Day 7 at DIFF

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Bruce Dern as Woody in a film still from Nebraska

To somewhat make-up for the lack of screenings the last couple of days, I crammed 3 films into Day 7 of the festival. I have to just say, it is really impressive to hear of film critics who cover between 4-6 films a day at some festivals. As much as I love seeing movies, I could see how sitting in a theater for up to 12 hours could be exhausting. And especially because quantity doesn’t always translate to quality.

For me, this happened with the first two films of Day 7. As much as I was hoping to enjoy them, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

Starting the day with the documentary Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, I went in expecting a thrilling recount of the robberies by the notorious jewel thieves. Instead of being paced like gripping heist film, the narrative is quite jumbled. There is a wide range of subjects and topics covered throughout the film. The most interesting, obviously, are the three Pink Panther members who were interviewed. However, in order to protect their identities, the words from their interviews are spoken by actors and then set to animation. While it is pretty amazing the director of the film, Havana Marking, was able to procure the Panthers and interview them at length, the number of other subjects she includes muddles the impact of the Panthers’ involvement.

Also, not enough time is spent on building the suspense of the story. The film is broken up into subsections that cover various aspects of the Pink Panthers’ background, but they aren’t linear enough. A large part of the film is spent on covering the history of former Yugoslavia, where many of the thieves are from. I understand Marking’s intention of including the war’s impact on the origination of the Panthers’, but when half way through the film the subsection on the “Beginning” of the Panthers’ comes up, it is way overdue.

There is definitely a story to tell in the documentary, it’s just not put together in a very captivating way for the big screen. The film’s conjunction with BBC Storyville is definitely better suited for its layout.

The second film I saw was a Syrian drama by director Mohamed Malas. Ladder to Damascus has an intriguing concept, a young girl named Ghalia claims to have the soul of a girl named Zeina trapped inside her. After aspiring filmmaker Fouad says he wants to make a film about Zeina, Ghalia moves into the Fouad’s building in Damascus. The other tenants are an eclectic group of people, after their introduction share much of the screen time of the film with Ghalia and Fouad. The film mostly plays out in the small confines of the building, but not without the sounds of missiles and explosions to help distinguish the setting.

While I tried hard to connect with the characters and story line of the film, I felt like I was missing something. Watching it was like seeing a painting or reading a poem about the pain and grief surrounding Syria’s history and recent events. Not being from Syria, I wasn’t able to fully grasp the emotions conveyed in the film. In the end it’s difficult to critique the film because viewing it was more of an anthropological experience of the cultural effects of Syria’s war, than a traditional movie viewing.

After these two films, I was really hoping Alexander Payne would offer some redemption for the day with his new film Nebraska. Luckily, I wasn’t let down. Now Nebraska may not be a film for everyone. For one, it’s in black and white. I surprisingly found myself liking the effect, especially as it bathed the beautiful architecture of the Madinat Theatre in a lovely pale glow, but I can understand how some may find it a confusing stylistic choice. The other elements of the film, like its pacing and humor, could be taken for boring and lackluster, but I felt it emphasized the simplicity of the story. And even if you take issue with these aspects of the film, I think it’s hard not to be endeared by the story. Bruce Dern superbly plays Woody Grant, an old man with one last wish, that he makes it to Lincoln Nebraska to claim his prize of a million dollars. His son David Grant (Will Forte), knows the letter his dad received about the prize is a scam but decides to help him go to Lincoln anyways. When they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, everyone comes out of the woodworks to congratulate, or take advantage of him. All of the supporting characters fit into the story in funny and memorable ways but the most notable performance is by June Squibb. She plays the obscene and brazen Kate Grant, Woody’s wife. Like Dern, and Forte, Squibb’s performance quickly makes the characters charming and believable.

Nebraska definitely lives up to the standard of Payne’s previous films, like The Descendants and Sideways. I have a feeling that it will garner some well deserved recognition during the awards season.

And that ends Day 7. With only two days left of the festival, I hope everyone is getting a chance to take advantage of the remaining screenings. By Sara Castillo.

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