Blazing Canadian ‘fires’ extinguished by frosty Russian ‘souls’ in Abu Dhabi

Joseph Fahim
12 Min Read

The early days of the sixth Abu Dhabi Film Festival have been hampered by several glitches: schedule overlapping, delayed screenings and disproportionate attendance (a bizarre, ongoing trend).

The quality of the films on offer has been mixed, ranging from the sublime (Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls”) to the unwatchable (Vibeke Løkkeberg’s “Tears of Gaza”). Nothing truly revelatory has been screened so far.

Off-target adaptations
The big duds arrived on the first days, the biggest of which was Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” (Fires), Canada’s entry in the best foreign film Oscar race. Artificial, awfully convoluted and tremendously sappy, Villeneuve’s third feature was nevertheless warmly received by the uninformed western press when it premiered last month at the Venice Film Fest.

Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s acclaimed play, Belgian actress Lubna Azabal (“Paradise Now”) plays an aging mother who sends her young adult twins Jeanne and Simon to an unidentified spot in the Middle East to find their long-lost father and brother.

Bracketed by Tarantino-esque chapters displayed in big flashy red font, the film appears to be set during the Lebanese Civil War (armed conflict between Christians and Muslims is at the center of the story). Villeneuve doesn’t explicitly clarify that the story lies outside the frame of history, and it’s natural to assume otherwise. That’s why me, and my fellow Arab critics, felt lost, spending the larger part of the film questioning the locations, the historical references and the mishmash of accents.

Villeneuve constructs his film as a puzzle, throwing bits and pieces of shocking revelations for the twins to assemble along the way. As intriguing as the structure may be, Villeneuve fails to pull it off. Flashbacks and present-day events converge indistinctly to the point that it’s impossible to make out what’s happening and where.

There’s a drastic difference between clever structure and narrative clarity. What “Incendies” lacks is the latter, and Villeneuve proves to be too unskilled to handle Mouawad’s heavy, complex text.

The film’s biggest transgression, and the chief reason for its failure, is its uncalculated mix of genre. In essence, “Incendies” is an overwrought, heavy-handed melodrama — with an implausible ending courtesy of Khaled Youssef — realized via a visual style that veers towards unadorned cinéma vérité. Both tone and style thus feel not only artificial, but off the wall. The final message of the film — let’s all forgive and love each other and war is bad — ultimately rings hollow.

Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (“No Man’s Land”) returns to his pre-war hometown in the amiable, but rather forgettable, domestic comedy “Circus Columbia.”

Set in a small village at the eve of the Yugoslav Wars in 1992, veteran Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic plays Divko Buntic, a former spy who returns home with his young fiancé (Jelena Stupljanin) to reclaim his past life. Unresolved business with his wife (Mira Furlan) and the attraction of his estranged son (Boris Ler) to his girlfriend advances the plot to its poignant, if predictable conclusion.

Tanovic touches upon the social and the political malaises of the era without digging deep enough to unveil its roots or real consequences; a microcosm of communist-era Bosnia Tanovic’s village is not. That’s why when the inevitable end arrives, announcing the beginning of the end of this world, it feels like a rushed afterthought.

Initially promising to be an absurd Kusturica-like vivacious comedy, “Columbia” never truly soars, bogged down by a straightforwardly tedious narrative that leaves no room for contemplation.

Same criticism goes for “Never Let Me Go,” Mark Romanek’s disappointing adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly-acclaimed novel.

Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) plays Kathy H, our guide to Ishiguro’s mysterious dystopian universe whose secrets begin unraveling as she and her two school buddies, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), learn to confront their destiny, past mistakes and the pitiless world they find themselves thrown in.

Ishiguro’s haunting, sad novel is a thought-provoking rumination on the inability of fate, illusiveness of love and what makes us human. At the heart of his story is a philosophical question Ishiguro poses with subtlety and intelligence; a feat Romanek succeeds in matching.

The main problem with Romanek’s adaptation is that, unlike the book, his characters never really come alive; a major anomaly brought on by the extensive condensing of many details in the book.

