Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Boy soldiers and the Arab Spring

Samir Farid reviews some of the highlights of the Venice Film Festival, closing this week

Boy soldiers and the Arab Spring
Boy soldiers and the Arab Spring
Al-Ahram Weekly


While the 72nd Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion went to Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’s debut From Afar, two major films equally deserved it: Francofonia(winner of the Mimmo Rotella Award), a French-German-Dutch production by Aleksandr Sokurov, the prolific Russian filmmaker and winner of the 2011 Golden Lion for Faust; and Italian filmmaker Piero Messina’s The Wait. Both make ingenious use of the language of cinema, with Sokurov producing a history of the 20th century with photographs and archival footage as well as acting and Messina writing pure poetry.

Francofonia (87 minutes) focuses on the Louvre, and is Sokurov’s second museum-focused feature. Subtitled “An Elegy”, it is the eighth such film in his oeuvre. It is as a European that he deals with the two world wars, which come across almost as civil wars among the continental family, as well as the museum, contrasting barbarity with civilisation. With music by Murat Kabardokov, cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Hansjörg Weissbrich, the documentary and fictional parts of the film – which begins and ends with the artist and his friend following a huge ship full of paintings and statues facing a tempest at sea – are indistinguishable.

While the film uses the history of the Louvre to tell the story of 20th-century Europe, emphasising the horror of the Nazis and the glory of cinema, this central scene is returned to again and again, together with the voice of Sokurov shouting, “Wake up, Tolstoi!” and “Wake up, Chekhov!” having followed the opening with the sight of the two great writers in state. The film also reviews some of the contents of the Louvre, starting with nine thousand-year-old statue found in Jordan in 1972 and Egyptian mummies and including the Mona Lisa and a painting of Marianne, the symbol of France, out of which Marianne herself (Johanna Korthals Altes) emerges to walk through the museum crying, “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” Likewise Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth): Sokurov has him stop before each painting to say, “This is me.”

The Wait, for its part, is the first full-length film to be directed by the Sicilian filmmaker, born in 1981. It marks the birth of a great cinematic poet, and features an unforgettable performance by Juliette Binoche. It is 100 minutes long, without a second wasted, and it presents a kind of visual music in lieu of a score.
At her old villa in Sicily, Anna (Binoche) awaits Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the girlfriend of her son Giuseppe (Giovanni Anzaldo). The old butler Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli) drives Jeanne in from the airport, revealing the beauty of the landscape. It is clear from the first moment on that Anna is in mourning, and not only because of the way she is dressed. When Jeanne arrives to await Giuseppe, who invited her to the villa, Anna tells her that her own brother has died – explaining away the mourning. Not until the end of the film do we know for sure that it is Giuseppe who has died.
The American filmmaker Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation(whose lead actor Abraham Attah won the Marcello Mastroianni Award) was probably selected in the official competition for its subject – boy soldiers – rather than any artistic or intellectual value. It is a mainstream Hollywood production, its political science Harvard graduate director’s third feature, based on the eponymous 2005 novel by the Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala, another Harvard graduate. With music by Dan Romer, the film is a sound technical achievement, but lacks the power of cinema.
The boy soldier Agu (Attah), who is not yet 14, tells the story of how he joined the war in an unnamed west African country. His simple village family life is disrupted when his father and elder brother are killed right in front of him and his mother flees to the capital with his sister. He runs into the forest, where he is caught by the Commandant (Idris Elba) and joins a battalion of children. We see how Agu is raped by the cocaine-addict Commandant, how he stabs a university professor to death and how he shoots his mother at a refugee camp to spare her being raped. When the Commandant is betrayed by his superior, he takes the whole battalion to a whorehouse where he kills his second in command (who was to replace him) and attempts to lead the battalion as an independent entity. Agu is eventually rescued by the UN – an entirely naive resolution that fails to address the root of the problem. Even more superficial is the appearance of Chinese diplomat at the office and the voice of Agu, a devout Christian, praying for forgiveness after he kills for the first time.
Two films from the Maghreb make a strong case for Arab cinema. First, Algerian film artist Merzak Allouache’s Madame Courage, produced with support from the SANAD Fund in the UAE, and screened in the Horizons section, is the year’s uncontested Arab film event so far. Since his first film, Omar Gatlato (1976) – which, in expressing the daily reality of the post-1962 generation who had not participated in the struggle for independence, was a turning point in the history of Algerian cinema – Allouache’s style absorbs the Italian neorealism of the 1950s and the French New Wave of the 1960s. Madame Courage another turning point, being Allouache’s take on the post-civil war inhabitants of Mostaganem’s shanty towns in 2015.

