12/11/2012 11:42 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Live From the Dubai International Film Festival: Day 3

Tuesday felt like a journey from the past into the future, as we spent the day wandering the old city souks in Dubai and spent the evening dining among the clouds in the highest restaurant in the world.

Movies? They were a bit of an afterthought, on a day when festival screenings were reserved for the evening. The one film I saw was The Great Kilapy, a film from Portugal about an Angolan ladies' man caught up in the politics of Portuguese colonialism in the mid-1960s.

But director Zeze Gamboa, despite having a charismatic actor named Lazaro Ramos to play Joao, the central character, couldn't figure out if he was making a sex-and-swindle comedy with political and racial undertones or a drama with a bit of comedy thrown in. The film never seemed to figure out what it wanted to do with Joao; it generated few laughs, fewer thrills and little tension or momentum. While it offered interesting views of Lisbon and Brazil (standing in for Angola), it never achieved lift-off.

But mostly Tuesday was an off-day, a chance to see a little of Dubai and get away from the insular bubble of the Dubai International Film Festival.

So far, all we'd seen of Dubai was the glistening modern city and resort area where DIFF is headquartered. The architecture along the highway -- around the financial center and the Burj Khalifa -- is stunningly original, a riot of unexpected geometrics and juxtapositions. Even the stations for the Metro have a futuristic look -- and a standard of cleanliness that's not even dreamed of by New York straphangers.

And yet, when we got to the textile souk in Bur Dubai and the spice souk in the Deira section of the city -- which are on opposite sides of the river known as Dubai Creek - there's a strong whiff of the past: of the 19th-century trading port this city once was, where ships came to unload essentials and take on the goods only available in this Persian Gulf capital.

The growth in Dubai has been astonishing, to go by photos and exhibits we saw in the Dubai Museum. Since the discovery of oil in the late 1960s -- and the independence of the United Arab Emirates in 1971 -- this city has grown almost geometrically: from a former nomadic oasis into a city of fewer than 60,000 in the 1970s to more than a half-million by the turn of the millennium.

And so, when you get to the textile souk, it's a little like time-traveling, wandering through narrow, winding streets surrounded by structures from previous centuries. Oh sure, the stalls and stores are full of merchandise stamped with the faces of the Angry Birds, the Smurfs and Spongebob Squarepants. But there's also a sense of the past lurking around corners, even as shopkeepers accost you with offers of "good price, my friend" and unroll dazzling bolts of elaborately woven fabrics and a rainbow-palate of pashmina shawls and other wearables.

This commentary continues on my website.