Politics beats drama
Hani Mustafa takes stock of the Arab contribution to the 31st Cairo International Film Festival
In many Arab countries the film industry suffers serious economic problems, with the exception of the Egyptian film industry which produces dozens of films annually. The most important factor contributing to this situation is that the Egyptian film market is -- the producers -- a rapid return on their invested capital and a satisfying profit margin. Limited production in other Arab countries does not necessarily imply a weaker product but it has reduced the number of commercial and mainstream films.
Filmmakers in many Arab countries, especially the Maghreb, rely on joint productions with European countries. Some production companies in the north Mediterranean, particularly in Spain and France, still desire to maintain cultural ties with the southern Mediterranean countries. The relations between funders and filmmakers is not confined to the actual production of films but continues through post-production to distribution and marketing. Joint production opportunities are usually more available to films with a clear political line in their drama and only rarely does it concentrate on the humanitarian and artistic side of filmmaking free of politics.
This year the Cairo International Film Festival will be screening many Arab films in its various programmes. There is the section for the best Arab film in which the Syrian filmmaker Abdel-Latif Abdel-Hamid's Kharij Al-Taghtia (Out of Coverage), among many others, will be screened. Abdel-Hamid has won numerous awards and is respected by viewers and critics alike. This film, written by the director, starts with the ambiguously swift if exhausted movements of the middle-aged protagonist, Amer. One enjoyable aspect of the opening sequence is Abdel-Hamid's intentional confusion of the viewer. Amer makes Oriental sweets for a living, he is at work, and his movements are not immediately comprehensible.
The aura of mystery persists while he is seen speaking over the phone to a woman called Salma, who asks him to bring along meat and vegetables. The viewer might assume she is his wife but the quantities she demands do not seem to be intended for a small family. Things become even more mysterious when another woman, Nada, calls to make a similar request. We notice that there is a degree of intimacy between the man and the two women, which makes room for their respective children, Zohair and Mariouma. We eventually find out that Amer is a friend of Nada's husband, who has been imprisoned on a political charge since 1995.
Through Amer's movement, Abdel-Hamid tracks down the details of the Damascus middle class, with an emphasis on Amer's struggle to support both his friend's family and his own. Over ten years and more, supporting Nada and Mariouma develops into a fully fledged love affair. The script eschews the period in between, jumping -- albeit convincingly -- to the point when the triangle of husband, wife and lover has reached a climactic moment. Eventually Salma manages to secure the release of Nada's husband through a coworker's husband, but leaves Amer. Nada returns to her husband and Amer is left alone. To relieve the dramatic intensity -- a combination of realistic and romantic registers -- Abdel-Hamid adds a few comic touches, notably through the character of a Japanese man, Shanti, who lives in Damascus and to whom Amer gives lessons in classical Arabic.
Algerian director Nasser Bakhti's Night Shadows -- screened in another section, New Arab Cinema -- moves away from political to individual reality, dealing with a number of expatriates in a Swiss city. In this film the director navigates through numerous lines of drama regardless of how or whether they relate to each other. The first is a young Algerian man called Mohamed, who works at a number of jobs aiming at a minimal standard of living in addition to sending some money to his mother back in his village. Through him the director handles many of the problems of Arab immigrants in Europe, down to the police asking him to interpret for an Arab illegal immigrant -- the director's gesture in the direction of an open critique of illegal immigration.
He maintains the same line with regard to an African man called Ade who dreams of becoming a professional footballer. This may have been the reason he immigrated but he ends up as a waiter in an Italian restaurant. A strong friendship ties him to the cook and the owner of the restaurant but the director does not explain if this relationship is the reason behind the jealousy which drives his colleagues to inform the police of his status. The film uses the technique of overlapping lines of drama, subtly connected without being sufficiently integrated. The elderly policeman working on illegal immigration comes into contact with Mohamed when he asks him to translate and again we see the same two policemen arresting the African immigrant.
In a different line there is a girl addicted to drugs who is trying to call her mother. The mother breaks down during the first phone call and in the next two calls she hangs up on her daughter. This girl looks for money to buy drugs all night but fails until she introduces herself to Mohamed as a prostitute but is unable to have sex with him. He gives her the money anyway as he senses her sincerity. The film ends with Mohamed travelling after he is beaten up by Arab gangsters. At the same time Ade too leaves, while the suffering of the girl continues and the elderly policeman decides to retire since he is mentally exhausted by his job. The role of the girl and the policeman's domestic problems have nothing to do with illegal immigration, which is the main message of the film -- accentuated in the subtitles at the end of the film when we see documentary shots of illegal immigrants being arrested to the music of an African song. Somewhat too direct, altogether.
The Morrocan director Fawzi Ben Said presents a particular cenimatic method in his film Mille Mois, screened in a special section dedicated to new Morrocan films. The events take place in a village in Ramadan of the year 1981. The boy Mahdi lives with his mother and his grandfather after his father is imprisoned. Mahdi's family has lied to him, telling him his father is away in France. Rural Morrocco in the 1980s suffered from several economic problems including unemployment and draught. The director uses these details to enrich the characters. The grandfather played by the famous Morroccan actor Mohamed Majid seeks any job at all to support his daughter and grandson.
The village is portrayed through several details including the teacher who loves poetry and is affected by the atmosphere of poverty. When his salary is late from the ministry the students come to class with food for him. The girl next door goes to the city and ends up being killed, which shocks Mahdi -- especially since his mother had been angry with the girl. There are also the problems of love in the village. A girl from Mahdi's nieghbourhood is in love with a young man but the teacher proposes to her. At the end she agrees to marry a wealthy stranger but the wedding ends in a catastrophe. The director moves across vast stretches of land and a mountainous area while his camera follows Mahdi, who is given the task of looking after the chairs by his teacher. The movement of the chairs represents all the problems affecting Morroccon village life in the 1980s.