Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Slough of despond
By Khairiya El-Bishlawi

Colm Villa, Abul-Qassem Rageh, Martin Sulik, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed, Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, Greta Scacchi and Catherine Deneuve.
photos: Abdel-Hamid Eid

Front Page
The 23rd Cairo International Film Festival closed last Tuesday, though for organisational reasons the award ceremony was held three days before the closing date. So the results of the 23rd round were announced at Cairo Opera House last Saturday with the awards -- 23 in number-- being distributed in the presence of the festival's guest of honour, Catherine Deneuve, who was herself presented with a special prize for a life-time's achievement in cinema.

The current round of the festival, the last of this century, demands careful scrutiny, not least because of its many disappointing aspects. The persistent observation throughout has been that this round was perhaps a little too heavily weighted towards the French -- starting with the festival's guests, the participating films, and ending with the awards. The Golden Pyramid, the Naguib Mahfouz award for a Directorial Debut and the Best Script award, all went to French productions -- the latter was shared with an Egyptian film.

Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve, naturally, commanded the lion's share of the festival's flashlights. Delon was met by Egyptian television cameras on arrival at Cairo Airport, and during his one-day stay, for which he allegedly received $40 000, they followed him everywhere. Catherine Deneuve supposedly received a similar sum, though she appeared embarrassed when asked about the matter during a press conference. She dealt with the question diplomatically -- in much the same civilised way she greeted the public at the closing ceremony.

The head of the international jury was the French director Yves Boisset, and the jury included the French critic Max Tessier, and the Tunisian/French director Farid Bugedir.

The audience watching Un Dérangement Considérable, winner of the Golden Pyramid and co-winner of Best Script, must be forgiven if they questioned its presumed status as the best film in the competition. It was, alas, a mediocre affair, a very ordinary French film replete with the kind of racist undertones common to second rate western films with Arab characters. And while it may be natural that such a prejudiced image of Arabs, adopted by producers of popular culture in the West, particularly in cinema, did not strike the essentially European jury for what it really is, one can ask how it passed unnoticed by the Arab jurors? The attributes announced by the head juror in connection with this film -- that it is, in short, a creative and lofty work, endowed with a noble message -- were palpable nonsense.

The film purports to tell the story of Laurent, the 20-year-old son of an Arab father and a French mother. His true origin, though, remains uncertain since his mother is accused of having had an extra-marital affair with a French man just before Laurent was born. He lives with his siblings in a modest house with his paternal grandmother, who occasionally voices her frustration at and disapproval of her daughter-in-law. The French mother, played by a less than average actress, is a working-class woman who strives to preserve the family her husband has abandoned. She depends on her son Laurent, a football player who represents hope for a better future, rather than on his brother Gamal, an envious and spiteful failure. Needless to say, Gamal bears Arab features and an Arab name to stress his origin, like his grandmother who speaks a Moroccan dialect and practices some Arab traditions. Their sister has eloped with a young man whom she hopes to marry.

Script-writer Director Bernard Stora focuses on Laurent. Inexperienced with women, he encounters an attractive and emotionally generous middle-aged French journalist, the mother of Laurent's friend, whose maturity opens the doors to a healthy relationship which ultimately ends when she decides it is wrong.

The directorial debut award-winning production Peau Neuve, directed by Emilie Deleuze, was as banal and unexceptional as most of the other entries in the competition. It is a film that derives its subject matter from the everyday life of ordinary people, though the protagonist of Peau Neuve, unhappy with his daily routine and with his job, attempts to change his circumstances.

Existential dilemmas abound in many of the festival's entries. The French film Vénus Beauté dealt with the heroine's attempts to lead a regular life, including a constant relationship with a member of the opposite sex, while the main characters of the American film Jerks, are failures by choice and their antagonism of the world is based on the premise that it is out of their reach, so marginal are the conditions under which they live.

Colm Villa Iranian actress Bernard Stora
From left: Colm Villa receiving his award, Iranian actress Pegah Ahangarani saluting the public; Bernard Stora, winner of the Golden Pyramid

If we consider the other awards distributed following the hospitable merriment accorded the guests, and away from the warm, eloquent and refined speeches given by Yves Boisset, we will find a predominant will to strike a balance satisfactory to the different jury members. While the French received their awards, the Egyptian film Ard Al-Khawf (Land of Fear), written and directed by Dawoud Abdel-Sayed, which would have made a better choice for the Golden Pyramid, had to be content with the Silver.

