Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

New stories of an old war

Hani Mustafa and Soha Hesham review some of the 37th Cairo International Film Festival’s highlights

Al-Ahram Weekly

For many filmmakers around the world World War II continues to provide a reservoir of inspiration. It may continue to do so, since war films – segueing as they do into both action and tragedy – have their attraction for a variety of film lovers. In this year’s Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), several films depict aspects of World War II and the brutality that it involved.

The Estonian filmmaker Elmo Nüganen’s 1944, screening in the official competition, documents events that shook Estonian society in the last year of the war, for the non-aggression pact signed between Stalin and Hitler in 1939 covered those countries controlled by the two powers; and when Hitler invaded Poland, breaking the pact, a state of division ensued within Estonia, with some Estonians fighting on the German, others on the Soviet side.

The film opens with Karl, an Estonian infantryman, fighting ruthlessly in the Battle of the Tannenberg Line. Karl’s expert use of a huge machine gun fed by an assistant is trailed by the camera – until the moment he leaves to obtain more ammunition and on his return finds his assistant killed. With authentic accessories and convincing action, the sequence establishes the director’s capability, echoing high-budget war films despite this film’s budget being €1.6 (comparable to what an Egyptian commercial film or half an Egyptian television series costs). The director manages to show the Estonians pushing back the Red Army while sustaining many casualties, presenting precise details and a powerful soundtrack reflecting the action.

The human element is communicated when Karl writes a letter to his sister explaining his feelings about the battle and the war, and why he has chosen to fight on the German side. Like other Estonians, however, Karl is not glad to be fighting for Hitler, whose signed photograph – granted as a gesture of gratitude – he receives without enthusiasm. The film continues to show the soldiers’ progressive weakness on the border with Russia.

When they are ordered to evacuate the area to defend the German border they rebel and leave, only to be ambushed by Red Army Estonians who kill many of their compatriots. Karl himself is among the casualties, killed by a fellow Estonian named Juri (an excellent casting choice since the two actors bear a strong resemblance to each other). When the commander of the Red Army unit hears the voices of the enemy, realising they are Estonians, he orders a ceasefire to let them escape. The rest of the film reflects the viewpoint of Juri, who takes Karl’s letter to his sister only to end up killed himself.

This double dose of tragedy seems to mar the script somewhat, but in Giulio Riccialli’s Labyrinth of Lies the intense structure is closer to a thriller than a war film as such. The action takes place in 1959 in Frankfurt when, bored of traffic suits, the young prosecutor Johan Radmann decides to start looking for a schoolteacher named Schultz after his journalist friend Thomas Gnielka tells him Schultz used to be among the Nazi conscripts in Auschwitz, Poland during World War II.

The opening scene shows an artist putting a cigarette in his mouth while walking down the street, only to have it lit by an elderly stranger. When the artist sees the stranger’s face he is so scared that everything he is carrying falls down. It later becomes clear that the artist, Simon Kirsch – a friend of Gneilka and Radmann’s – is a survivor of Auschwitz and that the elderly man is Schultz.

The screenplay thus snowballs, reflecting the title of the movie: the story is indeed a labyrinth that people are better off not entering. The Prosecutor General’s statement to Radmann at the start of the film is key: “Don’t be so naive. Did you think the Nazis evaporated after Hitler’s death?” Radmann is armed with a hatred for Nazism and the knowledge that his own late father was not one, however – and so he becomes the minotaur.

Otherwise the film is classically structured, with Radmann facing obstacles on his way as he looks for survivors and documents to prove that some of those who took part in killing and torture are still alive, some of them even working in the government, and have not been charged. The film is based on true events relating to the German trials of soldiers and officers following the Nuremberg trials. In this sense the film recalls Stanley Kramer’s 1961 Judgement of Nuremberg, which starred Burt Lancadter, Spencer Tracy and Maximillian Schell (Schell received an Oscar for his performance, and the film received the best screenplay Academy Award as well).

But the conventional approach and direct message is harder to accept in the present film, which nonetheless makes up for it with brilliant directing and excellent visuals, be they the settings or costumes or props. The film received the audience award at the Athens International Festival and is part of the Special Screenings programme at the CIFF.

