Dutch-Palestinian production “Habibi Rasak Kharban” won the Muhr Arab Feature award at the eight Dubai International Film Festival, ending a stellar edition marred by an otherwise weak Arab features selection.
Widely panned by both Arab and international critics, the first feature by American filmmaker Susan Youssef is a modern retelling of the Arab fable “Qays and Layla.” The film is the first fiction feature set in Gaza in over 15 years.
“Habibi” also won best actress for Maisa Abdelhadi and best editing.
The other big winner of the night was Jordanian production “Al-Juma Al-Akhiera” (The Last Friday), also earning three prizes in the same competition: the Special Jury Prize, best actor for Ali Suliman and best score (by the Trio Jubran).
A melodrama conceived a slow-paced art-house pic, Yahya Al-Abdallah’s debut feature sheds light on the widening class gap in Jordanian society via an account of a lonely 40-year-old man scouring for cash for an urgent surgery he has to undergo while taking care of his adolescent son.
Moroccan director Hakim Belabbes’ “Boiling Dreams,” another debut feature, scooped best script and best cinematography. The film is a meditative examination of illegal immigration — a running theme of this year’s fest — experienced by the wife and son of a departing patriarch.
In the Muhr Arab Documentary competition, Lebanese production “Sector Zero” received the best film award. Nadim Mishlawi’s highly acclaimed debut feature-length documentary explores Lebanon’s dark history through the story Karantina, a neighborhood situated at the outskirts of Beirut that witnessed that slaughter of more 1,000 residents during the Civil War in the 70s.
Akram Hidou’s Iraqi-Syrian documentary went home with the Special Jury Prize for “Halabja – The Lost Children.” The film follows the journey of a young Kudish man searching for his lost family who disappeared during Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack in 1988.
The Second Prize was given to Yasmina Adi’s “Here We Drown Algerians – October 17th, 1961.” Mourad Ben Cheikh’s “No More Fear,” the first film made about the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution, received a Special Mention.
In the Muhr Asia/Africa Feature competition, Eric Khoo’s “Tatsumi” was the surprise winner of best film. The animated picture focuses on the life and work of great Japanese graphic artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The film also won best score (for Christopher Khoo).
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” was handed the Special Jury Prize. Winner of the Grand Prix award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ceylan’s sixth feature is slow-burning crime thriller set at the Turkish countryside. The film also won best cinematography.
Shuichi Okita’s “The Woodsman and the Rain” dominated this category, winning best actor for Kôji Yakusho, best script and best editing. The third feature by the Japanese filmmaker revolves around the unlikely friendship between a 60-year-old lumberjack and a 25-year-old first-time film director during the shoot of a zombie movie.
Vietnamese child actress Phung Hoa Hoai Linh snatched the best actress prize for her role as a neglected daughter taking care of an orphan in Nhue Giang Pham’s “Mother’s Soul.” A Special Mention was given to Chandani Seneviratne from Sri Lanka for her performance in Aruna Jayawardana’s “August Drizzle.”
In the Muhr Asia/Africa Documentary competition, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasby’s “This is Not a Film” won best film. The Cannes hit charts a day in the life of jailed Iranian director Panahi as he awaits the verdict of the appeals court.
Shalahuddin Siregar’s “The Land beneath the Fog” took home the Special Jury Prize. The Indonesian feature centers on a community of farmers swept by the new climate realities.
Mami Sunada’s cancer drama “Death of a Japanese Salesman” from Japan won the Second Prize while Anand Patwardhan’s musical biopic “Jai Bhim Comrade” from India earned a Special Mention.
Always a prominent force at the DIFF awards, Egypt’s presence was nowhere to be felt this year, only winning a Special Mention at the Muhr Arab Shorts competition for Omar El-Zohairy’s experimental film “Zafir” (Breathing Out).
Elsewhere in the section, Uda Benyamina’s French production “Sur la route du paradis” (The Road to Paradise) won best film while Farid Bentoumi and Farid Bentoumi’s “Burners,” another French production, scooped the Special Jury Prize.
Nujoom Al-Ghanem’s immigrant drama “Amal” was named Best Emirati Film while Mohammad Fikree’s animated short won the Special Jury Prize.
The latest edition of Dubai, the largest showcase of Arab films in the region, was chockfull of delightful gems, especially in the Asian/African section. The world program was eclectic, abundant with many discoveries.
Same goes for the Arabic Documentary selection, the real highlight of the 2011 edition, presenting the best line-up of Arab documentaries screened in any festival this year.
The aforementioned Arab narrative feature selection was, unfortunately, nothing short of a disaster. The quality of the 11 featured films ranged from the mediocre to the unwatchable, including the winning films. The traces of exciting experimentation informing many of last year’s Arabic films were nowhere to be found in here, replaced by muddled visions, tired plotlines, underdeveloped characters and insufferable amount of clichés.
For the past eight years, DIFF has become the mirror accurately reflecting the reality of Arab cinema, a reality that looked quite grim this year. The disparity in quality between the documentaries and the narrative features left critics scratching their heads, confirming the fact that narrative film is a form most Arab filmmakers are yet to master.
Palestinian actress Maisa Abdelhadi (R) receives the Muhr Arab Feature best actress award for her role in the film "Habibi Rasak Kharban." (AFP Photo/Karim Sahib)
Palestinian director Susan Youssef won the Fipresci Arab Feature award for her film "Habibi." (AFP Photo/Karim Sahib)