films in Israel and sometimes with Israeli money?”

The Attack, follows an award-winning Israeli-Palestinian surgeon, who discovers that his Christian wife was the suicide bomber responsible for the blast that killed 17 diners in Tel Aviv, where he lives. Shocked and incredulous, he heads to the West Bank to confront those who recruited her.

The Israeli audience was by and large impressed by Doueiri’s take on the subject, and rewarded him with a rapturous applause, albeit some  saw as too far-fetched, saying that there had never been an Israeli-Palestinian suicide bomber, let alone a Christian or a married woman.

The subject of suicide bombing is a very sensitive issue to Israelis, who regard it as a despicable act of terrorism, and the Palestinians, who hail it as an heroic form of resistance to occupation, something that Doueiri was conscious of, he told the audience over Skype from Paris, following the screening.

The film indeed presents fully rounded characters and benefits from a solid script, compelling performances and arresting visuals, but sometimes it lacks authenticity, for the Israeli characters are too forgiving to the suicide bomber’s husband, who was inconceivably too impervious to the suffering of his people. A Palestinian doesn’t need to go on a journey to understand what motivates suicide bombers to commit their act. Every Palestinian, regardless of their perspective on the issue, knows the answer.

Doueiri had visited Israel three times and spent ample time in Tel Aviv before he embarked on making the movie in order to understand the psyche and mentality of the Israelis. “I learned, you are just as fragile as we are, just as insecure as we are,” he told the Israeli Audience. “It humanises that element, of people who were viewed as an enemy. There is a sad reality on the ground. This is one aspect of Israel. I’ve seen another aspect that is terrific.”

Born in south Lebanon, Doueiri had to endure the unforgiving wrath and devastating might of the Israeli army that had wrecked havoc in his country for decades of relentless wars. He also had some unpleasant incidents with the Israeli Army while filming in the West Bank, yet his perspective on Israelis has completely changed. “I love all the Israelis that I’ve worked with,” he told me.

Doueiri’s affectionate words towards the Israelis prompted the moderator to quip that “we should make films with the enemy in order to bring peace between nations.” However, The Arab audience, who are deluged with TV images depicting the brutality of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians, will most likely not share Doueiri’s new favourable perceptions of Israelis. In fact,  humanising them has no doubt contributed to the banning of the movie in the Arab world. So far, the only deal for commercial distribution has been secured solely in Israel.

Doueiri, however is undeterred by the disparaging attacks on his work by Arab critics, telling his Israeli audience before he hung up that he hoped to make another movie in Israel.

The Attack is the only Arab movie to premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival, because many arab filmmakers, including Oscar-nominated Palestinian director, Hany Abu Asad, whose recent film Omar had won the Jury award at Cannes Un Certain Regards in May, boycott Israeli cultural events. Amazingly, an Israeli director, Udi Alone, who spoke after the showing of his own documentary, Art/Violence, expressed his support for boycotting Israeli Cultural events, as long as Israel continued to occupy the Palestinian territories.

Unlike Doueiri, not only was Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film, The Gardner, which dwells on religion in general and the Baha sect in particular, not banned in Lebanon for having been shot in Israel, it was even accorded the Gold Aleph Best Documentary award at the Beirut International Film festival.

It was the first time that Makhmalbaf, director of films including “Kandahar” and “Boycott” presented a film at an Israeli film festival. Receiving a standing ovation from the audience at the screening of The Gardner, Makhmalbaf said that he arrived to Israel in order to provoke the Iranian authorities, who have banned him from Iran since the 90’s.

Watching the Israelis’ rapturous reception of Makhmalbaf and Doueiri, one could sense their thirst to connect with and see how they were perceived by the other side. But these directors have left their countries a long time ago. Doueiri has lived in LA and Paris since the 80’s and Makhmalbaf has lived in Paris since the 90’s, hence their perception of Israel has no doubt soften by their exposure to international point of views, hence their perspectives is not truly reflective of their own nations.

Ironically, the harshest criticism of Israel comes from its own filmmakers. In a documentary titled Wild West Hebron, Nissim Mossek unveils the ugly face and ruthlessness of Jewish settlers, who illegally usurp the land of impoverished Palestinian farmers with the protection of the Israeli army, and the support of the settler-infected Israeli court system.  Another documentary, Art/Violence, charges Israel with systematically attempting to annihilate Palestinian culture. A narrative film, Inchalla, presents the harsh reality of living under the Israeli brutal occupation of Palestine.

