Perusing the Dubai programme deciding what to see when your knowledge of Arab and African cinema is on the rudimentary side can generate a fog of confusion, so a film titled "Death Metal Angola" stands out like a screaming neon sign.
Jeremy Xido, who directed this absorbing, beautifully shot documentary, which had its world premiere in Dubai, is a Detroit-born multi-talent (he has a European-based contemporary dance company and acted in "The Machinist") and was in Angola researching another documentary about a Chinese railroad when he discovered that the war-torn nation has a flourishing death-metal scene. An ex-Portuguese colony, Angola was wracked by civil war for nearly four decades (until the US, China and Russia stepped up to end the conflict, lured by the country's abundant natural resources); its people are haunted and scarred by their history; and the angry aggression of death metal offers an ideal outlet for expressing that angst. One Angolan musician describes the music as "a scream in revolt against what happened in our past that helps us remove the debris and suffering of war."
At the film's epicentre is a woman named Sonia Ferriera, a rock 'n' roll lover who not only acts as godmother to the nation's death and thrash metal scene but runs an orphanage in Huambo, a city that witnessed more horrors than most. The stories and experiences relayed in "Death Metal Angola" are unfathomable and devastating, but there is a sense of hope for the future; the music… well, not to my taste but you can't help feeling moved watching these musicians sing their pained lyrics. Xido couldn't finish his film in time to try for a Sundance slot but is hoping South By Southwest will go for "Death Metal Angola", which would be a stronger fit anyways because of the film's musical connections. I hope he makes the cut but even if he doesn't, I predict a long festival life, if not more, for Xido's superb film.
Talking of passions, "Winter Of Discontent," whose leading man Amr Waked was awarded Best Actor at Dubai's closing ceremony, is a heartfelt portrait of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The film follows several characters, including Waked's activist blogger, a disillusioned newswoman (Farah Youssef) and a state security officer, in the month-long people's uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Director Ibrahim El Batou largely improvised "Winter Of Discontent" with his actors (including all of the dialogue) but the film suffers from structural and pacing issues, not least a succession of awkward flashback sequences that unravel past connections but don't add a whole lot to the narrative. Unsurprisingly, the film's most powerful moments come towards the end, when El Batout's camera trails Waked and Youssef as they join the real-life protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Waked – who played the benevolent sheikh in "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" and is a massive star in his home country – told me in Dubai that those scenes were the very first to be shot, with El Batout responding rapidly to history-changing events by pulling a story together and convincing the actor to take the leading role. It's this reactive, spur-of-the-moment authenticity that makes me forgive "Winter Of Discontent" its flaws.
One of the more controversial films to play in Dubai was "The Attack", Ziad Doueiri's drama about an esteemed Palestinian surgeon (played by Ali Suliman) who has assimilated into Israeli society but is forced to reconsider his identity after it appears his wife was the suicide bomber behind a murderous Tel Aviv attack. Suliman, who's appeared in "Homeland", "Body Of Lies" and "The Kingdom" (and says he's about to head to LA for pilot seaon), is a talented and charismatic actor and conveys a compelling emotional journey for his character without lapsing into the clichéd expectations that a role like this might carry (surely he's going to rediscover his Arab roots, right? It's not that simple...). Doueiri, who previously directed "West Beirut", strikes a fine balance, depicting sympathetic and unsympathetic characters on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. "The Attack"'s message, that the two sides are so polarised there’s little hope for a resolution, made it a less cheery proposition than the many festival features celebrating Arab springs and Saudi girls riding bicycles - but it was also one of the most resonant and memorable films at the festival.
As for Saudi girls and bicycles, I was delighted that this year's Dubai jury awarded the Best Arab Film prize to Haifaa al-Mansour's 'Wadjda' and Best Actress to the film's delightful young star, Waad Mohammed. We'll be covering 'Wadjda' in greater depth when Sony Pictures Classics release the film in the US in early 2013.