Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Across the Mediterranean

Hani Mustafa attended the fourth Luxor Film Festival

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week Luxor was busier than it has been in a long time, for together with the local tourists spending their mid-year break the fourth Luxor Film Festival for Arab and European Cinema (30 January-5 February) took place. This is the first round to take place under the new administrative team, with critics Magda Mourice and Mohamed Atef as president and director, respectively.

According to director Mohamed Kamel Al-Qalyoubi, the head of Noun organisation which organises the festival, “This round is somewhat different. The festival is no longer solely concerned with the dialogue between Egyptian and European cinema but has expanded to become a dialogue between Arab and European cinema.” This year the festival honours actress Lubna Abdel-Aziz, its honorary president, as well as actress Poussi, with Italian cinema being the guest of honour. Significant parts of the programme are dedicated to each.

***

In common with many if not all festivals, Luxor offered many a competent film with an interesting feature or idea, a few unremarkable films and several outstanding productions. Among the highlights were Italian filmmaker Adriano Valerio’s Banat (English title: The Journey), which premiered at the last Venice Film Festival and won the Silver Djed Pillar. It deals with the economic hardships suffered by the European middle class, with Ivo, an agricultural scientist, failing to find employment except in the Romanian part of the region of Banat.

The opening scene shows Ivo storing his belongings in preparation for leaving the flat. In the course of this Clara, the new tenant, arrives with her luggage; and Ivo asks her for a little time to finish packing. The scenes preceding Ivo’s departure depict the growing intimacy between him and Clara, revealing that she has come out of a relationship she had thought would last, pregnant and alone, and forging an ongoing link the night before Ivo leaves when he loses his dog and Clara promises to look for her and keep him updated. From them on the script follows the two characters, each in their setting, until Clara – afraid of losing Ivo – decides to join him.

The farm in wintertime Banat, where the weather results in a bad crop and the owner cannot pay his farm workers, is beautifully shot. But actual work on the farm is never filmed, with the workers seen gathering before work and enjoying their breaks but never actually working. In the end, however, the director manages to depict two journeys: Ivo’s journey looking for work, and Clara’s journey to rejoin him. No one knows where life will take them next.

Another highlight was the Cypriot filmmaker Marinos Kartikkis’s Family Member. Routine scenes of a family that owns a supermarket – the mother and father manage the place, the ten-year-old son is picked up from school by the maternal grandfather, and the adolescent daughter is taken to secondary school by her motorbike-driving boyfriend – eventually reveal financial problems and debt. When the grandfather dies he is buried in secret, without a funeral or an official record, so that the family can continue to receive his retirement benefit.

The script expertly transforms what at first appears to be a quiet life into pandemonium when a social security clerk phones to check on the grandfather. An elderly man lifts a can of tuna from the supermarket and, instead of calling the police, the mother and father get him to impersonate the dead man for the benefit of social security. The plan works, but a rather more exciting relationship develops between the new grandfather and the rest of the family.

At the risk of seeming somewhat forced, the family’s love for the shoplifter conveys the central message of this light social drama: that human relationships need not depend on blood connections. He is seen helping the ten-year-old with his homework and advising the girl on her relationship with her boyfriend, who wants to take things further though she is not quite ready. Another clue to the philosophical message is found in the mother dreaming of her real father, who is angry with her.

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A higher proportion of outstanding fare was to be found in the short film programme. The Greek director Socrates Alafouzos’s 15-min Between Black and White, for example, which received a certificate of appreciation from the jury and was praised by the jury head, cameraman Ramsis Marzouk, is an experimental depiction of the hero’s conflict with memories of his early life, when his father left and his mother lived with another man who sexually harassed him.

The tragedy is narrated in a beautiful and unique cinematic language combining the theatrical and plastic arts. A fixed camera shows framed views of very sparsely furnished settings, with each sequence portrayed in a given colour and standing alone as a work of art: the tragic domestic scenes in red, the hero’s development from a child to a man in blue. One room has only a bed, another only a balcony with prison-like railings and tree branches like thorns. Perhaps the film deserved rather more than a certificate of appreciation though such art house experimentation is no doubt not to everyone’s taste.

Montenegrin director Senad Sehmanovic’s Tranquility of Blood is another tragedy, beautifully condensed into 22 minutes. Dealing with the notion of blood feuds, the film opens with the funeral of a man whose elderly wife appears rather more angry than grieving. Once the funeral is over she is seen opening the grave and her supposedly dead husband sitting up. The fake funeral is but a ploy to draw back the killer of the couple’s son, who had escaped the village. The woman must bring food to her completely disappeared husband for a long time until the young killer is reassured enough to return with his parents, wife and son – and the confrontation can finally take place.

This happens in the final sequence of the film, giving the impression that the director has managed to sum up a far longer epic of revenge traditions in this mountainous region. He also manages to convey the two families’ class difference by showing how each is dressed. With the beautiful mountains for a backdrop, the director manages to sustain a meticulously tight structure, using every tool at his disposal with optimum efficiency. But the most important and powerful element of the film remains the acting prowess of the elderly couple who, with very little dialogue, convey the rage and the suspense as well as the momentary emotional transformation when revenge is finally attempted.  

***

Many Arab short films attempt to document the life circumstances related to the political turmoil of the last few years, civil wars and the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In Syrian filmmaker Wassim Al-Sayed’s Smile, You’re Dying, a man is driving another who has been shot checks on his passenger to realise he is dead, and his response suggests that death has become too commonplace to merit distress.

The scene shifts to where the dead man used to live, dealing with the psychological suffering of the man who was a photographer attempting to work under harsh, violent conditions. A production of the state’s Film Institution, the film tries to avoid political details and complications of the war, framing the oppression of the Syrian citizen which may well end with the loss of his life. Despite its powerful subject, the film came across as largely mediocre.

Likewise the Egyptian filmmakers Ahmed Salah Sony and Ramadan Salah’s Like A Miracle is the story of a Coptic Christian girl who lives in Sweden and closely follows developments in Egypt through Facebook. She receives a message from a young activist who is in jail, and she starts a campaign to free him before she realises he is a Muslim fundamentalist. At this point, feeling tricked, her perspective shifts completely. Two sections of the film involve narration by the activist – it is hinted that he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood – and the girl, in which he speaks of freedom and she accuses him of duplicity.

A dramatisation of Egyptian society’s experience in the January Revolution – when people supported activists only to realise they were serving an Islamist agenda – the film is nonetheless artistically weak.

The paranoia associated with security breakdown is rather more effectively depicted in Mohamed Karara’s eight-min Taxi, in which a taxi driver and his passenger on a long journey have a clipped, suspicious conversation trying to work out each other’s intentions to no avail. The tension is palpable as each expects the worst from the other, recalling the atmosphere of the time following both January 2011 and June 2013. It could have benefited from closer attention to such technical details as the light changing at the end even though it hasn’t been long enough.

***

Despite a rich programme and smooth execution, the festival suffered from ineffective equipment, with theatres not equipped to screen the HD versions of the films and bad sound. Nor was the festival adequately promoted within Luxor, with the result that few locals attended.

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