THE FIRST DUBAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL December 6-11. www.dubaifilmfest.com Rating: NNNNN
Dubai, United Arab Emirates - George Orwell would have got Dubai. I'm still working on it. Having just landed for the first Dubai International Film Festival, I'm still suffering from reality lag. Am I really in Gurinder Chadha's limo, driving the half-block from the hotel to the opening-night gala? Is that billowing white tower out the window really a seven-star hotel? They have seven-star hotels?
As soon as we hit the red carpet, I lose Chadha in a swarm of paparazzi. Bend It Like Beckham has made her the most famous South Asian director in the world. In Dubai, to be South Asian is normal, to be famous is worshipped, and to be a director, tonight at least, is to stand in society's first rank, which matters even more here than almost anywhere else.
At the tail end of the carpet, I run into Toronto director Deepa Mehta, here for a gala screening of Bollywood/Hollywood. The film might be old news in North America, but this marks its premiere in the Middle East, and that fact is an indicator of what this festival is about.
Programmed by an expert international team that includes Toronto International Film Festival co-director Noah Cowan, the 75 films screening over six days push Arab and South Asian cinema to the forefront and crowd the line between sanctioned and taboo images.
The fest is screening The Hamburg Cell, Antonia Bird's dramatization of the group that planned the 9/11 attacks. That's way too hot-button for the United Arab Emirates or most countries in this region, but everyday censorship rules have been suspended, at least until the end of the festival.
Right now, the party's just getting started. Orlando Bloom is talking up the fabulousness of the place. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's due in a few days. Mehta looks around the dazzling sprawl of brand new Arab-inspired buildings that make up the Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex and says, "The whole thing's like a film set, like a Bollywood film set."
She's been to Dubai several times, and repeats a comment I've already heard twice since I landed.
"There's no crime here," she says. "Everybody's happy. It's great."
There's really no point trying to snap back to reality. I'm through the looking glass.
More and more film festivals take place inside fantasy spaces, theme park versions of their actual environments. Berlin's move to Potsdamer Platz robbed it of its wicked soul. Sundance has seen a Santa's workshop of cute condos grow up around its original granola roots.
But in Dubai, the simulacrum is real. This is a city built by a scattered tribe of rich, tax-lawyered global citizens and the equally scattered tribe of global service workers who cook, clean and garden for them. Eighty per cent of the people who live here aren't local. It's a permanent transit lounge, dreamed up only 30 years ago by the recently deceased Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and financed by untold pools of oil money and tax-free transnational capital.
As perhaps the world's single greatest distillation of the idea of globalization, Dubai offers a new model for film festivals. The actual production of this event has been globalized, with expertise and even taste shipped in from abroad to mingle with local knowledge. Several TIFF veterans are organizing this event's projection, ticketing, theatres and administration. The man running the show is another in-sourced Torontonian, Neil Stephenson. Years ago, Stephenson was a TIFF volunteer for Pauline Mizzi. Now she's here working as his assistant.
Morgan Freeman, who flew in to screen his one and only directorial effort, Bopha!, declared himself "impressed by the ideas of the place, in particular this film festival."
Tonight, from what I can tell, the most provocative idea expressed is that this Arab, Muslim culture can and should absorb the best of what the world offers, including the industrial spectacle known as a film festival.
But absorbing culture involves deflections that Orwell understood.
When I brought my hosts a gift of champagne, a staffer quickly shoved the taboo alcohol in a plastic bag and put it out of sight. Three hours later, Emirati men in traditional white robes lined up at the opening-night bar for double shots of Chivas.
In the hard light of the next morning, Dubai looks like what it is - a glorious bauble built on sand. The sky blurs into smog at the horizon, while the middle distance is punctuated by stacks of architectural marvels and mobile phone minarets.
In Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, the city of the future was a blend of Shanghai and Dubai. It was a place of wealth and convenience, but the real world lay beyond its gates.