Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 September 2009
Issue No. 965
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Filmocracy

Samir Farid wraps up the 66th round of the Venice Film Festival, from Venice

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Al-Musafir

In the final analysis the 66th round of the Venice Film Festival -- which folded Saturday -- is the political film showcase par excellence.

Political movies on its programmes were both numerous and important, and they included both the Golden Lion and Silver Lion winners: respectively, the Israeli film Lebanon, directed by Samuel Maoz (the first grand prix ever to to Israel from any of the three major festivals: Berlin in February, Cannes in May, and Venice in September); and filmmaker Shirin Neshat's Zanan Bedone Mardan (Women Without Men). Two of the US contributions -- Michael Moore's Capitalism and Oliver Stone's South of the Border, the latter a documentary about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez -- are also political.

So is the Italian filmmaker Erik Gandini's Videocracy, a Swedish production screened on the Critics' Week programme, and Green Days by Hana Makhmalbaf -- one of the festival's cherished surprises. Yet the power of these films has little to do with their topics or the political position they express but rather derives from their artistic quality, as would be expected in films screened or awarded at a festival of this calibre.

Noteworthy is the fact that both the Golden and Silver Lion winners are both their directors' debuts, with Maoz's film not only featuring at the Venice Film Festival but receiving what is arguably the highest cinematic honour in the world having been turned out by both the Berlin and the Cannes film festival.

No doubt the jury, headed by Ang Lee, sought to underline new talents -- a noble aim that nonetheless disadvantaged big names like the French filmmakers Jacques Rivette and Patrice Chereau, who each presented a tour de force.

Likewise the German director Jessica Hausner, whose film Lords was unequivocally worthier than Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen of the Special Jury Prize. It would have made sense to hand Rivette the Memorial Golden Lion not only for his film but for his lifetime's achievement -- festival regulations would have allowed the jurors to do just that without otherwise altering their choices, yet they did not.

It must be said in this context that, while the festival was in need of such a name on its list of award-winners, Rivette himself needs neither this nor any other award.

The Israeli film is an innovative piece of art of a pure cinematic style and takes a strict humanitarian position against the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and against war in general. It reminded me of Goya's famous series Disasters of War, as if these powerful paintings had been translated to the language of cinema. While receiving the prize which is a touchstone in the history of Israeli cinema, Maoz called "from the festival podium, for end to killing, now".

The German film Zanan Bedone Mardan by the Iranian-German painter and photographer Shirin Neshat, who lives in New York, is an unadulterated piece of cinematic poetry, combining virtues of music and the plastic art with those of cinema. It takes place against the backdrop of Muhammad Hidayet Musadaqq's revolution in the early 1950s, but does so in order to talk about Iran today, 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, as if to say that revolutions based on divine inspiration should have ended with the religions that inspired them, those religions having been revolutions in their own right. The film condemns the oppression of freedoms and dictatorship in the name of Islam, particularly the oppression of women -- even though the film is different from a Neshat published a few years ago: while in the book the Islamic extremist kills his sister, in the film she kills herself and he does the honours of burying her in the garden of the family house.

The film complements the work of the other Iranian filmmaker, Hana Makhmalbaf, who since last June's elections has lived in Paris. Green Days is the first film ever about the recent events in Iran, and it relies on smuggled digital and camera-phone footage to document them. It is no doubt to Marco Muller's credit that he made Venice part the very flow of history by selecting the two films, engaging directly with the green revolution led by Mousavi against the dictatorship of Ahmadinejad and the soldiers of the theocracy.

Makhmalbaf's film combines documentary and fictional techniques, while Moore, Stone and Gandini are purely documentary features which establish the fact that -- together with animation -- the documentary film is going through its golden age in a manner unprecedented in the history of cinema, as evident in this round of the Venice Film Festival which also paid attention to Egyptian and Indian cinema.

In Capitalism, Moore reaches the apex of his creative project and provides the most powerful expression yet of his political position which, transcending ideology, defends the rights of the poor and the lower middle class in America. Moore truly deserves the accolade -- more common in Arabic than in English -- of the People's Artist, for he expresses the viewpoint of the ordinary American in the financial crisis, the topic of his present film. He does so in a deep and moving way, which surpasses his best- known film Fahrenheit 9/11, for which he received the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004.

Likewise the power of Stone's film which, even though it seems to be about Chavez alone, is really an exploration of Latin America and its relation with the United States today. Once again, the way he did in his previous two films about Fidel Castro and Yassir Arafat, Stone tackles those figures deemed by official policy and the media the enemies of America. Without adopting their viewpoints but rather out of a genuine belief in freedom of expression and in defiance of the predominant ideas, gives voice to those "enemies". Both Moore and Stone express the period of transformation from the age of Bush Jr to the age of Obama, and they support Obama unconditionally; but while Moore expresses the incumbent ideas as an ordinary citizen, Stone takes the position of the intellectual.

In Videocracy, about the Italian prime minister Berlusconi, the Italian filmmaker who works in Sweden, Gandini, coins the term "videocracy" to describe the role of the media in present-day politics, charting the connection between Berlusconi's electoral victory three times in a row and the fact that he owns the most important media complexes in Italy.

The Egyptian director Ahmed Maher's Al-Musafir (The Traveller) won only an award provided by a private institution (not announced at the closing ceremony). Yet Maher's greatest award is that his debut was screened in the official competition -- the first Egyptian film to make it to the official competition of one of the three major festivals since in 1971. Critics were divided in their reception of the film, be they Egyptian or non-Egyptian; perhaps this is only to be expected from a film so radically different from the run of the mill of Egyptian film history and presents something wholly new. The problem is rather that people come to the film with their own expectations while they should endeavour to understand the viewpoint of the director and how it is artistically expressed.

Official Awards

of the 66th Venice Film Festival

Venezia 66

- Golden Lion for best film: Lebanon by Samuel MAOZ (Israel, France, Germany)

- Silver Lion for best director: Shirin NESHAT for the film Zanan Bedone Mardan (Women Without Men) (Germany, Austria, France)

- Special Jury Prize: Soul Kitchen by Fatih AKIN (Germany)

- Coppa Volpi for Best Actor: Colin FIRTH in the film A Single Man by Tom FORD (USA)

- Coppa Volpi for Best Actress: Ksenia RAPPOPORT in the film La doppia ora by Giuseppe CAPOTONDI (Italy)

- "Marcello Mastroianni" Award for Best New Young Actor or Actress: Jasmine TRINCA in the film Il grande sogno by Michele PLACIDO (Italy)

- "Osella" for Best Technical Contribution: Sylvie OLIV... for the film Mr. Nobody by Jaco VAN DORMAEL (France)

- "Osella" for Best Screenplay: Todd SOLONDZ for the film Life during Wartime by Todd SOLONDZ (USA)

Orizzonti (Horizons)

- Orizzonti Prize to Engkwentro by Pepe Diokno (Philippines) - Orizzonti Prize for Best documentary to 1428 by DU Haibin (China)

- Special Mention to Aadmi ki aurat aur anya kahaniya (The Man's Woman and Other Stories) by Amit Dutta (India)

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