In the end, rumors were false and Omar Sharif did not show up for the screening of Al Mosafar (The Traveler), the opening night movie of the Middle East
Film Festival in which he stars. But most of the other actors in the film did, as well as several other stars from around the world. A lot of it seemed rather random—Demi Moore, who doesn’t have a film playing there, Jason Wu, the designer of Michelle Obama’s dress, who didn’t seem to have dressed anyone there, Hilary Swank, who doesn’t have a film playing here, either, and seemed to be rather randomly chosen to present the Black Pearl Award to Vanessa Redgrave, which was accepted by her husband Franco Nero. I adore Vanessa Redgrave as an actress and a humanitarian, but again the connectedness to the festival seemed rather random. I’ll stop with the random, as other star sightings seemed a little bit more in tone with the festival’s goal—to showcase Middle Eastern cinema to a global audience and bring films from around the world to the Middle East. At the post-screening party, everywhere you turned there were stars of Egyptian, Syrian, and Kuwaiti film and television, including the goofy and tyrannical father of my student’s favorite Ramadan series, Om Al Banat. But my top sighting was of the Turkish heartthrob that starred in the soap Noor as a man so perfect he alleged caused fantasizing women across the Middle East to ask for divorces because what they had at home just didn’t even come close. In introducing him, the festival pointedly mentioned that his fiancée was with him.
The party itself was flawless—it was at the terraces of the flawless Emirates Palace and while the there music, food and drink flowing, you could still actually move and hear the people talking to you. I was as usual baffled by the white women spread out throughout the party posing in courtesan costumes as some kind of weird mix of frozen tag and a mime act. I’ve seen them at another glam party here, last time I believe in togas, and really all I can say is “What?” That other party didn’t have anything to do with Rome, and I don’t believe there are any films about courtesans playing at this festival.
There was a lot of “What?’ going through the audience during the screening of Al Mosafar, too. Great acting and cinematography but seemingly random (yes, that word again) editing that left huge gaps in a story that was also random. And no, the editing was not censorship on the part of the Abu Dhabi, although it could have actually used a little — the film, which was billed as the first film produced by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, showed an excessively long, graphic rape scene that became increasingly disturbing in its gratuitousness as it went on. The director, Ahmed Maher, clearly—and successfully– wished to show how Egypt has gone from a poor, secular country in the 1940s to a very poor, very religious country today. That, however, is so obvious to everyone in the Middle East the he seems to have thrown in the lifetime story of a rapist as his subterfuge. Omar Sharif plays the rapist as an old man, and if you had ever believed that Omar Sharif was nothing but a pretty face—well, his face is no longer so pretty but he is still a tremendous actor. And for the last third of the movie, he was allowed to show you that as he played a man on the verge of insanity and death. It was his Shakespearean moment on a screen stage he seems to have randomly shared with some other fine actors. Still, it was great to see an Arab film the tried to go beyond formula on the big screen, and I remain optimistic about several of the other films at the festival.