Sans film, sans festival
Samir Farid raises the curtain on what has been a personal experience for 40 years of his life
The 63th Cannes Festival (12-23 May) opened yesterday with Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, under a new title with the words "film" and "international" -- by now deemed superfluous -- taken out. It is hardly surprising that the biggest international film festival should be based in France, where in 1895 the Lumiere brothers invented the cinematograph, the beginning of what we have known as cinema. France is also the one country where successive governments set aside the largest budgets for supporting film whether in terms of production, distribution or screening, including the support they provide for the Cannes Festival. This enables a high degree of professionalism, making Cannes the example followed by film festivals everywhere.
The 2010 round is my 40th time in the festival, which I have attended promptly every year since the 1971 round (not counting the 20th round, which I attended in 1967 at the age of 23). This means that I spent, in total, around two years of my life. I owe the festival much of what I know about cinema, and the festival owes me its fame in Egypt and the Arab world -- because I was the first to cover it through daily dispatches at a time when Arab journalists who attended it could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the first to produce more than one book about it in Arabic since the 1970s. The festival was always generous to me. Twice I was given its gold medal, one of only 20 awarded to journalists from around the world: once on the occasion of the festival's silver jubilee in 1997, and once to celebrate the millennium in 2000.
The Cannes Festival is made up of six sections: three competitions for full-length and short films as well as graduation projects, and three programmes without competitions (Outside the Competition, Un Certain Regard, and Cannes Classics). A few years ago the festival created a prize for Un Certain Regard -- to my mind an unjustified move. Films should be either in or outside the competition. One lesson the Cannes Festival taught the world is that the fewer the number of prizes the more valuable they are. No one knows what will become of the Un Certain Regard prize this year, moreover, with the programme including new films by Jean-Luc Goddard's new film, Film Socialisme, and Manoel de Oliveira's O Estranho caso de Angelica (which he produced at the age of 102): both are no doubt worthy of the greatest prizes.
The round includes 80 screenings: 58 features, and 22 short films, representing 33 states and every continent. The only film representing Egypt (and the entire Arab world) is a re- mastered edition the 20 min Eyptian Ministry of Culture production Al-Fallah Al-Fasih (The Eloquent Peasant, 1970) by of Shadi Abdel-Salam (1930-1986), marking the film's 40th anniversary and the 80th of its maker. The World Cinema Foundation, founded and directed by Martin Scorsese, re-mastered the film in collaboration with the National Centre of Cinema in Egypt, under the auspices of Minister Farouk Hosni. This is the second year in direct succession for a Shadi Abdel-Salam film to represent Egypt at Cannes. In 2009, a re-mastered edition of his only full-length feature film Al-Moumia (The Night of Counting the Years, 1969): once again to celebrate the production's 40th anniversary, also re-mastered by the same parties and screened in the Cannes Classics programme, which is dedicated to re-mastered films from the archives and production centres of the world and long documentaries on the history of film.
The Cannes Classics programme this year includes 16 full-length films and two short films, the second being the Italian film Il Ruscello di Raposotille (1941) by Roberto Rosellini (1906- 1977). The programme also includes four long documentaries on the history of cinema. It should be noted that, saying there are 80 films in total, we do not count the Cannes Classics programme but only the new documentaries it includes, since re-mastered copies are not new films.
The competition features 18 films from 11 countries in Europe, Asia, and the US -- one or two films short of the usual for this programme. Equally unusual is that the US, for the second consecutive year, only contributes one film to the Cannes official competition. At the press conference the festival general delegate Thierry Frémaux explained that the festival was not after dialogue between America and Europe but rather among the countries of the world. Yet the festival has managed to this throughout its history, despite an American contribution reflecting the size of production in that part of the world. Worth noting is that the American film this year, Doug Liman's Fair Game features the Egyptian actor Khaled El-Nabawi.
Hollywood derived its power in part from its openness to talent regardless of geographic or national origin -- even if ultimately they expressed their own national culture -- from the British Hitchcock to the Polish Polanski. This approach also informs European and especially French production and coproduction policy. Thus, out of six French films, three are directed by filmmakers from Iran, Algeria and Chad. The two Spanish films are directed by a Mexican and a Thai filmmaker. To credit films by the nationalities of their makers is a common error: it falsifies the history of cinema. It would be wrong to say, for example, that there is a film industry in Chad capable of producing Cannes-calibre work. Likewise the Algerian filmmaker: would he have the same freedom in his own country as he does in Paris? He would not. No doubt each film has a legal and a cultural identity which are not always the same.