The bleak experience of World War II is an abiding legacy throughout the west, and every year one or two films on some aspect of the war is produced. But the trick is for these films to deal with their topics with some innovation so that the viewer won’t feel as if they are being offered regurgitations of previously successful work.

Of virgins and mountains

One of the best films at the 37th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) screened in the Special Screenings section is the Romanian film Aferim. Set in 1835 in Wallachia, “Aferim” opens with constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) being hired by a landowner (Alexandru Dabija) to search for a gypsy slave named Carfin (Cuzin Toma) accused of having an affair with the landowner’s wife. The constable begins the search accompanied by his teenage son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), treating everyone except priests in a condescending manner and expressing a strong hatred for Jews, even beating people up in some cases, but displaying remarkable fellow feeling when he helps a churchman fix his broken cart. The word aferim, as it turns out, is the Turkish term for “bravo” used throughout the Arab world.

The Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude is as interested in details and atmosphere as he is in the story, and his skill as director and screenwriter (with Florin Lazarescu) are only equalled by Marius Panduru’s phenomenal black and white cinematography and Dana Paparuz’s brilliant costumes. But the story goes on: at the end of a long journey, during which the constable is too eager to hire a prostitute for his son, Costandin finds Carfin at a craftsman’s house. They take him and Tintiric (Alberto Dinache), a runaway child they mean to sell into slavery.

Carfin pleads with the constable, telling him it was the wife who tried to seduce him, not the other way round. And when they reach the landowner’s home he confirms the truth of the slave’s testimony with the woman herself. She promises to talk to her husband, but the landowner already has the punishment prepared. At one point Costandin wonders whether in 200 years’ time people will remember all that he has done for humanity.

Radu Jude was born in 1977 in Bucharest. He is well-known for many award-winning short films like his 17-min “It Can Pass Through the Wall”, which received the Illy Prize’s Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. “Aferim” won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Director and was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear at Berlin International Film Festival. It also won the Distribution Award and the Grand Prize City of Lisbon at the IndieLisboa International Independent Film Festival.


In the Algerian film Madame Courage – screened at the Official Competition, Omar (Adlane Djemil) is a young Algerian thief who one day snatches a golden necklace from a girl, Selma (Lamia Bezoiui) – and develops an obsession with her. He follows her to a restaurant, where she is with friends, and keeps staring at her. Abruptly, on Selma’s way home, he follows, stops and gives her back her necklace. Astonished as she is, Selma is really happy to have her necklace back – it was a special thing, a gift from her late mother – but Omar keeps following her until he finds out precisely where she lives.

Omar lives in the shanty town with his mother (Zohra Faidhi), who is always complaining about him and his sister Sabrina (Leila Tilmatine), a prostitute, coming home late.

Written and directed by Merzak Allouache – The Rooftops (2013), Normal (2011), The Repentant (2012) – is not limited to any one idea or narrative but rather builds its strength through portraying Omar’s life on the street: how he steels from women, gets drunk, uses drugs and buys a huge knife in preparation for his confrontation with Mukhtar, Sabrina’s pimp, after he beats her.

Djemil in the role of Omar is one of the most brilliant elements in Madame Courage, though it is his acting debut. The subtle reactions on his long face, fat lips and cluttered teeth are accurate and astonishing.

Omar’s obsession with Selma begins to grow. He spends hours on end under her building glancing at her window, he even buys a camera phone just to photograph her. Selma’s brother has a fight with him and warns him against coming near the building, but he comes back anyway. He stalks her to school and, all of a sudden, Selma is wearing a hijab...

Omar awaits her inside the building. He keeps looking at her while he removes her headscarf, exposing her hair and touching it for a while before he leaves. Selma does not seem to be afraid of him, she regards him as a “harmless, crazy boy”, as she tells her brother when he spots him under their building lighting fireworks to grab Selma’s attention, trying to calm him down.

The bumpy camera movement by cinematographer Olivier Guerbois conveys the roughness of the theme, while the title of the film is evocative. It could be a reference to Selma’s courage in accepting Omar in spite of all his creepiness and the fact that, though she already knows he is a thief, she pities him enough to beg her brother not to harm him.

The film was nominated for the Venice Horizons Award and the Critics Award at the Hamburg Film Festival.


