I'm nearing the end of my stay here at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, which means I'm at a sleepless stage where I can't distinguish between the people I'm meeting and the characters I'm watching on screen. The Saudis are a welcoming people; my chats with a few locals reveal that this is a place in historical transition. The excitement on the ground is palpable. But I can only speak as a foreigner being hosted by a massive cultural event, not quite as a journalist with an on-ground idea of where exactly we stand on the bridge between the past and the future. My experience has been personal, an eye-opener no doubt, though it remains to be seen how much of this change – the many female volunteers, the new waves, the sharp focus on women voices and pioneers, the influx of Western values and art – is for the long haul. Even if the motivations aren't entirely organic, the action is real and visible. I hope to be back for the festival in the coming years, to truly understand the relationship between progression and politics. For now, I'm happy to report on the films that have stayed with me.
I'll start with the most surprising. With Vortex, provocative filmmaker Gaspar Noé joins the growing list of popular directors who – on the back of long and successful careers – have begun to look within for inspiration. Vortex is unlike anything the enfant terrible of contemporary cinema has made before – an intimate, soulful and mercilessly moving film about growing old and fragile. (There is no sex; there are no drugs). Vortex is a different kind of twisted experiment on the audience though, an unsparing portrait of human devastation. It is designed to stifle the viewer and provide no escape from the brutality of age. The unscripted split-screen drama depicts an old French couple in their twilight years, with the husband (Dario Argento) struggling to take care of his dementia-riddled and fast-fading wife (Francoise Lebrun).
The split-screen isn't a gimmick – it reveals the cruel contradictions of companionship. We see the impatient man discussing dreams and death and his latest book on the phone, while the woman potters around the house – an accumulation of writing and memory – all disoriented and confused. The two heartbreaking lead 'performances' aside, what's most remarkable about Vortex is that the mortality in the film, despite its slow-burning tragedy, does not resist the moral ambiguity of marriage. The director doesn't just want to make us sad with old and hapless people: the husband has been cheating on his wife for years, and so, in a way, her condition – as well as their caring but drug-addict adult son – is almost karma for his flawed love. It's an unusual but profound depiction, because most directors might have overlooked the ugliness and amplified the never-dying love between dying people. But the vortex – of co-existence and co-dependence – is inescapable here, in more ways than one.
Dina Amer's You Resemble Me is one of the most startling movie experiences I've had. I went in blind, without a clue of who or what, and I'm glad I did – because the utter shock of watching a genre-fluid story morph into something else altogether is rewarding. Executively produced by Spike Jonze and Spike Lee, the film initially lulls the viewer into expecting a vibrant slice-of-life immigrant drama: It opens with two inseparable Arab sisters finding slivers of joy in a difficult life. They bound across Paris, playing and imagining, screaming and laughing, escaping a violent mother before being forcefully placed in separate foster families. The film then follows the older sister, Hasna, at breakneck pace, transitioning into her troubled young-adult phase with a strange lightness of touch – locating humour, instinct and empathy in Hasna's life. Then the mask slowly but steadily comes off, with You Resemble Me revealing its true identity in a way that's both stylistically radical and culturally sensitive. I didn't see it coming, maybe because I didn't want to. It's a risky film but a compassionate one, and Amer's blending of fact and fiction redefines the parameters of the visual medium.
Short film Palme d'Or winner Ely Dagher's The Sea Ahead is a vivid and eerie portrait of Beirut – a ghost-town on the verge of economic collapse – prescient enough to be conceived before the catastrophic 2020 bombing. The threat of a "tsunami" pervades the familiar fish-out-of-water narrative. It's like the maker sees it coming; he turns Beirut into the ailing protagonist of a story featuring a young Lebanese student returning to the city after abandoning her life abroad. The film doesn't feel the need to reveal why she came back. But in a way it does reveal why she left; when she settles back into a relationship with her ex-boyfriend, the film creates the illusion of existing in both the past and the present at once, doubling up as the backstory of a dreamer at the crossroads of her reality. The result is a strikingly shot and perceptively performed story, one that's finding a way forward by flirting with the stillness of history.
Last but not least, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's Huda's Salon left a lasting impression on my mind – both in terms of craft and context. The Bethlehem-set thriller uses suspense to evoke the futility of a decades-old war, while also highlighting womanhood as the ultimate casualty of a conflict between cultures, religions, identities and politics. It revolves around two women – salon owner Huda, an undercover but reluctant Israeli spy, and her client Reem, whom Huda soon blackmails into joining the cause. The narrative flits between Huda's interrogation by the Resistance and Reem's tense unraveling as a wife and mother at home. It's no coincidence that the two actresses – Maisa Abd Elhadi and Manal Awad – somewhat resemble each other by face, as if to suggest that all the women of the region are more of a generic device than a specific gender to the men on both sides. The film plays out like a real-time nightmare, with long takes and claustrophobic spaces, all the while juxtaposing the terror of living with the horrors of surviving. There is no escape, no way out even if there is one – a notion that more than one film at this festival has echoed through its admittedly diverse program.