Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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When not taking part counts

By Khairiya El-Bishlawi

The first week of the 23rd Cairo International Film Festival (23 Nov-7 Dec) ended on something of a damp note with, as yet, the promise of good things to come, rather than their already having been, certainly as far as the competition films are concerned.

Somehow too many reservations remain. Apart from the excitement of the opening ceremony, with the audience applauding its favourite stars, and the psychological suspense of Analyze This, no individual film appears to have garnered unanimous applause.

The one possible exception is perhaps Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Ard Al-Kkawf (Land of Fear) which, though in the seminar following its screening a number of different opinions were expressed, seems to have elicited a consensus that it counts among Sayed's most complex achievements.

Open to a range of interpretations, Ard Al-Khawf demands a close analysis of the components of both the soundtrack and the visual composition, as well as a consideration of the symbolic significance of the characters' names, particularly that of the protagonist, played brilliantly by Ahmed Zaki.

Most of the films showcased this year are their respective filmmakers' debuts. For example, Sunset Heights by Culm Villa, a young Irish filmmaker living in London, revolves around two gangs that control the small town in which they live. The conflict between them escalates when a group of small children begin to disappear one after the other without anyone knowing who is responsible for their disappearance. A confrontation takes place when the son of the protagonist, an ordinary citizen played by Jim Norton, disappears. He is then forced to abandon the safety of his ordinary life and plunge into danger. Villa tackles issues like justice and the absurdity of vengeful passion and, like Abdel-Sayed, makes use of a narrator to provide additional commentary on the action.

Ard Al-Khawf Souq Al-Mot'a
The two Egyptian entries at the festival: Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Ard Al-Khawf (Land of Fear) and Samir Seif's Souq Al-Mot'a (Pleasure Market)

Jerks, on the other hand, director Ted Grouya's debut, presents a series of stories told by a group of friends -- all young, all unemployed -- each of whom has had a different family experience and consequently has developed a different way of dealing with life. The filmmaker, in the end, tackles the issues arising through freedom of choice. The movie is a product of the American independent film scene, to which the festival has devoted a separate section in order to showcase the work of young directors.

Among the films participating in the official competition, screened during the first week and rejected by the audience, is Peau Neuve (New Skin) by French filmmaker Emilie Deleuze. Again a debut feature, the film tackles issues like boredom and promiscuity, which drive a well-settled married employee to seek alternative work that allows him to be physically more dynamic and offer him opportunities for illicit relationships. In the process he meets a mentally-challenged man and, in helping him, returns to his secure married life.

Sweet Thing, the American film by a 25-year-old director of Egyptian extraction, Mark David, relies, by contrast, on suspense in telling the story of a talented young artist, played by Jeremy Fox, who is subjected to a great deal of unhealthy competition from his colleagues. The filmmaker employs a stream of consciousness approach and mixes the past with the present to portray the young man's psychological disturbances and his problematic relationship with his family.

Another film that was controversially received is Russian director Rauf Kubayev's White Dance, which focuses on a young couple whose marriage is severely tested when the husband accepts a job offer in Moscow where he has an extra marital affair. The film is visually and aurally convincing as it atomises the collapse of a marriage. It nonetheless ends on a hopeful note. In a seminar following the film, the director, who is Muslim and has an Arab grandmother, explained that the demise of the Soviet Union has affected all aspects of life and that nobody can escape its dire consequences; hence, his melodramatic tale.

There is a scarcity of Arab films participating in the competition. Aside from Abdel-Sayed's film, there is one other Egyptian entry, Samir Seif's Souq Al-Mot'a (Pleasure Market). Both directors, incidentally, refused to hold special screenings for journalists and insisted on showing their films in popular cinemas downtown. Souq Al-Mot'a deals with a young man who becomes involved in drug dealing. After serving a sentence in prison he discovers that fellow gang members have kept his share for him, and indulges in a life of dissipation which leaves him alienated and spiritually dissatisfied. It is worth noting that both Egyptian films revolve around the world of drugs.

Another Arab film that is mediocre enough to be irritating is The Forbidden Island by Syrian director Samir Al-Afifi, produced by the Lebanese Tahssin El-Atassi, who justified his decision to fund such a film by claiming, somewhat wildly, that it would inject life into the industry, and insisting that the film somehow constituted an important political statement. It will not, and it does not. The action takes place on a deserted island ruled by a tyrant and his equally despotic son. Father and son fight over a young blonde, Maya, whose father was killed and whose mother raped by the tyrant.

Moroccan filmmaker Farida Belyazid's Kaid Al-Nessa' (Women's Wiles), co-produced with Swiss and French funds, is a far better film, and is being screened in the Festival of Festivals section. Wonderfully scenic, musical and costumed, the film is based on a folk-tale. Actress Samira Akario, who plays the lead, is impressively low key in portraying the character of a woman who sets out to prove that women's wiles are more powerful than men's.

There seems to be a consensus regarding the fact that the weakest films in this round are those participating in the official competition. The best films are all being shown outside the official competition and include Nikita Mikhelkov's The Barber of Siberia, Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged, Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin, Adrian Lyne's Lolita , and the German French co-production, The Ogre, directed by Volker Schlöndorff.

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