Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Hedi and the Last Days

Samir Farid celebrates the Arab achievements at the 66th Berlinale

Hedi and the servants
Hedi and the servants
Al-Ahram Weekly

For the first time in the history of the Berlinale, which closed this week, the Golden Bear at the 66th round (11-21 February) was awarded to a documentary, the Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea). Rosi had also received the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion for Sacro GRA, another documentary and another first time, in 2013, making him a true trailblazer in the genre. 

On the other hand DanisTanovic won the Silver Bear, Grand Jury Prize for Smart U Sarajevu (Death in Sarajevu),  Lav Diaz  the Silver Bear, Alfred Bauer Prize for a Feature Film that opens new perspectives for Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), Mia Hansen-Love the Silver Bear for Best Director for L’avenir (Things to Come), Trine Dyrholm the Silver Bear for Best Actress in Kollektivet (The Commune) by Thomas Vinterberg; Majd Mastoura the Silver Bear for Best Actor in Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi) by Mohamed Ben Attia, Tomasz Wasilewski the Silver Bear for Best Script for Zjednoczone Stany Milosci (United States of Love) by Wasilewski, Mark Lee Ping-Bing the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for The Camera in Changjiang TU (Crosscurrent) by Yang Chao.

 The Silver Bear for Best Actor for the Tunisian actor Majd Mastoura in the Tunisian Film Hedi, the first Silver Bear for Arab Film since Youssef  Chahine’s Silver Bear, Grand Jury Prize 1979 for Iskendreya Leeh (Alexandria Why). Hedi also won the Best First Feature Award endowed with 50.000 Euros Funded by GWFF, which was shared by the director Ben Attia and the producer Dora Bouchoucha. It had competed for this, separately Juried prize with 17 other films from all across the featival’s sections, including competition and non-competition films. This is the first time an Arab film won the debut award, and also the first time an Arab actor or actress won an award in any of the major world film festivals (Cannes, Venice and Berlin) since 1932.

Other Arab achievements included the Jury Prize for the short British film A Man Returned, directed by the Palestinian Mahdi Fleifel, who was also nominated to the European Film Academy. Egyptian filmmaker Tamer Al-Said won the Caligari Prize, named for the classic German film, for Akher Ayam Al Madina (In the Last Days of the City). In addition, the Lebanese filmmaker Maher Abi Samra also won the Peace Film Prize for his documentary Makhdoumin (A Maid for Each).

***

Inhebbek Hedi is the long feature debut of Ben Attia, who was born in 1976 and studied cinema in Tunis and France, directing five short films between 2004 and 2014. It heralds the birth of a true cinematic talent that will have a role in the future of Tunisian filmmaking. It also heralds the birth of a new acting talent in the person of Majd Mastoura, who plays Hedi.

A Tunisian-Belgian-French coproduction, the film is the latest production of Dora Bouchoucha’s company Fourati, well-known for supporting young filmmakers and endorsing new work. Fourati collaborated with the Palm d’Or-winning Belgian filmmakers the Dardini brothers, whose documentary-realist style influences Ben Attia. Here as in Dardini films, the work proceeds in purely cinematic language unaided by literature or theatre, operating in the present time and relying on free camera movement and dramatic intensity – which might explain why, on reading the script, the Dardinis were eager to support Ben Attia’s project. The 88-min feature could have been ten minutes shorter, however. It ends twice, and includes unnecessary explanatory dialogue in several scenes.

The action takes place in present-day, post-revolution Tunis, against the backdrop of the emergence of terrorism there in the name of Islam. It includes a clear allusion to the 2005 Sousse beach massacre, affirming the present-day setting. The film is an expression of the deeper dimension of the revolution, which is the drive to transform a society controlled by a single family which oppresses individual freedoms and prevents people from realising their dreams.

Hedi is a 25-year-old who lives with his mother Baya (Sabah Bouzouita) following the his father’s and his elder brother Ahmed (Hakim Boumessaoudi) moving to France with his French wife. Hedi works as a salesman for the Peugeot car company, a clear advertisement within the film, but he is a gifted draughtsman who wants to be a comic book artist. He is first seen driving his car, and throughout the film he is more often in his car than in the house, where his oppressive mother represents the sort of middle-class tradition and authority that has been the subject of numerous Egyptian films – it is she who chooses Hedi’s future wife, Khedija (Omnia Ben Ghali), and has Ahmed fly back to Tunis to ask her family for her hand as per the stagnant convention – but it is Ben Attia’s refreshing take on that issue that proves remarkable. 

Technically superfluous explanatory dialogue takes place both when the mother meets with both her sons and when Hedi talks to Khedija, though in the latter case – as he urges her to be herself and choose the kind of life she wants without interference from her family – he is both expressing his own deepest desire and presaging his meeting with Rim (Rym Messaoud), the itinerant hotel dancer he falls in love with. Having bumped into Rim at the hotel where she is dancing and he is promoting Peugeots, he apologises saying that he had only just found out that his mother is seriously ill, but later he walks up to the table where she is dining with a friend and tells her that he lied to her and that his mother is not ill. Rim is astounded by his innocence. That evening he follows her to the swimming pool, where he undresses and swims with her, then to her room where he loses his virginity to her – one of the film’s most beautiful scenes.

For the love of Rim Hedi destroys all that holds him back, getting her to climb the pipes into his hotel room and deciding to follow her to Montpelier where she tells him she is going to seek employment at a hotel there now that tourism has been hit in Tunisia, leaving his marriage project incomplete just two days before the wedding. In a long scene Hedi is seen driving his car at night, reflecting the opening scene, before he pulls over by the beach and looks out to sea – the first ending. 

Yet the film continues, showing the confrontation between Hedi and his mother in the presence of his brother, in which – along with much superfluous explanation – it is revealed that Khedija’s father is a corrupt government crony and even Ahmed confesses to having left the country to escape Baya’s stifling presence. 

The second ending takes place when at the last minute, at the airport, Hedi decides not to accompany Rim after all. They both weep, and Hedi is seen – having left the airport – looking left and right.

***

Tamer Al-Said’s full-length debut Akher Ayam Al Madina – screened in the Berlinale’s Forum programme – is a major cinematic event and a turning point in the history of Egyptian cinema. Indeed it is strange that the film was not screened in the official competition, which included fare not fit to be compared with Al-Said’s film, but such is the wont of film festivals.

In Akher Ayam Al Madina Egyptian cinema enters the postmodern for the first time, with documentary and fiction techniques complementing each other to form an integrated dramatic whole and professional actors mingling with everyday character on the streets without the viewer being able to tell them apart. Set in downtown Cairo in 2009, the film is a testimony about the conditions that led to the 2011 revolution which employs a broad perspective without ideological bias, even though it is critical of corruption and autocracy in every form.

Written by Rasha Salti and Tamer Al-Said, Akher Ayam Al Madina takes the form of a film-within-the-film since it is about a director trying to make a film – a well-known sub-genre in world cinema – but the interesting twist is that, while the actual film is completed the film-within-the-film never is. Nothing is. Everything in the film is suspended, as it were between heaven and earth, and that goes for love and revolution as much as anything. It is an elegy for the city that is lost, be it Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut or Baghdad, linking the fates of Arab cities with unprecedented power. Equally excellent were the acting performances of Khalid Abdalla, who plays the directorm Hanan Youssef, Laila Sami and Haidar Hilw, as well as the camera work by Bassem Fayyad. Respect is due, but let us leave the business of reviewing the film until it is screened in Cairo. 

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