There are more such movies at the festival that fearlessly expose the ills of the Israeli society and their destructive consequences on the Palestinian people, yet they are received with reflection and admiration from the festival’s audience. I was astonished when Alone was applauded for calling for boycotting Israeli cultural events. Even in the United States, such harsh criticism of Israel can have sever repercussions on artists, hence I was truly impressed by the maturity of the Israeli freedom of expression.

This kind of maturity will take a long time for the Arab world, which is still struggling for emancipation from the shackles of  despotic regimes and for enlightenment from the darkness of religious fanaticism, to reach.

Having said that, the audience attending the festival are mostly left-leaning liberals, who, judging from the Israeli political landscape that is dominated by right-wing extremists, are a minority in the Jewish state. In fact, a 10 minute walk from the Cinematique over the hill and through the ancient walls of the old city of Jerusalem, plunges you deeply into a vicious conflict of mistrust and hatred that seems light years away from the festival’s utopic atmosphere. You can literally sense the simmering tension between Arabs and Jews, who are jostling to fit in the confines of this ancient city. Palestinian residents told me that they had been squeezed out by Israeli settlers, who are on a religious mission to take over the holy city.

As I walked down the ancient market, late in the evening, a group of Palestinian youth, suspecting that I was Jewish, shouted at me in Hebrew “get out of here, Jew!” and, when I arrived at the Ben Gurion airport to catch my flight back to the US, I was lead to a secluded room, where a security guard scrutinized every item I was carrying and every piece of garment I was wearing. My Israeli passport was to no avail. Unfortunately, mistrust in the holy land will continue to underpin the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and films are not going to change that.


Lack-Lustre Rome Film Festival Divides Critics with its Winning Choice

Sylvester Stallone brings muscles to Rome Film Festival

When Marc Muller, the former artistic director of Venice of Film Festival, which attracts the brightest stars from Hollywood and beyond, took over Rome Film Festival this year, many expected to see Rome glittering with the most luminous names in the film business, but having spent 5 days at the festival, I didn’t glimpse any sparkles in the Italian capital, other than Sylvester Stallone, who was there to unveil his latest action flick Bullet to the Head.

Attending one of the premieres, I could sense the despair on the long faces of the star-spotters who lined up the red carpet silently, armed with their cameras, while their eyes vainly searched for a familiar face among the fashionably-dressed marching guests, who quickly vanished into the colourfully-lit Auditorium Parco Della Musica.

Even the earlier promise of bringing director Quentin Tarantino and his new movie Django Unchained didn’t materialise, prompting criticism of Muller for failing to attract big names to the festival, which lead to a 15% decline in ticket sales compared with last year.

Nonetheless, the festival offered an impressive number (over 59) of world premieres from  international filmmakers, that competed for awards in different categories.

An Italian erotic film “And They Call It Summer”, which was booed during its screening took the two top awards at the Festival: the best director for Paolo Franchi and best actress for Isabella Ferrari, who was heckled with cries of “shame!” when she collected her award at the closing ceremony on Saturday.

The film tells the story of a married man who is unable to have sex with his beloved wife, yet harbours a passion for prostitutes.

Larry Clark wins the top award

Larry Clark wins the top award

Australian Jury member, PJ Hogan,  revealed that the Jury was as passionately divided as the audience about the movie. “Good or bad, this film got under you skin,” he said. “Many of you yelled at the screen during it, but many others stood up and applauded it at the end.”

The top prize, however, went to American cult director Larry Clark’s “Marfa Girl”, which deals with adolescent passions, sex and drugs.  The director, who has dealt with similar subjects in his previous movies, such as Kids and Ken Park, said that he would release his film on his website instead of the traditional theatrical release.

The best actor award went to French actor Jeremie Elkaim for “Hand in the Hand” and a special jury prize went to Claudio Giovannesi’s “Ali Has Blue Eyes.”

The paucity of blockbusters and the dearth of star power at the 7-year-old festival is a testament that it has a long way to go to catch up with its cousin in the north, the Venice Film Festival.