As the Cairo Film Festival draws to a quiet close, Mohamed El-Assyouti shares his eclectic diary of the event, while Hani Mustafa delves into the far-reaching implications of the Arab cinema the festival showcased
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From top: Blackout Journey, a comment on the complications of brotherhood and international terrorism; Danielle Arbid's powerful depiction of Lebanese civil war trauma in Maarek Hobb
ALREADY, this weekend, the 28th Cairo International Film Festival comes to an end. Whether film lovers have had a chance to engage with its programme, however, is highly doubtful. Though the opening took place with typical aplomb -- the annual coterie of honourees included scriptwriter Abdel-Hayy Adeeb and director Said Marzouq as well as actress Laila Fawzi and the Lebanese- Egyptian singer-actress Sabah -- the festival commanded but little attention amid locust attacks and the death of Arafat; and president Cherif El-Shoubashi's policy of limiting the number of screening venues, while resulting in a praiseworthy adherence to the schedule, kept many a potential audience member away from the action. Perhaps the failure of committed movie buffs to pay attention to the festival also reflects disillusion with particular aspects of its organisation, the tradition of including at least two Egyptians in the official competition jury -- in this case director Nader Galal and actress Poussi -- in order to ensure that Egyptian films should receive awards irrespective of quality, being a particularly obvious example. In contrast to last year's 200, only 140 films were screened this year; and none of the frenzied chaos attendant upon downtown movie theatres prior to El-Shoubashi's tenure was observed; with the result that the festival came and went in near silence, its presence hardly felt at all.
Among El-Shoubashi's innovations was the introduction of a guest country each year, with films from that country receiving special attention; last year the guest in question was France. This year, following an Egypt-Italy cultural exchange initiative that took place in 2004, Italy did the honours, with 45 screenings representing both classic and recent cinema. This would have been cause for excitement had Murphey's law not been such a permanent fixture of contemporary Egyptian culture: the schedule was not available, whether in print or on the festival's web site, for the first two days of the event. Only by chance did the filmgoer now writing this piece find out about the press screening of Federico Fellini's Amarcord (I Remember, 1973), in the Small Hall of the Opera House on the second day; and a fortunate coincidence it was, for by 7pm last Wednesday, sitting uneasily among journalists, aspiring and actual filmmakers, it was possible to drift back into the maestro's native Rimini, with Titta and Gradisca, the director's adolescent stand-in and the town's hairdresser and most coveted woman, respectively, playing out their heart- warming drama in this intimately and ingeniously observed community: Uncle Teo climbing a tree to scream, "I want a woman"; La Tabacchina (tobacco vender) exposing her gigantic bosom to Titta right before a portrait of Dante.
Possible, too, to lose oneself in the memory of Italo Calvino's Cinema-goer's Autobiography, in which admiration for Fellini metamorphoses into a kind of exegesis of his magic. "Fellini manages to disturb us to the core," Calvino writes, "because he forces us to admit that what we would most like to distance ourselves from is what is intrinsically close to us... Fellini turns the cinema into a symptomatology of Italian hysteria, that special family hysteria which prior to Fellini was represented as a mainly southern Italian phenomenon and which he, from the geographical middle ground of his Romagna, redefines in Amarcord as the one true unifying element of Italian behaviour..."
Cut to a typical downtown movie theatre in the autumn of 1994 -- at 7pm on Monday 28 November -- and Fellini's La cittą delle donne (City of Women, 1980), a somewhat misleading title from the viewpoint of the all-male audience surrounding the present writer, perched in anticipation of debauchery, unaware of the irony that, in many ways, it was the very voyeuristic tendency that brought them to see the film that was the butt of the director's joke. The baroque style and delight in human inconsistencies informing the film were impossible to appreciate amid chatter continually exploding into loud complaints -- a circus-like viewing experience in which a completely unknown Fellini was being viewed, unforgettably, as the promise of longed-for porn turning out to be scam.
