Four short and thirteen feature films ago, I settled into my first of many screenings at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, all like little lessons (intentional or not) about the places they’re from It was Wrecked, the almost wordless struggle of Adrian Brody against amnesia, a shattered leg, and some sort of lion or cougar, and who finds himself trapped one morning in a totaled car with a bunch of dead people. The star was there in the kind of silly fedora worn by people that have never actually had any of those problems. That’s good acting.
The next day, I saw a beautiful Chilean documentary putting in parallel the endless search of astronomers for scientific truth and of wives and mothers for loved ones lost to the Pinochet dictatorship. And I saw a 3-D documentary matinée— Cane Toads: The Conquest, a lesson about the threat of the billions of lazily poisonous frogs conquering Australia from coast to coast. Guess which one I remember better.
The following afternoon: I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You , a fictionalized documentaryish travelogue about forgotten northeastern Brazil, filmed without a gameplan on an array of recording media. A lot of footage of road just going by with narration in singsongy Portuguese. Nap time.
Also that Sunday was the much anticipated Never Let Me Go, based on a bestseller by someone about English boarding school children raised until their early twenties to be disposable organ donors. Spoiler alert: it sucks.
Another spoiler — while the story is woven beautifully throughout, elegantly acted and expertly filmed, it unravels completely with the touch of a single question. This question —begged by the simple electronic bracelets that act as these captives’ sole hurdle between a normal life and one led by Cavity Sam from Operation — echoes a great quandary breached by minds like Aristotle, Averroës, and Lao Tsu: Why the fuck don’t you just cut your arm off!?!
Some fans argue one flaw doesn’t taint the whole picture, like a fabulous meal without your favorite dish. But instead, I was overwhelmed throughout the end of this meal by the aftertaste of second-hand asparagus and a cross-country ski boot. And then I got food poisoning.
On Monday, I left work at Monday at 12:30 for Slackistan (fitting?), an accurately boring portrait of the boring lives of the Islamabad upper class. Carmel popcorn in hand, I followed with In/Out of the Room, the story of an Egyptian hangman who has carried out over 1,000 sentences.
Every time I left the theater, I’d learned a little something about the faint boundaries of filmmaking: it’s no problem if you’ve got a Super Eight an a still camera and no idea what you’re trying to say; it’s alright if you’re just trying to show and not tell; and have Adrian Brody, will travel (to film festivals).
Still, movies can only teach you so much. And that’s the most important part: knowing what you haven’t learned. I know from Hollywood lessons that if I run fast enough through bullet fire, I can’t get hit (MythBusters has proven this is not true for rain). And if I correctly time a jump from a bridge onto a passing semi, I’ll be more than fine. But I know that I haven’t learned from the movies how far away I need to be from an explosion, and where the face-blackened/knocked over/head-blow-up thresholds are.
Here in the desert, these cultural lessons at the cinema need to be taken with a grain of sand. Every single film is worth watching, even the ones with no words and just pictures of trees, if only because they expand the world of possible filmmaking to make room for a wider range of good filmmaking. And in a place where films can’t really expect to find distributers, what I’d seen served most to sell popcorn and blow minds. And this was just the first half.