The Merchants of Venice
Samir Farid reports from the centre of the world
The 69th round of the Venice Film Festival (29 Augest-8 September) âê" the most prestigious in the world, and the third to take place annually after Berlin in February and Cannes in May âê" is this year celebrating 80 years since its first round.
Among the most memorable rounds in the history of Venice was that of 1983, which saw the first ever history-of-cinema programme in the world, curated by Francesco Bassinini, and that of 1949, when the grand prix was first called the Golden Lion after the lion of Saint Mark, the emblem of the city. Following years of disruption, the festival became established in 1980, competing with Cannes and Berlin.
The 2012 round is the first to be directed by the celebrated film scholar Alberto Barbera, taking over from the brilliant Marco Muller, who directed the festival for the last eight years. Barbera directed the festival in the period 1999-2002, after which he directed the National Film Museum in Turin. Barbera might see the festival differently to Muller, but a quick look at the programme is all it takes to realise he will maintain the success achieved by his predecessor. As is immediately evident, where Muller pays as much attention to quantity as quality and likes all kinds of films, Barbera is rather more interested in quality; and he prefers auteur films to others.
To celebrate 80 years since the first round, besides selections from the institution's archives entitled "80!", Barbera introduced a programme named Venice Classics, which will screen 20 restored films produced in the period 1974-84 in the US, the UK, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Japan and the Philippines as well as nine new feature-length documentaries on cinema from the US, Italy, France and Mexico.
Aside from films by Terrence Malick and Paul-Thomas Anderson, Marco Bellocchio, Brian de Palma and Takishi Kitano, the festival opened with the Qatari-American production The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mira Nair âê" an out-of-competition screening. This was the first time in film history that any of the three major festivals opened with an Arab coproduction; it reflects Qatar's ambition to establish itself as a powerful state with international influence despite its small size and population, capitalising on its oil revenues to interact with contemporary world civilisation. The coproduction took place through the Doha Film Institute, headed by Princess Al-Mayyassa bint Hamad Al-Thani who is well-known for her love of the arts, which also organises the annual Doha-Tribeca Film Festival.
In fact, thanks to the Arab Spring, there is a remarkable Arab contribution to Venice this year, from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine and, for the first time, Libya and Saudi Arabia as well: feature-length documentaries by Libyan filmmaker Abdalla Omaish's (Witness: Libya, an American production, the first on the Libyan revolution by a Libyan) and Tunisian filmmaker Hinde Boujemaa (Ya man aach or "It was better tomorrow") outside the competition; the Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout's El-Sheita Elli Fat (Winter of Discontent) in the Orizzonte or "Horizons" section; and, also outside the competition, Algerian filmmaker Djamila Sahraoui's Yema and Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda, a French and German production, respectively: the first fiction feature ever to be shot in Saudi territory.
El-Batout's El-Sheita Elli Fat is an example of the kind of western interest the Arab Spring has generated in Arab cinema. For even though such momentous events in one of the world's most important sources of energy and the site of fundamentalist-secular conflict can encourage attention to the work of such a young artist on the topic, it is also true that films are selected for screening at the major festivals based on artistic merit alone. If Youssri Nassrallah is among the icons of innovation in Egyptian cinema through the 1980s, then Ibrahim El-Batout is an icon of the independent cinema movement that emerged as the most important development in the 1990s; it may in fact be said that El-Batout is the godfather of independent cinema.
He arrived on the film scene from outside it and in 1996 began to make documentaries in some of the world's hottest spots. He made his first full-length fiction feature, Ithaka, named after CP Cavafy's poem, in 2004. With his second film, Ain Shams (Heliopolis), he managed to cross the Mediterranean and make a name for himself in the world at large âê" a reputation he confirmed with Hawi (Conjuror) in 2010. With his present, fourth film, El-Batout arrives at the world's most prestigious film festival.
The independent movements in art, music, theatre and literature as well as film played an essential role in forging the consciousness that led to the 25 January revolution. They were paralleled by political initiatives, notably Kifaya which started in 2004. With actors Amr Waked and Farah Youssef âê" the stars of El-Sheita Elli Fat âê" El-Batout was among those who took part in the 18-day sit-in that toppled former president Hosny Mubarak in 25 January-11 February, 2011; the closing scene was shot on 10 February in Tahrir Square. Here as elsewhere in El-Batout's work, the film does not follow a pre-written script; it emerges, rather, from place and time through the characters, gradually taking holistic form until it reaches completion. Like any postmodern filmmaker, El-Batout makes no distinction between fiction and documentary.
This is particularly true of El-Sheita Elli Fat, which documents the revolution subjectively and expresses an equally subjective, sharp position against the regime the revolution sought to change âê" the artist's absolute support for the revolution. This is achieved through three pivotal characters: Amr (Amr Waked), a computer wiz; his girlfriend Farah (Farah Youssef), a government TV anchor; and Adel (Saleh El-Hanafi), a State Security officer. Instead of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, here as elsewhere El-Batout presents interpersonal relations whose dynamics determine the destiny of each. The situation is presented without apparent artifice: While Amr lives with his mother in an average middle-class apartment, Adel lives in a luxurious home with his wife, son and daughter and their Filipina maid.
The film opens on 25 January while Amr, on his computer screen, is watching a State Security detainee recount what happened to him in the way of torture by electric shock, among other means. At the same time Farah, on air, is trying to truthfully describe what is happening on the street while her colleague, in the same show, is misleading viewers to please his boss who demands that they should downplay the significance of the demonstrations. In the first half of the film, the action moves between January 2009 and January 2011, when Amr is arrested once again. As he watches the internet video, Amr remembers what happened to him in January 2009, when âê" unannounced and without trial âê" he was arrested and detained indefinitely for demonstrating against the Israeli war on Gaza that year. In the detention centre he too was subjected to torture, and there he made the acquaintance of Adel âê" who will not release him until he is convinced that Amr will cooperate with State Security, planting in him the doubt that Farah too cooperates; otherwise should couldn't have been a successful anchor. Amr leaves the detention centre with a broken spirit to find out that his mother has died of grief after looking for him everywhere and failing to find him.
On 28 January we hear portions of Mubarak's first address, sound only. Farah revolts against her employers' pro-regime policies, leaving her work to join the revolution. On 1 February Mubarak's second speech is heard, once again without pictures; we see the "popular committees" that have cropped up to replace the police throughout Cairo; we also see how State Security begins to deploy thugs against the protesters, with Adel overseeing the storage of knives and canes in an apartment near Tahrir Square. Thus begin the cycles of violence: protesters kill a thug in retaliation. On 10 February comes Mubarak's third âê" and last âê" address, followed by Omar Soliman's speech on 11 February in which he announces Mubarak's stepping down. Once again, the picture does not accompany the sound. Throughout the film the viewer sees the events of the revolution on non-Egyptian satellite channels through television sets in houses and in Adel's office. El-Batout uses subtitles to specify dates. Documentary footage of demonstrations in Tahrir Square accompany Soliman's speech.
Adel goes to see his family in the Red Sea resort of Ain Sokhna, where he has asked them to stay. We see the doctor Rafik William, who was arrested with Amr Waked on 28 January and testified that he did join the revolution because he wanted a better life for his as yet unborn son; subtitles tell us that Rafik was killed in the wake of the revolution, a month after the birth of his son. On Qaserelnil Bridge, near Tahrir Square, the actors-characters gather after they have finished making their film; the final shot shows Amr and Farah together again. Subtitles give figures for the dead, the injured, the lost and those in custody with the phrase "Still counting".