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‘Just folks’ at Dubai festival

Times Staff Writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Half a world away from Hollywood’s fiery explosions and bloodthirsty militants, a slew of movies being shown in this desert warren of glass-and-steel skyscrapers chronicle quieter tales of ordinary people living on the front lines of the clash of civilizations.

At the fourth annual Dubai International Film Festival, which opened Sunday night on the shores of this Persian Gulf kingdom, dozens of movies dismantle, deconstruct and deflate the Manichean view of East-West relations that permeates much of U.S. cinema and television.

In director Nabil Ayouch’s “Whatever Lola Wants,” premiering here Tuesday, an aspiring dancer from Wisconsin persuades an aging Cairo belly dancer to teach her the secrets of her craft.

An elderly Chinese man visiting his daughter in Spokane, Wash., meets an equally lonely Iranian immigrant, becoming fast friends despite their inability to speak a single word to each other, in director Wayne Wang’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” among the numerous Western productions showing at the festival.

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And in a hospital inside the Moroccan city of Fez, a successful Paris architect returns home after decades to sit by his dying uncle, wanting answers to questions about his distant childhood, in “Burned Hearts,” the first movie in many years by legendary Moroccan director Ahmed el Maanouni.

“For the Americans, there could be no way to make films about Arab people except terrorism or fighting or war,” said director Ayouch, a 38-year-old Moroccan who was inspired to make “Whatever Lola Wants” by his wife’s passion for belly dancing and his own frustration with Hollywood’s violence-laden depictions of cross-cultural encounters. “But there can also be some normal stories to tell, with simple people from different parts of the world meeting each other, and they don’t have to be in the army, CIA or terrorists.”

Bridging cultural gaps has been since its inception the emphasis of Dubai’s festival, which in four years has leapfrogged over many of its more long-standing rivals, thanks to billions in revenue from oil and gas and this Persian Gulf monarchy’s ambitions. In contrast to other festivals in the Arab world such as Cairo, which mostly screens films on the international circuit, 45% of the 141 movies to be shown here this week were made by directors in the region.

“In the Arab world, there’s a new awareness of the importance of images,” said Masoud Amralla Ali, the festival’s artistic director. “Even in magazines you see it. The pictures are getting larger and the words smaller.”

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This year’s films especially show yearnings by those living between their native lands and the Diaspora to tell their own stories. Director Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven,” which was awarded the best screenplay award at Cannes this year, chronicles the crisscrossing lives of a group of Turks and Germans who become ensnared in a complicated political, legal and emotional web as they travel between Germany and Turkey.

“Night Shadows” by Algerian director Nasser Bakhti traces the stories of a cop, an illegal immigrant from Mali, a garbage collector from Algeria and a young junkie whose lives collide in Geneva.

In Iraqi director Tariq Hashim’s documentary " www.gilgamesh.21,” an Iraqi emigre in Copenhagen chats with an Iraqi in Baghdad.

“I live the chilly hell of exile,” writes Tariq from behind his computer in Denmark.

“Me, I am in a burning hell in the city of death,” Basim replies from Baghdad.

Ayouch’s “Whatever Lola Wants” stars Laura Ramsey as a young Midwestern woman who moved to New York to pursue a career in dance. She goes to audition after audition but finds only temporary work as a postal worker.

On a whim, she decides to follow her Egyptian boyfriend, Zack, to Cairo, but is disappointed when he turns out to be an upper-class snob who rejects her as inappropriate. In this case, class becomes a greater impediment to human understanding than religion or nationality.

“His family has prepared a future for him,” says Ayouch. “His family would never accept her as a dancer.”

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Heartbroken Lola seeks out Ismahan, a former belly dancing star who ended her career years earlier amid scandal. At first turned off by her perky idealism, a depressed Ismahan -- who, like Lola, moved from a rural backwater to the big city -- eventually warms up to her student, who blossoms as a dancer. Ismahan again finds joy in life.

“It’s all about transmission,” said Ayouch. “It’s a lot about what we have to transmit. Lola is young and naive, and she loves life. This is probably the biggest strength of the American people. Ismahan is bringing wisdom and emotions.”

Ayouch purposely kept the scope of his film small as a reaction to Hollywood blockbusters like “The Kingdom,” director Peter Berg’s 2007 FBI thriller set in Saudi Arabia.

“I’m a bit upset by all those movies that we receive from America about the Arab world,” he said. “We always get out of the cinema with the same feeling, that there are good Arabs but there are lots of bad Arabs.”

“The Kingdom” was banned in several Arab countries, and staging a film festival in most of the Arab world comes with unique challenges, especially when it comes to taboo subjects. Festival organizers insisted that there are no official strictures governing their programming choices but that they often opt not to screen movies that could be deemed extremely shocking or insensitive to a conservative Muslim population.

“We do a little bit push the envelope,” said festival chairman Abdulhamid M. Juma. “We don’t censor movies. You lose the respect of filmmakers.”

Despite the festival’s high-minded cultural goals, Dubai has long been a center of wheeling and dealing in the Middle East, and the recent flood of Arab news and entertainment channels has opened up a huge market, especially with Cairo’s stature as the Arab filmmaking center in a drawn-out decline.

The film festival serves to establish the city as a lucrative engine to produce and put the final touches on Middle Eastern movies. The festival organizers have set up “speed-dating” sessions between film financiers and moviemakers coming to town. They’re also promoting Dubai Studio City, a complex of 18 television studios and three movie soundstages being built inside Dubailand, an amusement park.

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The industry has taken notice. HBO and Britain’s Channel 4 are among the high-powered entertainment companies dispatching emissaries to Dubai. George Clooney, showing his movie “Michael Clayton,” Sharon Stone and Gloria Estefan, who will perform after a screening of her husband Emilio’s documentary, “90 Miles,” are among the stars coming to town and adding to its glitter.

But Juma insists the festival is as much about art as generating Hollywood-style buzz for Dubai. “Dubai wants the red carpets and stars,” he said. “But you don’t want just red carpets and stars at a festival.

“At the same time,” he said after a pause, “a film festival without red carpets and stars, I don’t want.”

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daragahi@latimes.com


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