Robin Hood, which is screened outside the competition simultaneously with its premiere in Egypt and many parts of the world, is the latest by the great British filmmaker Ridley Scott. Depicting the popular mythical character who was featured in film over 25 times, whether before or after the advent of sound in the 1930s. Perhaps the most important silent film is the 1922 version with Douglas Fairbanks, which at US$1.5 million was the most costly film to date. Of the talking films, the actor Errol Flynn's 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood is worth mentioning, as well as Sean Connery's 1976 and Kevin Cosnter's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). The present offering, starring Russell Crowe, is produced against a backdrop of economic depression, but nonetheless it promises much in the way of cinematic art.
Shadi Abdel-Salam (above) and a still from Al-Fallah Al-Fasih
While Tahani Rached spoke to her about her documentary Giran (Neighbours), Soha Hesham was not sure whether she was in the presence of a filmmaker or simply a passionate Garden City resident
After the controversy of Tahani Rached's Al-Banat Dol (Those Girls, 2005), which dealt with the lives of six street girls, the film was selected for out-of- competition screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 -- vindication enough for its director. Artistically, however, Al-Banat Dol was very specifically focussed, and with her new Studio Misr production, Giran (Neighbours), which premiered at the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) in October 2009 and had two private screenings in Cairo this month, Rached sought a different kind of challenge, with subject matter as broad and varied as the last film was narrow in perspective. Rached takes the viewer on a panoramic tour of the belle-epoch neighbourhood, through the streets and into the former palaces and deserted villas of Garden City, the location of both British and US embassies, revealing the contradictions between an aristocratic past and a less-than-pretty present and in so doing telling the story of post-1952 social transformation. Interspersed with footage from classics of the Egyptian silver screen, the film is full of conversations with residents of the neighbourhood.
Rached is a Garden City resident herself, and on my way to meet her, I realised that, a lifelong Cairo dweller though I am, I had hardly even visited Garden City. Those shaded avenues dotted with colonial architecture seemed unique in the big bad city. Greeted by a huge golden retriever, I waited with Rached for her friend, the line producer and co-director of Giran, Mona Assad, before beginning the conversation. Speaking of the US Embassy's restrictive security measures, which affect the residents, Rached firmly said that those are people she cared about. "I wanted to find a way to express this place through people, that's why I called my film Neighbours, after the title of a party hosted by the US ambassador Francis Richardoni in 2008 at the US Embassy headquarters in which the ambassador assured the residents that, despite the intrusion of embassy's security, there were plans to 'beautify' the neighbourhood. The title also conveys a sense of intimacy and closeness," she says, in contrast to the uncomfortable expressions on the faces of those at the party, which Rached monitored through the lens of camerawoman Nancy Abdel-Fattah.
Assad takes up where Rached leaves off: "That's how the idea of the film started. Rached being a Garden City resident and a filmmaker, she requested permission to film the party, was welcomed to do so, and we gave out a card stating that Studio Misr Productions and filmmaker Tahani Rached were shooting a documentary film, that this was why we were filming the party and that we would let everyone know once the film was finished. Many guests welcomed the idea, others did not while, over the next two years, we sought to engage residents of Garden City. What triggered the project was the statement of the US ambassador that in spite of the frustrating security they were planning to beautify Garden City -- then Tahani and I realised the film would probe the question of why the unfortunate incidents in Iraq should affect Garden City and its residents to that extent." Rached resumes: "At first the idea and the structure of the film weren't entirely clear. Although we agreed to make a film about the irritating security of the US Embassy, the first interview we filmed was with the late philosopher and left-wing activist Mahmoud Amin El-Alim. Eventually we realised we could cover more material; I thought Garden City deserved more."
Neighbours, according to Rached, "has different dimensions. I wanted the film to float on its main idea. Mona and I were after one main target and we found it in many characters, though with some of the characters it wasn't part of the story. And we did want the film to tell millions of stories. When I film people talking about their personal experience, I long for the viewer to feel it." The film does communicate collective experience of life on the streets of Garden City: children playing football, cats running around and curling up to sleep on top of cars, street vendors complaining of hardship. And this creates a special bond between the viewer and the street. Nor is the historical side of the story any less remarkable, the effects of the July Revolution. "Sometimes we fail to see how the change began," says Assad. "That's why we tried to listen carefully to people's comments and testimonies in order to locate the origins of change. On the other hand, the exaggerated security has resulted in different forms of discrimination. This was one of the kernels we aimed to present. The question of why and how Egypt witnessed such extreme change. We found a lot of people who could talk about the revolution and how it directly affected their lives. It wasn't our intention to criticise the revolution, but it did alienate a huge class of people and it also created huge breaks and instabilities in all of Egyptian society."