As the flashback terminates it dawns on the filmgoer in question that,
once again, in the Small Hall, the rather smaller audience is almost
exclusively male; and that its ceaseless, distracted murmuring can only
point to lack of interest. What gives the lie to the notion that Amarcord
was appropriately screened most clearly, however, is the projector lens
being out of focus; it is amazing how unerringly such failures manage
to creep into the festival, year after year, to be discovered only when
it is too late. A more fortunate audience would have revelled in Danil
Donati's art direction and Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography, feeling
the hail on their heads and the mist encircling their bodies, for Rotunno
never failed Fellini's vision of his hometown on the Adriatic coast,
but the Small Hall's screening must have had the latter turning in his
grave now. If not for Nino Rota's soundtrack, an invasive experience
even despite the poor quality of the sound system, nothing in Amarcord
would have given the audience the vaguest hint of the kind of screening
this offering deserves. Only two other screenings were available, after
all, in the off-the-beaten-track Family and Stars complexes in Maadi
and Heliopolis, respectively, both scheduled at 1.00pm, with the result
that, though technically excellent, very few people attend; in Heliopolis
the management complained that no more than 20 festival tickets would
sell for a whole day, creating a substantial loss of revenue for this
newly opened venture.
Giving up on Italian classics to be screened at the Small Hall -- Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (The Adventure, 1959), Vittorio De Sica's La ciociara (Two Women, 1960) and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) -- the next day the present writer heads straight for the Opera House's Creativity Centre, where, again at 7pm, after a heated argument with the security (who require a press card that has not yet been issued) he is finally admitted to Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique (1954).
The film is notable for the book on which it is based, which Hitchcock had considered adapting, but Clouzot obtained its rights first; so the authors later wrote a novel with Hitchcock in mind -- hence Vertigo (1958). Once again an all-male audience are chatting distractedly on mobile phones, with many leaving noisily during the first half hour of screening. The quality and projection are adequate, and the suspense eventually quiets the audience, who seem rather more attentive towards the denouement. After the show two aging audience members are complaining of boredom, however: they have seen so much of this, they tell each other, why can't the festival bring them something new. Others, similarly old, disagreed: 50 years on the film still works, they declaimed, because back in the days a film was made with love; the lead, Véra Clouzot, it is worth noting in this context, was Clouzot's wife.
Outside, a seemingly endless line awaited admittance to the Creativity Centre to see François Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003), another French thriller about a blonde, a brunette, a man's dead body and a swimming pool. Worth seeing, definitely, but perhaps not worth standing in line for another half hour and going through the same quarrel with the security again for. Every time a Creativity Centre screening ends, such is the ludicrous rule, the audience must exit the building and re-enter if they want to stay on for the next screening. Sufficiently disillusioned by now, the filmgoer decides to call it quits, and the next evening finds himself comfortably seated in the huge Good News cinema hall, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, with only a handful of respectful viewers scattered about, poised for the same Swimming Pool, perhaps his first trouble-free experience since the opening.
Saturday, 11.30pm. Siegfried E Kamml's Blackout Journey (2004), the official competition's German entry -- an otherwise derivative and straightforward, not to say simplistic offering -- imbues an otherwise bland feast with the spice of controversy. A road movie somewhat reminiscent of Brian Levinson's Rainman (1988), it is the story of two brothers who have been separated since a 1985 terrorist attack on an airport, apparently perpetrated by Arabs, killed both their parents. When Mio, a singer living in loud, hip Berlin, discovers that there is a fund for the survivors of the attack that requires his brother's signature to be collected, he sets out for the Austrian mountains, where Valentin has settled to an apparently quiet life -- they are to meet for the first time in 18 years -- only to discover that the latter suffers from multiple personality disorder and realise, fully, how irrevocably the misfortune has damaged the two of them; as he observes the suicidal tendencies of his brother, he gradually learns to be less egotistical. With a glaring soundtrack and dynamic camera style, the movie answers to a restlessly contemporary, post-11 September spirit, yet its condemnation of terrorism should not be mistaken for an anti-Arab stance. In fact it seems to imply that the war on Iraq was but an arbitrary act of violence, the only possible response to which, in the long run, must be self-destruction.
