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Modern Dubai a mix of art, artifice, impatience

At first glance, Dubai strikes American visitors as Vegas without the gambling. But there is much more to the place than meets the eye.

Things outwardly change in this Persian Gulf emirate overnight. As for casinos, they will be erected on artificial islands built out in the gulf within a year or so.

The city is home to 20% of the world's construction cranes and soon will boast the world's tallest building. (Dubai is bent on not being outclassed by such rival emirates as Abu Dhabi or Bahrain and hence recently decided to add 30 extra stories to the edifice to guarantee long-term bragging rights.)

The chutzpah of the ruling al Maktoum family is impressive in that they have conjured an entire skyscrapered playground for the global elite out of the desert sand in less than 30 years. Rarely has the dictum "if you build it they will come" been put to such a test.

Take the sailboat-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, which is stunningly austere on the outside and dizzyingly kaleidoscopic on the inside (and has almost 100% occupancy). I can't believe that the James Bond folks have not yet thought of filming a stunt involving the building's splendidly suspended helipad.

I say all this because the visual creativity in this city, so far at least, is architectural, not cinematic.

Still, despite its "towering" achievements, to many Westerners there is a creepiness about the artificiality of its indoor ski slope at the Emirates mall as well as its DubaiLand project in the desert. (Westerners would prefer to study the constellations and take in the vastness of the dunes than experience one more roller coaster.)

But the rulers are impatient to turn the region into a destination. No more buildings apparently will be greenlighted after 2008, so the race is on to complete what's being branded as "the city that connects the world."

That's also what the emirate's international film fest vaunts itself as doing; its theme of this year's fourth edition is "bridging cultures, meeting minds," and the organizers have gone to great lengths to attract thought-provoking movies.

Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha" amply conformed to the theme.

The docudrama painstakingly re-imagines the massacre of two dozen Iraqi civilians by a handful of U.S. Marines two years ago in that war-torn Iraqi town. During the postscreening Q&A, it was abundantly clear that the film struck different chords with the mixed Arab and Anglo audience.

One Arab woman in attendance wondered aloud how it would ever get past "the American censors," apparently unaware that it is perceived commercial prospects that hinder art movies from getting wide distribution in the States, not governmental meddling. This one will be released stateside in May and will no doubt play the American fest circuit, though she is right that it likely will not penetrate the heartland.

It also should be said that the celluloid-savvy elite that attends festivals like Dubai are inevitably, from whatever country, pretty much in theoretical agreement about how we are, in the words of one speaker here, "all one big global family" and that it's simply benighted regimes that tolerate cultural misunderstanding, and really bad ones that foment political strife.

The question of cultural and political stereotyping came up again and again, as well as the need to foster "authentic voices" from the region.

There was a new component in the fest program devoted to "Emirati Voices," though by general consensus few if any fresh perspectives have emerged. The most interesting Arab movies here were from afar: the road movie "The Yellow House," an Algerian-French co-production, and "The Secret of the Grain," helmed by French-Arab Abdellatif Kechiche in France.

The big unanswerable: How, when and from whom will interesting, provocative movies emerge from a region whose rulers waver between their cultural aspirations and their authoritarian instincts? I suspect that the prospects for truly commercial movies are even more remote.

The ennui of the local elite probably would mitigate against their picking up the cameras, and the precariousness of their commitment to the place would argue against the sizable Anglo-Aussie or other expat community doing so. The alienation of the largely Asian underclass — who can be seen day and night in their ochre-colored overalls toiling to transform this desert oasis — won't make it easy for them, either. Just getting cameras into the worker camps here apparently is a no-no.

Still, the structures are here: Dubai Studio City soon will have the amenities necessary to support local filmmakers. And there's plenty of money that could be channeled to these efforts.

Skeptics say local authorities simply want foreign stars (think Hollywood and Bollywood) to show up on the red carpet and foreign productions (think again Hollywood and Bollywood) to show up to shoot here.

The hopeful counter that it's just a matter of time — 10, 15 years — until this richly textured region finds its Wong Kar Wai or its Pedro Almodovar or its Paul Thomas Anderson.

Inshallah.
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