In the eye of the storm
Arab filmmakers took a fresh and uninhibited look at the world at the recent Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam, writes Amira Howeidy
The Arab stars, among them theatre actress Samiha Ayoub, 76, actor Ezzat El-Alayli, 74, and TV script writer Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman, 75, sashayed in the hotel lobby where participants at the 8th Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam (AFFR) were lodged, as well as in the halls and corridors of the Cinerama cinema four blocks away.
Of the younger and more in- demand generation, action heart- throb Ahmed El-Saka was the only one to make it to the Netherlands- based festival, Hend Sabri and Menna Shalabi having turned down their invitations at the last minute. In Egyptian-celebrity fashion, El-Saka made two appearances at the festival's opening and closing sessions, royally disappearing for the three days in between.
Putting this celebrity presence aside, when taken together with the three or four commercial Egyptian and Arab films screened at the event the AFFR had much to offer. In five days between 18 and 22 June, 44 Arab feature and short films and documentaries were screened, often back to back, revealing a diverse, fresh and uninhibited outlook by Arab filmmakers on our world today.
However, it is ironic that it is only in non-Arab cities such as Rotterdam that independent, young, and/or unconventional Arab filmmakers are exposed to each other's work and to developments in the industry. Today, the Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam, which receives little or no financial support from the Arab world, best demonstrates this reality, and despite its small size and limited audience it stands out as the main Arab film festival in Europe now that the Paris-based Arab World Institute has indefinitely canceled its own Biennale of Arab Cinema.
Thus, while the festival's objective is to stimulate multiculturalism -- it is, after all, part of an attempt by the Arab community in the Netherlands to build bridges between East and West -- the AFFR has also become important for filmmakers based in the Arab world. In some cases, it has even become a platform for these filmmakers, helping them to bypass the censorship or red tape that hinders independent filmmaking back home.
Egypt is a case in point, since Egyptian law prohibits the screening of any film in cinemas without the issuing of a series of complicated, and sometimes impossible to obtain, permissions from the censor and interior ministry. This has resulted in a situation in which independent filmmakers who do not recognise this process are deprived of the opportunity to show their work to the Egyptian public.
Former war-zone cameraman and filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout, whose feature Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun) won the ART award at the AFFR, is trying to change this law. Having bypassed the censorship process in producing his critically acclaimed film, El-Batout is now leading a campaign to pressure the authorities to reconsider the policy, insisting that independent filmmaking cannot flourish otherwise. "Things are going to change," he told the Weekly.
Ein Shams, which also won the gold award at Italy's Taormina International Film Festival recently, might also be considered a pioneering film in terms of its technique, since it includes scenes filmed in Iraq to give the film an unmistakable air of reality. The mix of documentary and fictional elements, El-Batout says, "is how I see the future of feature filmmaking."
The film is set in the low-income Cairo district of Ein Shams and portrays the lives of two Egyptian families, headed by a taxi driver and private chauffer and by the business tycoon the driver works for, respectively. The businessman's niece is a doctor, and she is exposed to the horrific hazards of the war on Iraq when she witnesses the impact of the use by the United States of depleted uranium in the country. However, though she is justly horrified by the use of such materials in warfare, she also comes to realise that many Egyptians suffer from life-threatening diseases, primarily cancer, even in the absence of war and as a result of the corruption that has permitted, or turned a blind eye to, the use of pesticides and hormones in food products. The poor, but cheerful family life of her chauffeur irrevocably changes when the family's intelligent and beautiful 11- year-old daughter, Shams, dies of leukemia.
Elsewhere in the festival, Egyptian director Sherif El-Bendary's 15-minute feature, Sa'et Asari (At Day's End), which surprisingly did not win an award, offered a bold perspective on the routine and depressing life of a pensioner who feels he no longer has anything to live for. Though he lives with his wife, he and his wife barely engage in conversation, let alone communicate. When they do talk, it is contrived and just a way of breaking the deadly silence that is within him. This may be the untold story of many Egyptian households.
Something similar is true of Ein El-Samaka (Fish Eye), a 22-minute film by Egyptian director Ahmed Khaled that depicts the dilemmas of a young, middle-class man who is unemployed and suffers from chronic insomnia. The director is so uninhibited in his portrayal of this young man's thoughts and internal struggles that he has no qualms in breaking taboos concerning the portrayal of sexuality in film, showing the man masturbating behind the shower curtain in an attempt to ease his frustrations.