The latest in a string of disappointments, the conference held after the screening, in the presence of the film's producer, Maximilian Vogt, who also thought out the story, forgoes all the stimulating debate it could have generated. Instead the audience are questioning the verisimilitude of Valentin's schizophrenia, asking how much research was done, and whether the airport incident was based on a real-life act of terrorism. Some critics, scandalised by what they perceived as a racist statement -- a brief shot of the terrorists, who look Arab -- have already walked out of the theatre in a huff, and the conversation disintegrates into platitudinous discussions of the importance of learning to control one's anger and the need for peace in the world.
MANY Arab films to be screened during this year's round of the Cairo Film Festival had already won awards at international festivals or received worldwide critical acclaim, a fact thought to justify instituting a separate programme for these films, since their success is said to demarcate a previously implausible expanse for new Arab cinema on the international map of filmmaking. And judging by the quality of three representative and very different examples, such novel cartography goes beyond wishful thinking.
Algerian filmmaker Belkacem Hadjadj's El- Manara, for one, is a faithful and brutally direct depiction of Algerian society during the rise of fundamentalist Islam, which was to give rise to civil war following the annulment of the 1991 elections, in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won. Hadjadj relies on the traditional technique of introducing a narrator, in this case a woman named Asma, who mediates the viewing experience from start to finish. Asma lives with her daughter in France, having, like many Algerians, fled the war; and the film proceeds as a flashback to her childhood back home where, with her friends Ramadan and Fawzi, she would attend the Manara festivities, celebrating Prophet Mohamed's anniversary. The event, a peaceful carnival with music and fireworks, is employed as a kind of backdrop to subsequent social transformations, and acts to give the viewer an idea of Muslim traditions in Algeria, which are to be placed in confrontation with the Wahabite ideology of the FIS, to whom the Manara, along with any form of social intercourse beyond the strictly restrictive prescriptions of the most reductive view possible of Shari'a, is but a deviation from the pure creed. Such contrasts run through the film, and it is first encountered when FIS militias barge in on a lecture being given by Asma, now a sociology professor working to establish an association for the preservation of Algerian folklore. By now she is living with her two male friends in an apartment in Algiers; Fawzi is a journalist writing in Al-Watan newspaper, Ramadan a doctor; the attack on her lecture is the first sign of the FIS disastrous effect on their lives.
While the Manara and all it stands for in the way of grassroots culture and unencumbered national self expression informs Asma's view of the fate of Algeria, it is his concern with human rights that conditions the response of Fawzi, who soon becomes her husband. He confronts acts of violence committed by the police in 1988, championing the cause of demonstrators subjected to torture during the resulting interrogations. Yet it is these very victims who, having joined forces with the Islamic movement, later abduct both husband and wife. This part of the film appears to be an attempt at historical objectivity on the part of Hadjadj, a quality of which the film will quickly fall short as it proceeds to documenting the period following the annulment of the elections. (Ramadan, in contrast to Asma and Fawzi, is the kind of young man who could have been mobilised by the FIS, and by the end of the film he puts his work as a doctor at the service of the militias fighting the government.)
The film's treatment of political developments and their attendant social transformations seems somewhat superficial, yet it is the episode of the abduction that testifies to the originality of its approach. Here the viewer encounters the life of the militias, their social interactions, the violence that besets them at every moment and their power struggles, which result in a series of assassinations. This leads up to the climax when Ramadan, feeling the brunt of the FIS vision of utopia on his two dear friends, has a change of heart and helps Asma escape following Fawzi's sudden release (the latter event has no dramatic justification). Towards the end the film's excellent direction and cinematography flower come into their own, revealing outstanding beauty despite the losses so far incurred in the way of intellectual depth -- a fault that the viewer will likely be disposed to forgive.
Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid's Maarek Hobb (In the Battlefields), on the other hand, may be said to adopt the opposite approach to a similar social tragedy. Seemingly driven by the desire to forgo all those depictions of the Civil War that have characterised Lebanese filmmaking, Arbid portrays the life of a Christian middle-class family through the agency of Lina, the 12-year-old daughter of a compulsive gambler, by now heavily in debt, and a typical family woman. The film opens with the mother in the presence of a priest and an older member of the family trying to make the father promise to put an end to his addiction to cards for the sake of the unity of his family, but this line of events is only secondary, for it is seen in the light of Lina's own exploration of the world: her old, rich aunt's harsh treatment of her brother Fouad and her maid Siham, who makes friends with Lina, her only breathing space in an oppressive life, and the two are seen watching young men showing off their bodies on the opposite balcony while Siham brags of the sex she has with her boyfriend Marwan. This friendship in turn becomes Lina's only breathing space as the father becomes increasingly violent due to his depression over gambling, and though not sexually aware as yet, she begins to immerse herself in the older woman's life.
One dilemma occurs when, having decided to run away with Marwan, Siham confides in Lina, and the latter is torn between losing her as a friend and losing her physical proximity. She opts for the first option, betraying the confidence of her friend, and at the same time Lina's father dies. The atmosphere becomes even gloomier as Siham refuses to talk to her... All this takes place in 1983, in the middle of the war, but the latter only exists in the film as a soundtrack: even at the height of the Civil War, Arbid seems to be saying, people got on with their lives. War only figures as a dramatic solution at the end when bombings are heard and the scene shifts to the bunkers. An apolitical film about the Lebanese Civil War? Certainly not, Arbid manages to exclude naive politics from the functioning of this drama, inducing a sense of intimate normality, if only to underline the life that was lived, and livable, against the backdrop of the Civil War.
In Bahraini filmmaker Bassam Al-Thawadi's Al- Za'ir (The Visitor), besides the inferior quality of production, politics and society hardly figure at all, nor, come to think of it, does the intimate psychology or daily life of the characters. Modelled on the Hollywood horror flick, the script revolves around this genre's most common motifs -- the intervention of initially inexplicable, eventually resolved supernatural phenomena happening to the protagonists. Fatma suffers from audiovisual hallucinations, she is haunted by a ghost who calls out her name or appears before her; in a parallel line to her story, Ahmed, a car dealer, begins to have the same symptoms, seeing a ghost on the road. It soon transpires that a murder was committed in the past and the victim's soul must be responsible for these phenomena.
The script advances the two protagonists' stories separately until they climactically meet at the crime scene, the graveyard where Fatma believes she will find the solution to her problem, contrary to the counsel of her husband Ali, who suggests seeing a psychiatrist but agrees to accompany her to the graveyard. Ahmed is driven to the graveyard by a rather different stimulus: he receives an anonymous phone call informing him that his younger brother Khaled has been consuming drugs under the influence of his delinquent friend Amin, and that the youths repair to the graveyard for the purpose. For added suspense, the film also hints at Amin's complex, suspicious relation with a gang of traders and their bodyguards. At the graveyard two groups of characters disperse -- Fatma and Ali on the one hand, Ahmed and the two young men on the other -- going in different directions. The latter group eventually breaks up, and suddenly Khaled, then Amin are killed, whereupon the mysterious force pursuing them turns on Fatma and Ali, going straight for the former's life. It is at this point that the mystery is finally resolved: the ghost is identified with Adel, a friend of Fatma's father whom the latter, as it turns out, killed, in order to marry Fatma's mother.
The content is the weakest link in a chain of promising elements -- though still weak, the acting, direction and soundtrack have much praiseworthy potential -- that may, before too long, result in a fully-fledged film industry in this cinema- shy country, by which time Bahraini filmmakers will have no doubt figured out a way to speak of their life, both intimate and political.