Doha, October 2010

Tired of big budget, repeating plots, I seek something extraordinary when I stare at the screen for two hours. And it’s at independent film festivals where I have the best chance of getting just that.

One of the things I was saddest to leave in New York City was my annual film festival routine. But there was hope—whispers were on the wind that Robert De Niro was bringing the big apple’s famous Tribeca Festival to, of all places, Doha. And he did. Two years on, I almost take it for granted that there was barely a blip in my access to these remarkable events.

What’s special about Doha Tribecca Film Festival, DTFF, is that it is a platform that not only serves to highlight budding film makers and their often-edgy work, but it also slices boldly into cultural realities using the medium of film, and this stands to promote clearer thinking around history abroad and/or what other cultures hold dear.

There is one key drawback to the edginess of films at these festivals—writers and directors can strike subjects from sharper angles, which can confine bliss to a limited set of appreciative audience members. Meanwhile, those on the outskirts of the artists’ choices may be left going “huh?” So as a veteran attendant of such events, one thing I have learned is that the more tickets you have in your hands, the better the odds that you catch something transformative—something that rocks your perception of reality or at least sticks with you for a long time.

This last festival, I took in five films based in five different countries. The first, Outside the Law, directed by Rachid Bouchareb, examins the divergent lives of three Algerian brothers who survive and are scattered by the Sétif massacre only to live out wildly different, yet equally affected, destinies in Paris. The movie prompts a necessary examination of the power struggle in Algeria and how it affects people therein. However, as an opening night film I found its position perplexing. It was a heavy weight on the red carpet. I wasn’t moved so much as set down into depressive and grey circumstances; but hey, I learned something.

The next film by comparison was a super-light, crowd-pleasing expose on Ireland, rural Ireland in particular. “The Runway,” directed by Ian Power, is loosely based on the true story of a pilot who crashes his plane into the Irish countryside and is temporarily deposited into a family who needs him. This film demonstrates the impressionability of the film scene in Ireland with elements that seem borrowed from big-budgets as well as CGI effects, as some of Ireland’s low-key magic is obviously sacrificed. I did get a good sense of scenery and accent as well as dreary realities and jokes, but I didn’t feel that the makers relied enough on Ireland as she really, naturally, is so much as what people already stereotype her and her people as.

Nevertheless, they tried. A magical element of the film festival is that you find yourself able to meet and ask questions of the director at the end of films—sometimes even sit next to them! In the case of “The Runway,” my appreciation was tugged deeper, from the quite-shallow end, as the director just a few feet in front of me explained how he and the producer interviewed nearly 4000 children to fill the main parts. He also explained how he only casted people from Cork so that their accents could be authentic. So in a sense, it actually was homegrown. Still, I found it a bit too, well, ordinary.

The film after this was where I started to hit a jackpot of sorts (see, like I said, you may not like all of what you see but if you take more in, you increase the likelihood of a really satisfying film experience). “My Perestroika,” follows the lives of five children who grew up in the former USSR. A documentary, its content is so rich and dramatic—in terms of described disillusionment and humorous cracks at government—that it escapes dryness by a mile. Although the subject matter is quite depressing, the people describing it are so tough that they carry all the weight of the circumstances while delivering the message in a wry, entertaining way.

“My Perestroika” left me with two strong memories. One involved a description by a woman of her childhood, when she would work herself into tears as she recited communist slogans at school—she explained how she really had no idea what she was crying about and how absurd it all appeared in hindsight. Another involved a man who was watching his son play along a lakeside as the film drew to an end. Prompted for his perspective on the changes to his country, he said that when he was young, he’d get this feeling that he wanted to die, but now at least, “things may be bleak but you don’t want to die.”

Film number four really sent me into dream land—and it helped that I was sitting next to the director and the star of the film and got the star’s autograph afterward. “Little Sister,” or “Mei Mei” in Chinese, directed by Richard Bowen, based on the tale of Cinderella (which, by the way, originated in China over a thousand years ago), is a colorful expose of Southern China and the symbolism that’s an essential part of the bedrock of culture there. The director’s choice to have a narrator speak over the plot distracts from the natural flow of the film, but over time I forgave this because it was striking in its construction, colorful scenery, costumes and fairy-tale elements. The story of Cinderella framed this way is fascinating and refreshing.

Bowen wrote and directed the film, which emphasizes the male and female symbolism in the sun and the moon, respectively. When the female protagonist, the little sister played by Xiao Min, is berated by her stepmother and forced into slavery around the home, the moon is pulled off course. A prince, living on an island, discovers the magical connection between the moon and little sister and despite urgings of his mother to marry royalty, pursues her as his bride. Magical elements and a special relationships between the little sister, an elegant white cod fish and a village elder see the story developing into a beautiful, family-friendly tale that is totally unconventional yet tight and moving in its construction.

I had just returned from a trip to Beijing when I saw this film, to so it was a great chance to tell Xiao Min “Xie Xie” (thank you) from the bottom of my heart—she seemed shocked by the attention to a performance that ranked up with the A-listers in the states.

Finally, I “went to France” with the last film, which I found pleasing and entertaining while my company found it all but annoying (again, these films are not made to please everyone). “Potiche,” directed by Francois Ozon, is the story of a housewife, Suzanne Pujol, played by Catherine Deneuve, who is at first portrayed as a decorated, unappreciated airhead. We come to know early of her husband’s antics as he runs roughshod over their marriage with his affairs and over her deceased father’s company with his hyper-conservative, paranoid business approach. As the film proceeds, we find out that Mrs. Pujol is hardly innocent herself. And when her husband falls ill, the business sensibilities she inherited from her father kick in as she takes over as head of the company.

This film is hilarious in its introduction of secrets in such a frank and matter-of-fact way that only French film has yet perfected in my opinion. Mrs. Pujol is transformed before our very eyes from helpless victim to victorious diva. Additionally, the second-strongest performance by Gerard Depardieu as a former lover of Mrs. Deneuve adds to the depth of the plot in that he is completely leftist and we are not quite sure for a while if her son is his or her current husbands or … ?

In the end, DTFF gave me so much more than the ticket prices foretold—they were in fact about a third of the price of an Imax ticket. But the performances, the talent and the insights into the edge of filmmaking and the way people live and are entertained around the world, and throughout history, blew that big screen away.