Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 December 2007
Issue No. 874
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A tale of two cinemas

It was the week before the opening of the Cairo Film Festival and, at the British Council Garden, Nahed Nassr had a six-hour cinematic adventure

The UK being the 31st Cairo International Film Festival guest of honour, the British Council's second Independent Film Festival opened on 23 November -- featuring premieres of short films from Egypt and the UK. Providing a window on British independent film, filmmakers Martin Pickles and Daniel Mulloy each had a programme to themselves, while their Egyptian counterparts screened one short each. A beautiful medley, the two directors' work also reflected how much older independent cinema is in the UK. Pickles' Ripples, a film-poem about the play of light on the river by his house in Oxford, made for an appropriately gripping opening feature.

Politics beats drama

Drawing on a range of sources from the silent cinema to graphic design -- his profession -- Pickles experiments with fantasy and magic to make, in animation masterpieces like The Commuter or The Ox and the Farmer, the latter supported by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), statements of universal significance. An office worker literally shaves his face off every morning to blend in with other faceless commuters on their way to work; people mistreat their animals, failing to realise that the animals' sensitivity to nature gives them access to information they, the people, cannot have. London is the subject of Time Travellers of 1908, in which a time machine resembling a movie camera enables two Londoners to see the London Eye, Canary Wharf and the Docklands Light Railway as well as places from their own time like Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, bringing back a mobile phone, a wrist watch, a video tape and glossy magazines, and Century's End, another film-poem about the last 12 hours of the 20th century, shot in black and white between midday and midnight on 31 December 1999 and designed to look like the relic of a bygone age. Inspired by the work of the French magician and film pioneer Georges Melies (1861-1938), whose Le voyage dans la lune was exactly 100 years old in 2001, when it was made, Pickles' GM is a black-and- white silent film about an Edwardian gentlemen tormented by spirits who appear through holes in his sitting-room wallpaper.

Mulloy's longer films, by contrast, reveal a penchant for conversation. A strong sense of place together with sound effects convey the characters' feelings in these mini epics of the family: in Son, the loneliness and anger of a mother-son relationship; in Sister, the development of two siblings under each other's influence. Antonio's Breakfast is the story of a black boy looking after a wheelchair-bound white man, but it is the boy's eyes -- the mirror of his genuine love for the white man, his relationship with his black friends, his fears, frustrations and ultimate regret -- that play the main role. A "factual" filmmaker, Mulloy is a master of evocation: the subtlety is such that, even though you never know what it is that the Chinese boy manages to make disappear in Sister, that object's disappearance becomes a focus of the drama; in Son it is never clear whether the characters are real or part of a very convincing stage set. And it is just such magic, expertly blended into "reality", that gives Mulloy's work its unique flavour, and has won him over 40 international awards. His latest, Dad -- to be officially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January -- has already won the Prix UIP and is nominated for the European Film Academy Award. It was due to its controversial topic that the British Council decided against screening it.

Documentary screenings included the British Council's own production on people with special needs, produced with help from the Right to Live Association -- a moving portrayal of the children as well as arts activities in which they participated -- and Amina Mansour and Shahira Amin's news report-like "The beginning of the end", a comprehensive take on female genital mutilation in Egypt. Elsewhere fiction films had a social theme: Sherif Nakhla's Miraculum is the story of two close and friendly families, the one Muslim and the other Christian, whose members are never forced to question their position in society until the Muslim girl is pregnant by the Christian boy; in the end they decide on an abortion, but once the baby is gone they can no longer exchange a word. It's as if their love dies along with it, a symbol of what society is ready to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. Ayman Elamir's Mandil El-Helw (Sweetie's kerchief), a Jesuits' Institute production named after an old song, is both the story of a teacher whose wife leaves him, taking along their daughter (Ahmed Kamal) and a profound reflection on the "inequality and injustice" to which, in that teacher's own words, society is subject. Filmed in real-life locations - a girls' school, a train station, and a street in a poor suburb - the film is documentary style and demonstrates art's ability to present complex issues in readily digestible form.

My name is identity

Human, social, cultural, political: the Cairo Film Festival has it all.

The Arabic word for it sounds loaded: al-hawiyyah. It was the title of at least one movie - by Syrian filmmaker Ghassan Shmeit - about Golan Heights natives before and after the Israeli occupation. Identity comes across in a particularly poignant scene when they burn their own (Israeli) IDs by way of resistance. In numerous, mostly less obvious ways, the theme of identity has cropped up both inside and out of the official competition. Dutch filmmaker Albert Ter Heerdt's Kicks, in which an Amsterdam policeman shoots a Moroccan rapper whose songs call for violence, is a study of the emotional dilemmas that emerge once identity is negatively emphasised: the stereotypes and misunderstandings of discontent in a globalised context. The kicks keep coming but like Ter Heerdt, who is unable to reach some kind of reconciliation with his wife until they both reach out to "the other", only those who manage to reconstitute identity with postive understanding and respect are winners.

In the Mexican film "Spare parts", diected by Aaron Fernandez, difficult economic conditions drive the characters to adopt an alternative identity. Ivan and his uncle dream of illegally immigrating to the United States and departing their slum forever, surviving on something other than stealing automobile spare parts. Their T-shirts and van are decorated with the American flag; Ivan plays cowboy in front of the mirror; thus they become surrogate Americans of some kind, their identity warped by the fantasy of an alternative life conceived under the influence of the American Dream.

In French filmmaker Florent Emilio Siri's "Intimate enemy", identity presents a different kind of problem as lieutenant Terrien, a young idealist, takes command of a desolate army outpost high in the mountains of Kabylia, Algeria, in 1959. As Terrien wages a brutal campaign to wipe out National Liberation Front (FLN) rebels, resorting to torture and napalm, he loses his own personal battle to keep his humanity intact. On the other hand, the brutality of the FLN members themselves, including the massacre of an entire village suspected of harbouring collaborators, leads some Algerians to fluctuate from support for the resistance to the French army and back - and the crisis of identity reaches unsuspected extremes. Belonging to either side will lead to a definite loss: a situation one character compares to a cigarette lit from both ends with the people somewhere in the middle awaiting their fate.

After a long journey into himself Ali during the First World War, the hero of the Turkish film "The last Ottoman", directed by Mustafa Sevki, ends a member of Mustafa Kemal's nationalist moevement fighting the Ottoman regime and British colonisation. The Turkish flag symbolises an identity that was uniting the Turks around Mustafa Kemal, and at one point Ali cannot bear the idea of British soldiers removing it from a coffee shop. The former boxer and soldier in the Ottoman navy fights single-handedly for the flag that would soon bring his very world to an end...

Different treatments of the theme have demonstrated, in the course of the Cairo Film Festival, at least, that identity continues to be among the most pressing issues in the world today - and the most various.

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