The 20-minute Bahraini film Ashaa (Dinner), directed by Hussain El-Riffaei, also deals with sexual taboos. At the centre of the story is a young woman from a well- to-do family who regrets having had sex with her boyfriend who abandoned her after she told him she was pregnant. After having an abortion, she returns to her family for forgiveness, but without avail. However, the last thing she expects is for her family to poison her, which nevertheless occurs. Accepting her death sentence, the young woman submits to a slow, painful death, which she experiences silently in her bedroom. While the film invites the audience's sympathy for the young woman, there is little room for forgiveness of her "sin".
Probably more controversial, by virtue of the genre's non-fictional content, were the documentary films screened at the festival. Among these was a 58-minute documentary, Guevara 'ash (Viva Guevara), directed by Maha Shahbah, which won the silver award. The film traces the legacy of the Argentinian-born revolutionary Che Guevara in Egypt and the Arab world. Not only does the film show Guevara as a fashionable commodity even in the slums of Cairo, but it also discovers Egyptian and Arab Guevaras. This is in addition to Al-Jazeera's West Bank correspondent, Guevara Al-Bodeiri. The film gives food for thought when it encourages those appearing in it to draw analogies between the popular, even romantic, image and history of Che and the demonised figures of Osama Bin Laden and Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi.
The festival closed on a happy note, with the awards in most cases going to deserving productions. In particular, the gold award for a long documentary film went to the Iraqi film Life after the Fall, directed by Kasim Abid. This was a true eye-opener on what the war and occupation of Iraq have meant for Iraqis, and the film stands out among other productions dealing with the complex and gruesome realities of Iraq in that it documents the life of an extended and non- political Iraqi Shiiite family living in Baghdad between 2003 and 2007. The film is given added poignancy by the fact that this family is the director's own, which means he had unique access not only to his family, but also to the Iraqi society of which it was a part. Despite its length -- some two-and- a-half hours -- the film left little room for blinking, let alone ennui.
Life after the Fall starts on an optimistic note following the fall of the Saddam regime and the invasion of Iraq, even as the tone of the opening sequence seems to foretell disasters to come. The characters engage in discussion about the unknown future that awaits them, and viewers gain a nuanced view of developments within Iraqi society through the daily lives of a family as it engages with the political developments that are taking the country by storm. However, as the situation deteriorates, the viewer sees anticipation give way to despair, suffocation, and the family's feeling of being imprisoned in its Baghdad home as the security situation outside spirals out of control.
The film contains moments of despairing humour, such as when the camera films one of the family members at school, showing frustrated students demanding that El-Zarqawi bomb their school because they no longer want to study. Fully-fledged fear dominates the family when Ali, the director's brother, is abducted and murdered. The body is never found, and the family decides to leave Baghdad.
"I knew from the moment I arrived in Baghdad in 2003, that there was a story there," Abid told the Weekly. "There were three generations in my family, and each represented a portion of Iraqi society." While focusing on the main, external events that took place in Iraq during the five years of filming, Abid nevertheless made a point of keeping to the storyline of how the members of this average Iraqi family experienced the changes going on around them. "I discovered my family, as well as Iraqi society," Abid added
What makes Life after the Fall so different from other films dealing with similar subject matter is the fact that while Iraq is probably the most-filmed country in the world today, very little of what is broadcast on our TV screens truly reflects life inside the nation. "I knew I had access to the country, being an Iraqi and a member of this family," Abid commented. "I know that I'm showing the world what it doesn't normally see on TV. And I didn't want the viewer to feel sorry for the Iraqis. Instead, I wanted him or her to feel empathy."
2008 ARFF AWARDS
*Golden Hawk, Long: The Yellow House, Amor Hakkar, Algeria/France.
*Silver Hawk, Long: Under the Bombs, Phillipe Aracctingi, Lebanon.
*Golden Hawk, Short: Clean Hands, Dirty Soap, Karim Fanous, Egypt.
*Silver Hawk, Short: Bint Mariam, (Mariam's daughter) Saeed Salmeen, UAE.
*Best Actor: George Khabbaz, for his role in Under the Bombs, Lebanon/France.
*Best Actress: Hind Sabri for her role in Aquarium, Egypt.
*ART Award: Ein Shams, Ibrahim El-Battout, Egypt.
*Special Mention of the Jury: Ghiyab (Absence), Mohamed Rached Bouali, Bahrain.
*Golden Hawk, Long: Life After the Fall, Kasim Abid, Iraq.
*Silver Hawk, Long: Viva Guevara, Maha Shahbah, Egypt.
*Golden Hawk, Short: Maria's Grotto, Buthina Canaan, Palestine.
*Silver Hawk, Short: Memory of Women, Lassad Ousleti, Tunisia.
*Special Mention of the Jury: Soy Palestino, Oussama Qashoo, Palestine.
*Special Mention of the Jury: Recycle, Mahmoud Massad, Jordan.