In both films – using street expressions for “macho” and the psychotropic Atrane tablet, respectively – the protagonist is named Omar. Like Nouri Bouzid in Tunisia, Nabil Ayouch in Morocco and Abderrahmane Sissako in Mauritania, Allouache is a director whose vision expresses opposition to political Islam. Presenting the shanty towns as jihadi recruitment grounds, and using a music-less soundtrack full of religious discourse to underscore the meaninglessness of religion in relation to the characters’ lives, Madame Couragecan be seen as the third instalment in a trilogy on the issue, following The Repentant(2012) and The Rooftops(2013) – screened in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight and Venice’s official competition, respectively. Allouache not only wrote but also produced the film, and he was thus freed to tell his purely cinematic story as he wanted to in the language of cinema.

Omar (Adlane Djemil) works as a thief, his sister Sabrina (Leila Tilmatine) as a prostitute. They live with their widowed mother, who is resigned to what they do. One day, while snatching the gold chain around the neck of a passer-by, Selma (Lamia Bezoiui), he has eye contact with his victim, and falls in love. Omar returns the chain to Selma, and begins to hang around her building. Realising he is in love with her, Selma feels only pity. In one unforgettable scene Omar follows her into the building, touching her hair before making his exit. Eventually Selma’s brother, a policeman, nearly kills Omar but is stayed by Selma. Omar, for his part, stabs Sabrina’s pimp Mukhtar after the latter beats her face into a pulp, but fails to end Mukhtar’s life. Tightly structured in 90 minutes, the film ends with Selma walking with her friends again just as she did when Omar first robbed her.

Secondly, in the 40th round of Venice Days, Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid’s debut, As I open my eyes– a French-Tunisian-Belgian production also supported by SANAD, and the winner of the Europa Cinemas Label Prize – depicts Tunis in 2010, months before “a policewoman slapped a street vendor... and the Middle East went on fire,” as Ihab Hassan has put it. Most Arab Spring cinema has been documentary, since not enough time has passed for fiction features to emerge, but this is an example of fiction Arab Spring cinema. Most of its crew are French, but it is Tunisian through and through, and marks the birth of a talented Tunisian filmmaker.

Born in 1984, Bouzid studied literature and filmmaking in Paris and, following her graduation project, went on to direct one short film, Zakaria, in 2013. Herself a revolutionary, Bouzid’s first film – co-written with Marie-Sophie Chambon – is an expression of revolution’s essence and motive: the desire to live in freedom. She was brave enough to depict such a serious subject in the form a musical, recalling Youssef Chahine’s 1976 Return of the Prodigal Son. It is the story of Farah (Baya Medhaffer), an 18-year-old girl who, having completed her secondary education, wants to work as a singer though her family insists that she should study medicine – a common enough theme in mainstream Egyptian cinema, traditionally popular in Tunisia, and therefore both a homage to the Golden Age and a demonstration of alternative treatments.

Farah is in love with fellow political rock band member Borhène (Montassar Ayari), but when she is arrested, mistreated and sexually harassed for the content of her songs, Farah discovers it was Borhène – a police collaborator – who turned her in. She is not released until her mother Hayet (played brilliantly by the singer-muscian Ghalia Benali) calls an old paramour who happens to be well-placed in the police, and offers to sleep with him in return – but, in a powerful twist, he nobly refuses. Indicating what each character stands for, Hayet means “life” – the mother who knows the police state well and fears for her daughter, while Farah means “happiness” – the daughter who is undaunted by said police state. This, then, is a powerful feminist film about two aspects of contemporary Tunisian womanhood, executed in an advanced realist style. Three scenes express this: when Hayet speeds up while she is driving with Farah in the passenger seat, saying she had better promise her to stop singing or they will die together; when Farah shuts the door to Hayet’s bedroom so she can slip out of the house, only to return and ask her mother’s forgiveness; and – the memorable finale – when the mother takes on the role of the daughter, whose experience with the police has killed the joy in her, gradually drawing her back out.

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