Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 August 2009
Issue No. 959
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Talented Mr Maher

Hani Mustafa celebrates the choice of Ahmed Maher's debut in the Venice Film Festival's official competition

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Sherif Ramzy and Omar Sharif; Cyrine Abdel-Nour, Khaled El-Nabawy and Amr Waked in stills from Al-Musafir; Maher on location

Apart from the 24th film to be selected for the official competition of the annual Venice Film Festival, which Marco Muller, director of the film division of the Venice Biennale, said would not be announced until the last minute, all 23 participating films were announced on Thursday. Cheering this celebration, the oldest film festival in the world -- and still among the most prestigious -- does in its 66th round include Al-Musafir (The Traveller). The latter being the debut full-length feature of a young Egyptian filmmaker, Ahmed Maher. The last time an Egyptian film was included in Venice's official competition was in 2007, when the late director Youssef Chahine's Hiya Fawdah (Chaos) was screened by way of honouring his lifetime achievement. It had not happened since 1983, when Haddutah Masriyyah (Egyptian Tale) -- also by Youssef Chahine -- competed. The history of Egyptian film in Venice goes all the way back to 1937, however, when Widad, a film by the German director Fritz Kramp produced by Studio Misr, participated in the festival. Yet considering the fact that both Chahine's films were joint French productions, Al-Musafir is the second wholly Egyptian production to be included.

Yet the competition this year must be among the most difficult in the history of Venice, not only because Muller reached the maximum number of contestants possible (six of them American -- a temporary edge over the Cannes Film Festival, Venice's principal rival for the greatest number of American films every year) but also because of the number of award- winning directors represented, each with a hefty career behind them. "The choice of the film is in itself a prize," says Maher; and perhaps he would have sounded less modest had it not been for the presence among his contestants of Werner Herzog, for example, whose award list could not be more intimidating: the 1968 Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Signs of Life, the 1974 Cannes Film Festival Jury Award for The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, and the 1982 best-director award at Canne for Fitzcarraldo, to mention but three. Also competing with Maher is the French filmmaker Jaques Rivet, who won Cannes's grand prize for The Beautiful Troublemaker in 1991, and the Italian director Guiseppe Tornatore, whose Baaria opens the Venice Film Festival this year and who has won, among other, formidable awards, the 1988 Cannes Jury Award for Nuovo Cinema Paradisio, and the 1995 Venice Jury Award for The star maker. That is to mention neither the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, who won the Golden Bear for Head-on in 2004, nor the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who won the Palmes d'Or for his 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

The more lasting of Maher's challenges, however, could have more to do with his debut being an expensive artistic film of dubious commercial value; prior to the Ministry of Culture backing it up financially (it cost nearly LE20 million), profit- making production companies in Egypt and Italy saw the film as an unsafe wager. Whether Maher's presence among directors of such calibre will open up new opportunities to resume this level of work remains the greatest question. But this otherwise worrying question hardly seems to worry Maher at all at his point. He expects that the film being selected for the Venice official competition will not only open up new avenues for its financial success but for his own work too. The local market could hardly even cover the cost of the film being made, especially now that it has missed the summer season and will only have the chance to gross profits during the two upcoming Eids. Yet as Maher stresses, "the presence of the film in the competition creates extraordinary opportunities on the European and American markets. And so the film's profits will come to a greater degree from the international market." It is perhaps this state of affairs that drove Maher to declare, following the announcement that the film had been chosen for the official competition, that "the tax-payer's money spent on this film by the Ministry of Culture did not go to waste." Notwithstanding future opportunities, Maher says he is currently focussed on the colour-correction and subtitling of the version to be screened at the festival. Other projects will remain on hold until this process is concluded, he says.

The story of Al-Musafir takes place in the course of three days intended to sum up the life of Hassan, the octogenarian protagonist played by Omar Sharif (and Khaled El-Nabawi as the young Hassan). The film portrays only three days of this life: the first in 1948, the second in 1973, and the third in 2001. Although each date represents a key event in modern Egyptian history, the viewer should expect no sign -- beyond the general or incipient atmosphere -- of the Nakba, the 6 October War or 9/11. What the viewer does get is Hassan's encounters with the meaning of life: love, jealousy, betrayal, hatred; fatherhood, friendship, and adventure. Maher says the screenplay is some nine years old; he started writing it in 2001, and went on writing and rewriting until he obtained a final version three years later. For two whole years Maher sought a producer in Egypt or Italy; at this point the Radio and Television Union, headed by Hassan Hamed, had agreed to provide nearly a third of the budget; the late actor Ahmed Zaki was the principal candidate for the main role. Combined with the retirement of Hamed, Zaki's death blocked the project -- until Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni agreed to produce the movie after the project was recommended by critic Ali Abu Shadi and endorsed by critic Samir Farid -- and this was, remarkably, the first occasion on which the ministry has produced a film in over 38 years.

Prospects for Egyptian film are bright at this year's round of Venice: in addition to Al-Musafir, Yousri Nasrallah's Ehki ya Shahrazad (Tell, Sheherazade) was chosen for screening outside the official competition; in the Horizons section, Kamla Abu Zikri's One-Zero is being screened. The opening feature of the Critics Week, Metropia, a Swedish production outside the Critics Week competition, is by the Egyptian- Swedish director Tarik Saleh.

The participating films in the official competition:

36 vues du Pic Saint Loup, Jacques Rivette (France)

Accident, Cheang Pou-Soi (China-Hong Kong)

Baaria, Giuseppe Tornatore (Italy) -- Opening Film

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog (US)

Between Two Worlds, Vimukthi Jayasundara (Sri Lanka)

Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore (US)

La Doppia Ora, Giuseppe Capotondi (Italy)

Il Grande Sogno, Michele Placido (Italy)

Lebanon, Samuel Maoz (Israel)

Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz (US)

Lo Spazio Bianco, Francesca Comencini (Italy)

Lourdes, Jessica Hausner (Austria)

Mr. Nobody, Jaco van Dormael (France)

Persecution, Patrice Chereau (France)

Prince of Tears, Yonfan (Hong Kong)

The Road, John Hillcoat (US)

A Single Man, Tom Ford (US)

Soul Kitchen, Fatih Akin (Germany)

Survival of the Dead, George Romero (US)

Tetsuo The Bullet Man, Shinya Tsukamoto (Japan)

The Traveller, Ahmed Maher (Egypt)

White Material, Claire Denis (France)

Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat (Germany)

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