Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 February 2008
Issue No. 884
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Let the festivals begin

Samir Farid is impressed by Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood at this year's Berlin International Film Festival and by the only Arab film on show, Yousri Nasrallah's Aquarium

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Clockwise from top: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood ; Martin Scorsese with Mick Jagger at the Berlin Festival opening; Hend Sabry, Youssri Nasrallah and Gamil Rateb in a still from Aquarium, Nasrallah's film screened in Berlin

Last Thursday saw the opening of the 58th Berlin International Film Festival, a ten-day event that marks the beginning of the major film festival season. Shortly before the opening, an unprecedented crisis in the history of such festivals occurred, when two members of the jury, Danish director Susanne Bier and French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, withdrew from the panel at the last minute. This resulted in this year's jury, headed by Costa-Gavras, comprising only six members instead of the usual eight.

This organisational hiccup aside, the Festival opened on a truly upbeat note with a screening of Martin Scorsese's documentary on the Rolling Stones, Shine a Light, this being the first time in its history that the Festival has opened with a documentary. The presence of Scorsese along with Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood provided the opening ceremony with a great deal of verve and dash.

The following day, Friday, the screening of films within the competition began with Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood, a masterpiece by a great filmmaker who is not a newcomer to Berlin and whose film Magnolia won the Festival's top award, the Golden Bear, in the year 2000.

There Will Be Blood is based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil, though the film's title comes from the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, in which Aaron is told that "there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt." The biblical blood of the film's title is oil, as the film tells the story of an early 20th-century oil tycoon from the American south-west, Daniel Plainview, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis.

There Will Be Blood has been nominated for many Oscars, and it is almost certain that it will reap some of Berlin's top awards, if not the Golden Bear then the Jury's Award, or the Best Acting award for Day-Lewis. Although at the time of writing some of the much-anticipated films in the competition, including Mike Leigh's Happy- Go-Lucky and Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure, have not been screened, I still feel that such a powerful film as Anderson's is sure to win one of the Festival's top prizes.

This notwithstanding, however, one looks forward to seeing Standard Operating Procedure, the first documentary to enter the Berlin competition. Coming from a director who produced one of the most insightful documentaries on the Vietnam War, The Fog of War, all Arabs, this writer included, must feel greatly indebted to Errol Morris for the choice of topic of his latest film: torture inside Iraqi prisons under the American occupation, especially the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Finally, in the panorama section for films outside the competition, Yousri Nasrallah's Aquarium -- the only Arab entry in all the Festival's sections -- was screened on Friday in the presence of Nasrallah and Hend Sabry, the lead actress in the film. This screening was attended by almost all the Arab participants and by many Berlin-based Arab diplomats, including the Egyptian ambassador.

The film was very warmly received and the following day (February 9) critic Derek Elley wrote a review of it for the world cinema magazine Variety. In his review, Elley said the film was "an ambitious metaphysical drama that works better on paper than on screen," going on to say that Aquarium was the "tale of two emotionally closeted Cairo-ites -- a phone-in radio host and an anesthetist -- whose paths only cross at the very end," and that it was "more interesting for its peripheral characters than for its main protagonists."

Nevertheless, Elley had very positive things to say about the lead actress, the cinematography and the score. "Hend Sabry makes a feisty, independent lead whose performance alone sustains interest as long as she is on screen," he wrote. "Supports are fine, as is Samir Bahsan's atmospheric nocturnal lensing and Tamer Karawan's soft, dream-like score."

Following the Berlin screening of his film, Nasrallah received more than one invitation to participate in other international film festivals, including the Tribeca in New York to be held next April, the Taormina Festival in Sicily next June and the Abu Dhabi Festival next October.

Indeed, on the fringes of the Berlin Festival the organisers of the Abu Dhabi event used the opportunity to promote one of the Middle East's richest festivals, which started only last year.

This year's second round (10-19 October 2008), the organisers revealed, is aiming big. During the Berlin events, Mohamed Khalaf al-Mazrouei, Director-General of the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Foundation, held a reception where he announced the festival's statutes, which, it was revealed, would involve giving a huge plethora of awards to films of all genres: features, shorts, documentaries, animations and amateur films.

Perhaps most enticingly of all for filmmakers, there will be a million-dollar award as the top prize -- the highest to date in the history of all international film festivals.

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