Critics have since picked on the film for its excessive nostalgia towards the pre-1952 era, but Rached has an answer to that: "There is no deliberate nostalgia in the film, I was over-sensitive not to fall into that trap, but I gave my guests unlimited freedom and that comes through in two ways. First, the guests were encouraged to convey their stories and personal experiences spontaneously, and I couldn't ignore the fact that some of them spoke of the good old days with the idea that those were better times. Viewers who have an interest in specific issues of the past might regard it as nostalgia, but that wasn't my aim. Secondly, my guests spoke in different languages -- and guests who spoke in foreign languages weren't necessarily all foreigners. There is Mahmoud Thabet, and the police general Essam Abdel-Fattah, as well as Selim Sednaoui and Fayza Hassan -- I asked them to use the language they were most comfortable with, because I thought the message they had to communicate was more important than the language." That too might have contributed to nostalgia, especially the myth of cosmopolitanism associated with belle-epoch Cairo and Alexandria.
This rich documentary also highlights the double standards operating in Egyptian society by showing their workings within a limited space. One informally employed valet, Ibrahim Abdel-Fattah, sums it up: "Deprived people have no place in Egypt." Expressing personal admiration for some of her characters, Rached says that, "despite difficult circumstances my target was to reflect how considerate and humane people are, regardless of all that they go through. Viewers will experience new feelings as they encounter people's comments, for instance the proud fellah Saad Aly Shlo, whose job it was to guard a deserted spot of land and who transformed it into a resplendent parsley farm. My idea was to give priority to reasons for optimism despite difficult conditions, which is why I conclude with some optimistic remarks from El-Alim." How much time was given to journalists, intellectuals and royalty as opposed to vendors, bazaar attendants and fruit sellers? "This issue did not even occur to me during the editing process." The fact that the viewer remains gripped for all of the hour and 45 minutes of the film makes it testimony to the remarkable balance Rached achieves. "Those who impose themselves on the screen are the more charismatic, or those with more interesting stories to tell."
That is also why the speakers' names are not given during the film: Rached wants them to be identified by their stories.
Before my time with Rached was up, she was keen to acknowledge the support of Studio Misr and its director Karim Gamal El-Din: "Gamal El-Din is a supportive producer who has admirable interest in and respect for documentary films, and with whom I have had a relationship of mutual trust since Four Women of Egypt in 1997: he was the local distributor for the film; later he produced Those Girls in 2005. I used to work at the Canadian National Centre which was famous for giving filmmakers unlimited freedom in their work. However, working with Gamal El-Din is even better, since we collaborate so superbly." Discussions are now underway regarding the commercial release of Neighbours.
ANOTHER YEAR directed by Mike LEIGH
BIUTIFUL directed by Alejandro GONZ◊LEZ IĄ◊RRITU
COPIE CONFORME (CERTIFIED COPY) directed by Abbas KIAROSTAMI
DES HOMMES ET DES DIEUX (OF GODS AND MEN) directed by Xavier BEAUVOIS
FAIR GAME directed by Doug LIMAN
HORS LA LOI (OUTSIDE OF THE LAW) directed by Rachid
LA NOSTRA VITA (OUR LIFE) directed by Daniele LUCHETTI
LA PRINCESSE DE MONTPENSIER (THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER) directed by Bertrand TAVERNIER
LUNG BOONMEE RALUEK CHAT (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) directed by Apichatpong WEERASETHAKUL
OUTRAGE directed by Takeshi KITANO
POETRY directed by LEE Chang-dong
RIZHAO CHONGQING (CHONGQING BLUES) directed by WANG Xiaoshuai
SCHASTYE MOE (MY JOY) directed by Sergei LOZNITSA
SZEL D TEREMTÉS - A FRANKENSTEIN TERV (TENDER SON - The Frankenstein Project) directed by Kornél MUNDRUCZř
THE HOUSEMAID directed by IM Sangsoo
TOURNÉE (ON TOUR) directed by Mathieu AMALRIC
UN HOMME QUI CRIE (A screaming man) directed by Mahamat-Saleh HAROUN
UTOMLYONNYE SOLNTSEM 2: PREDSTOYANIE (THE EXODUS - Burnt by the sun 2) directed by Nikita MIKHALKOV