The Official Competition also offers the Icelandic film Virgin Mountain. Fúsi (Gunnar Jónsson), a 43-year-old man living with his mother, has the terribly pedestrian job of a luggage handler at the airport. His life is governed by an extremely strict routine, his only pleasure being playing the model Battle of Alamein with his only friend Rolf.

He is a loner. His mother prepares his food. He eats the same chocolate cereal every morning and the same pad thai every Friday at the same restaurant, alone. He seems to be alienated in his friendless life except with even his coworkers bullying him without prompting any response. They insult him for being overweight and unsociable. His neighbours think of him as an eccentric.

On his birthday, Fúsi receives a gift card for a dance class and a cowboy hat from his mother’s boyfriend. Though he is not too keen on dancing he agrees to give it a try when his mother and her boyfriend insist. It is a huge step out of the tiny childlike world of toys and models in which he lives, however, and though he actually goes to the dance class, he never steps in. That day a snow storm results in a girl coming out of the dance class, Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) asking him for a ride home.

Later one of his colleagues also asks him for assistance with his own car, apologising for bullying him earlier. He invites him on a paintball outing followed by drinks at his house, but the episode ends disastrously when Fúsi realises his coworker has fixed him up with a prostitute. It is a humiliation. At the same time his neighbour Hera asks him for a ride, too, prompting groundless suspicions of perversion from her father and the police.

After Fúsi agrees to meet Sjöfn at the next dance class, when he drives her home, she invites him in for tea. At first he turns her down, illustrating how socially inexperienced he is, but a few minutes after leaving he shows up at her doorstep. Sjöfn mentions how she loves travelling, and so Fúsi books them both a charter flight to Egypt, where he can see the site of the Battle of Alamein for real. This prompts her to explain that she is not attracted to him, but he accepts her rejection and they continue to see each other – till one time she doesn’t come to the dance class.

Fúsi decides to visit Sjöfn. He finds her locked up in her own closet and so discovers her depression. He takes care of her while she spends days hiding in her closet, they grow closer, she asks him to move in with her and then changes her mind. Cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek takes close-ups to Fúsi’s eyes on many emotional occasions, highlighting Jónsson’s ability to convey denial.

Dagur Kári was born in France to Icelandic parents. He graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 1999. Virgin Mountain is his fifth fiction feature, his debut being Dramarama (2001). He was  repeatedly awarded at various festivals.

The film received the Best Actor Award, the Best Narrative Feature Award and the Best Screenplay Award at Tribeca Film Festival and was nominated for the Nordic Council Film Prize in 2015.


Based on a true story with cinematography by Tuomo Hutri that truly reflects the historical era, “The Fencer” follows Endel (Mart Avandi) as he escapes from Leningrad to the remote small town of Haapsalu during the regime of Joseph Stalin. There he changes his name to become Comrade Nelis and starts his new job as a sports teacher in a local school where he must overcome lack of resources and a hypocritical principal (Hendrik Toompere) to achieve his aim.

One afternoon, Endel is alone in the sports room practising some of his old moves as a professional fencer when a girl named Marta (Liisa Koppel) sees him and asks him to train her in this art. He eventually announces a weekly fencing class. With the lack of tools and the huge number of children who come to the class, he has to find creative ways to encourage the students’ new passion for fencing, using thin and elastic boughs for foils for example.

The principal tries to stop Endel, he attempts to secure a community ban on the activity as a bourgeois affectation. But, led by the boy Jaan’s grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak), himself a former fencer, the parents vote for resuming the class, which brings joy to their children. Eventually the children are to join a fencing tournament in Leningrad, and Endel’s brother warns him against coming back with them. At the same time the principal starts looking into Endel’s past, trying to find out who he really was in Leningrad. Under pressure from the students, however, and despite his love for his colleague Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp), Endel decides to make the journey.

The end of the film holds a huge amount of tension with the children’s excitement and the presence of Soviet authorities...

The Finnish-born director Klaus Härö studied filmmaking and screenwriting at the University of Industrial Arts in Helsinki and has many documentary and short films to his name. His debut fiction feature was Elina: As I Wasn’t There (2002). He has also made Mother of Mine (2005) and The New Man (2007).

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