Authenticity and Experiments in Dubai

in 10th Dubai International Film Festival

by Steffen Moestrup

Authenticity and sincerity are remarkable qualities which are not easily capturedor defined. How do you establish documentary authenticity? What is sincerity and what is empathy? Some would argue that authenticity and sincerity lend themselves to a particular filmic form, involving grainy images and a hand-held camera. I disagree.

The Lebanese film The Guardians of Time Lost (Dialakachmar) israther simple and almost amateurish on the level of film form. Yet the film seems oddly irrelevant and anything but sincere. Open questions and a very loose form give the impression of an extremely unfocused film, which seems to consist mainly of a young woman turning a camera on her entourage.

Far more authenticity is to be found in The Mulberry House (Bayt al toot).Here, a young woman’s personal exploration of her background is challenged by current events. The revolution interferes with her understanding of herself and her past in Yemen. She must suddenly deal with a contemporary developmentwhich not only has future implications for society in Yemen, but also affects the past she has come to try and understand. Sara, a Scottish-Yemeni woman, cannot help but get involved. She begins to document the revolution and speaksto international media such as the BBC,bridging the gap between her two cultural identities. At the same time she develops a renewed relationship with the father she left to live a Westernized life in Scotland.

Many of the people I met at the festival have multiple nationalities and might be referred to as mixed-race. There is the Egyptian man who studied in France and now works for the BBC. The French-Moroccan woman who found it easy to leave Paris for Dubai, where she could easily get a job.The Lebanese woman whose daily life takes place in Egypt. Many of the festival films – such as The Mulberry House – deal with the theme of homeland. How is identity linked to a sense of home? Can one feel guilty about a country?

Some of the filmmakers belong to exiled groups in other countries, and thus they can provide detailed insight into what it is like to be in a country which is not one’s own, or what it is like to have multiple homelands. They can provide a look from outside as well as inside the country: their narratives represent their own stories as well as representing a diasporic part of history. BothMaisDarwazahs’ gorgeous and deeply lyrical My Love Awaits Me By the Sea (Habibibistanan and al bahar) and the Lebanese Heritages (Mirath) fit into this category. 

In Heritages, the director unfolds his poignant family chronicle, in which he moves his family from Paris back to Beirut. In Beirut there is uncertainty and the threat of war, but the family’s roots here are deeper. The film succeeds in bringing archival material to life, using green-screen footage in which the director’s family members play their own ancestors. Family plays family: this makes for a strange effect, and it is an excellent way to revitalize archival material that can often be a tedious part of the documentary genre. In narrative journalism, one speaks of the “illusion of immediacy” as a key element: the ability to use narrative structure and techniques to stage a simultaneity or immediacy, so that we feel we are in the midst of the action, as if it was happening in front of us. The same might be said of the use of archival material. By bringing archives to life through the green screen, director Philippe Aractingi creates a close connection with his audience.

There were not many experimental documentaries in the competition, but Birds of September (Touyourayloul) was an exception. In this film, the director creates an ingenious design by installing his camera in a van with large windows. Through the windows we can sense the streets and the life of Beirut, while a parade of characters in front of the camera tell us about their lives. They talk of dreams, love, and motherhood. Occasionally we view one character while a different person talks in voiceover. This might be an ethically problematic strategy, but it is also catchy and sometimes quite amusing.

Bloody Beans (Loubiahamra) was probably the most radical example of a documentary at the festival. Here we are dealing with a film that truly blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary, and seriously questions the notion of documenting reality. The starting script consisted only of an overall narrative structure and a course of action. The director found some kids in aparticularly poor region of Algeria. She invited all the kids in the neighborhood to contribute to the film and its preparation. From her original script and several conversations with the children, she created a new script in which the kids did not participate. During the filming, the children received instructions on what to do, but did not get a say in the narrative process. The result is a very playful documentary which seems to center on children playing, but the story is allegorical in nature.

Children are shown playing on a beach. A lazy child’s body is in the sun. Small talk and short sentences are exchanged. The talk turns to beans. The children have nothing but beans to eat. How nice it would be to have a piece of meat or bread, some tomatoes maybe. One of the children says there is a house nearby with an abundance of food. But there are French people in the house, because there are French people in the country. Then we learn that the film actually takes place in a past colonial space, even though the images and the children are contemporary. This temporal displacement works amazingly well. The past is seen through a contemporary frame, and the experimental and the political embrace.

The children findthe courage to approach the house. The French general is there, but the kids succeed in catching a French soldier and gettingaccess tofood. They have a party on the beach while considering how to torture the French soldier.  Finally they torture him by forcing him to eat beans.

Allegories and symbolic narratives can often seem forced and annoying, but Bloody Beans works well, mainly due to the ease which comes from using children’s play as its basic structure. The film has energy, nerve, and strong vitality. It also contains some impressive montages, including a night scene in which the kids slide around in the water, dive and resurface. A small child floats around in the dark water. A spotlight lands on all the children, while the night outside is immersive and black. An organic, sensual and very vibrant scene.

Edited by Lesley Chow