A number of critics accused “Never Let Me Go” of being “ponderous.” But if ponderous means lyrical, reflective and evocative, then the film is not as ‘ponderous’ as I would’ve liked it to be. Romanek expertly sustains Ishiguro’s mournful, melancholic mood with beautiful, haunting imagery reminiscent of Terrance Malick. Yet he fails to find a balance between plot, image and characterization, resulting in an admirable effort that, nonetheless, feels lacking.

Shock Value
The worst film I’ve had the unfortunate luck to watch this year at Abu Dhabi (and the only film I’ve walked out of), is Norwegian director Vibeke Løkkeberg’s “Tears of Gaza;” an exploitive documentary chronicling the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2008/09.

Constructed almost entirely of footage of the Gaza massacre, Løkkeberg offers no tangible context for her pictures, bombarding the viewers with endless graphic, grisly images employed for pure shock value. When Løkkeberg — who didn’t do much but assemble these footages — is not assaulting the viewers with her images, she briefly shifts her focus on three little children — shot in intrusive close-ups — in a dismal endeavor to inject her film with some humanity.

There’s a fundamental difference between filmmaking and journalism. Filmmaking entails art, storytelling and distinctive perspective, elements absent from Løkkeberg’s so-called film. What we get instead is journalism of the worst kind: shallow, repetitive, artless, unjustifiably brutal and misguided; the kind of impersonal, trite features populating news sites and Youtube.

Løkkeberg’s intention is to raise awareness of the Palestinian Gaza and show the world what really happened at the end of 2008, but the indolent approach she adopts ultimately does more of a disservice to the cause than support it.

Festival sunshine
While all aforementioned films can be regarded as half-hearted efforts, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls,” on the other hand, is a seamless, sublime piece of art; a beguiling poem about death, desire and fading cultures.

A road movie, Fedorchenko follows two middle-aged men, Aist (Igor Sergeyev), a factory worker from the Meryan tribe, and his boss Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), who embark on a trip to cremate the latter’s wife.

Replete with poignant, symbolic immaculately framed imagery supplemented with spoken poetry, Fedorchenko reenacts the Meryan burning rites in details, juxtaposing the cremation rituals with Miron’s erotic memories of his wife and Atis’ musings on his deceased father. Everything in Fedorchenko’s world coexists side-by-side: life and death, love and selfishness, joy and pain.

Fedorchenko’s images are both imposing and delicate at the same time and the folksy ambiance of the picture recalls the works of great Georgian director Sergei Parajanov (“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”). This is a film that penetrates the senses, refusing to let go of the viewers long after it’s finished. “Silent Souls” is a definitive standout among a frustratingly average selection.

On a far lighter note, François Ozon put a little, and rare, ray of sunshine with “Potiche,” one of the biggest crowd-pleasers in this year’s edition. Effervescent, bright and laugh-out-loud funny, Ozon pairs France’s greatest living film icons — Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu — for this adaptation of Pierre Barillet’s popular 1970s’ play about a submissive trophy wife (Deneuve) who replaces her right-wing, unfaithful husband (Fabrice Luchini) as the director of a factory following a clash with disgruntled striking workers.

Her path later crosses with mayor/ex-lover Depardieu, who may or may not be the father of her elder son (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier).

Broadly comic in tone, Ozon’s is a deliciously campy send-up of everything 70s: films (circular fades and split screens are all over the place), music (Bee Gees, tacky disco numbers) and fashion (feathery coifs, turtleneck sweaters). It’s also homage to great French director Jacques Demy (his signature pink umbrellas make a cameo appearance earlier in the film).

There’s a slight commentary on the misogynistic politics of the era, but that’s a mere footnote in a story that doesn’t reach for importance or pretend to be anything than it isn’t. “Potiche” is a big, flashy and sweet comedy whose sole objective is to entertain. The result is Ozon’s most accomplished picture since 2002’s “8 Women” and one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year.


US actress Julianne Moore talks to the audience at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi on October 18, 2010 on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival. AFP PHOTO/STR


Iraqi director Mohamed al-Daradji (R) poses with Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, head of Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s jury of the New Horizons, after receiving the Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year Award for his film "My Mother’s Arms" on the sideline of the festival in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi on October 19, 2010. AFP PHOTO/STR

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