The awards policy and the two opening and closing ceremonies served to demonstrate that the festival itself suffers not only from a superficial admiration of the external veneer coating the fleeting appearance of foreign celebrities, but also from a false belief that its very existence depends on their presence.

Egyptian actor Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz received the Best Actor award for his role in Samir Seif's Souq Al-Mot'a (Pleasure Market), although Ahmed Zaki's performance in Abdel-Sayed's Ard Al-Khawf was much more impressive. And for the sake of the aforementioned balance, Abdel-Sayed shared the Best Script award with the French Bernard Stora, to bring the total number of Egyptian awards in the official competition to three, a convenient tie with the French.

Catherine Deneuve Catherine Deneuve, guest star of the closing ceremony
Arab films had a very modest presence in the festival, and it is largely thanks to the good auspices of the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arab that the Egyptian public was able to watch the few Arab productions included. Given the condition of the cinema in many Arab countries -- conditions that quash any creative endeavour -- it is largely due to French sponsorship that decent films get made in a number of Arab countries. If anything justified the French focus of the festival it is, perhaps, this display of generosity

Abdel-Sayed's film, though, is produced by Sho'a', a private production company. Ard Al-Khawf is at once a difficult and commercial film. Because it can be read on so many different levels, all coexisting, it can appeal to a variety of audiences. Any unravelling of its putative meanings, any unravelling of the artistic knot, depends on an ability to analyse the different sounds on the sound track -- voice over narration, music and background songs -- among other things.

The protagonist Yehia (played by Ahmed Zaki) is a police detective assigned a near impossible mission -- he is dismissed from the police force and expected to insinuate himself in the shady and dangerous underground world of the drug dealers. Becoming one of them, he has to learn about buying, selling, smuggling and distributing, as well as understand the conventions that the drug barons observe in conducting their illicit business. He sends his reports of the underground operation, code-named Land of Fear, to a particular address, always signing himself Adam. He becomes integrated in this underworld, marrying three women from different backgrounds. The first is a belly dancer at a night club which she owns and he ends up managing; the second is a lower class girl whose marriage to him is casually arranged by a drug lord during a visit; and the third is a westernised architect. Rather than merely telling an entertaining story, the film addresses existential and social questions in a metaphysical and philosophical manner.

In Pleasure Market, Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz plays Ahmed Abul-Mahassen, another complex character who enters the drug world not like Yehia, on a mission, but seeking revenge. The film is a commercial work with much audience appeal, particularly in the action sequences, though it avoids successfully the lurid attractions with which other producers attempt to increase the appeal of their wares.

There was, though, something of a surfeit of the lurid about this year's festival, with some cinemas promising such treats as "two hours of solid sex", "excitement, pleasure, sex" and "a film featuring all the porno stars" in oversized posters. Comedy, to which this festival was dedicated, appears to be less popular with audience that sex and in any case, thanks to Hollywood's dominance, the European sense of humour remains unfamiliar here.

Actors Egyptian actors jubilating
15 year-old Pegah Ahangarani collected the Best Actress award for her role in the Iranian film The Girl in Sneakers, which was well-deserved. The film, which relied on a simplicity of form and subject, tells the story of a young adolescent's struggle for freedom, love and understanding in a society that imprisons women behind their femininity, depriving them of independence, was well-received by audiences. Ahangarani received a flurry of applause when she appeared on stage in her traditional costume to collect her prize.

The Irish film Sunset Heights, directed by Colm Villa, received the Special Jury Award for artistic distinction although it was probably more worthy of the Naguib Mahfouz award than the French film. A quarter of Prague Stories -- the third episode -- directed by Martin Sulik, received the Best Director award, though nothing in the film suggested it should have won anything.

There were no screenings of films at the closing ceremony, except for extracts from vehicles in which Catherine Deneuve had starred.

One final thought. Why, whatever the quality of the films, need they be projected through such lamentable machines -- heads were cropped, and the pictures were often far too dark. If we cannot get the curating right, can't we at least address this simple problem, and project the things properly?

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