Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The secret life of the tuk-tuk

Hani Mustafa celebrates the highlights of the Ismailia Documentary Film Festival

Between Sisters
Between Sisters
Al-Ahram Weekly

Festivals and film events have traditionally made room for art house cinema but seldom as much for documentary, animation or short works as for feature-length fiction films, their primary focus.

It was all the more remarkable, therefore, when over two decades ago, in 1991, the Egyptian director Hashem Al-Nahhas – in his capacity as head of the National Centre of Cinema – managed to establish an annual festival dedicated to documentaries and shorts in the Suez Canal resort city of Ismailia. The event went on until 1995, when it stopped – to be resumed by film critic Ali Abu Shadi when he became head of the centre in 2001. Last year, for organisational and financial reasons, the festival was not held as planned.

But last week the 18th Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (21-26 April) was happily held again – with the current head of the National Centre of Cinema filmmaker Ahmed Awaad as president and critic Mohammed Atef as director. It may be that the state has yet to pay attention to the Ismailia Festival to turn it into a true forum for critics and filmmakers and to build an audience for these genres.

With films like the Italian Manu Gerosa’s Between Sisters, however, the programme was already impressive. Between Sisters, which won the best film award in the feature-length documentary competition, is the kind of film in which the director benefits from more than one genre and modus operandi. Gerosa mixes fiction and documentary techniques to tell the story of his mother Ornella and her elder sister Tery (Mary-Teresa). The film opens with Ornella, who is over 65, helping Tery – who we later find out is 85 – to dye her hair in the bathroom.

The two sisters’ relationship is carried through this intensely personal piece of work to the end. Ornella is seen visiting Tery every morning to help her through the day, and leaving in the evening. It probably took Gerosa a long time to establish a routine whereby his mother and aunt could forget the presence of the camera, for the spontaneity and ordinary dialogue are the film’s principal components – and the filmmaker is aware that the spontaneity of the two sisters’ relationship is the film’s most vital element.

While they are having a weekend by the sea, lying side by side in bed, Tery points to the camera and asks Ornella what he (Manu) is doing. Ornella says he is making a film about the two of them, but unable to understand why he is filming them in bed, Tery then remarks, looking serious, “But he is making a porno.” The camera remains where it is to record the ensuing, hysterical laughter.

It is during that weekend, too, that Gerosa introduces scenes from the family’s video archives showing a young and beautiful Tery with the child Ornella (perhaps aged five) enjoying the beach. It’s as if Gerosa is showing how time has reversed the two sisters’ roles, with Tery first taking care of her younger sister – only to be taken care of by her. Here as elsewhere information about the two sisters gradually creates drama within the documentary film. At one point Ornella travels to meet a boyfriend, leaving Tery to another woman’s care. The film shows how trying the experience is for the elder sister, whose slowly failing health it also registers.

Talk of their father – who abandoned the family, having been very cruel to Tery and whom as it turns out Ornella never met – brings in yet another dimension. Giving in to Ornella’s nagging at one point, Tery reveals that Ornella is in fact only her half sister, having been born of her mother’s relationship with another man, following the father’s disappearance.

The film starts and ends with the two sisters having their morning coffee in bed, facing the sea in the balcony, but the second time – the truth of Ornella’s father having been revealed – Tery is facing the camera with the balcony and her younger sister behind her. It is a deeply satisfying film, with an abundance of human detail and moving spontaneity.

In Egyptian director Romany Saad’s Tuk-tuk, documentary cinema takes on social and economic as well as human dimensions. The film won the LE25 thousand Massah (or Diamond) Award offered by producer Hesham Abdel-Khaleq to support young filmmakers.

No doubt millions of Egyptians have developed an aversion to the tuk-tuks that crowd the side streets of working and lower middle class districts, often driven by teenagers. In this film the director manages to transform such otherwise passing aversion into a research tool.

The film follows three friends: a 12-year-old named Abdallah, who takes turn with his only slightly older brother Hossam aka Sharon driving an unlicensed tuk-tuk; Sharon; and another unlicensed tuk-tuk driver friend, Bika. Mere children fending for themselves, they are undermined by three types of creature: ordinary people who look down on them and resent their role in traffic congestion; traffic police who prey on them, whether truly enforcing the law or seeking out a bribe; and thugs of the kind who stole Bika’s brother’s tuk-tuk, giving him a deep head wound in the process.

The film deals with the tragic poverty that has driven these young people to drop out of their schools and work – their fathers’ forced retirement or sacking – which makes for depressing and bleak overtones, but they are made up for by the spontaneity of the three friends and the amusing situations in which they often find themselves.

No doubt the director made a huge effort to connect with and gain the trust of his characters, whose personality and humour are the success of the film. The weakness of the film was rather in its structure, with the three sections into which it is divided signifying nothing. Better editing might have contributed to a more holistic emotional experience.

Here as elsewhere the draw of the political is evident in documentary filmmaking. In Hadi Zakkak’s Kamal Jumblatt: Witness and Martyr – another of the Ismailia Festival’s highlights, which received a special mention in the feature-length competition – the story of the Druze leader and pro-Palestinian pivot of the Lebanese Civil War who was assassinated in 1977 emerges in a powerful and moving way.

Using a first-person narrative in which Jumblatt appears to tell his own story, Zakkak brilliantly takes stock of the human and intellectual as well as the political dimensions of the Druze leader, starting with his stint studying law at the Sorbonne and how he became a member of parliament on his return to Lebanon. Zakkak also deals with Jumblatt founding the Socialist Progressive Party and how he became a central, secular and democratic force in Lebanese politics.

The film relies on archival material provided by the Jumblatt family and extended interviews with Jumblatt’s son and heir Walid, the current head of the party and leader of the Druze community. Using graphic technique to subtly animate old photos, Zakkak offers a dense and satisfying portrait of a remarkable character, from his mother and father’s political preferences to his involvement in Indian Sufism (Jumblatt had a Sufi guru), and from his peace-loving nature to his involvement in the war.

Nor was the political impulse any weaker in the short film competition, in which the Iranian director Mohammad Ali Rakhshani’s Third Generation returns to Vietnam some four decades after the war to find out about the long-term effects of the Americans’ Agent Orange: a herbicidal warfare chemical used in 1961-1971, which as Rakhshani shows had adverse effects on humans.

Focusing on a number of victims serviced by a psychological support centre he visits Rakhshani deals in a straightforward way with these people’s lives and dreams. Among his interviewees, one is blind, another is in a wheelchair. He also shows deformed foetuses and various audiovisual documents of the war. The film does suffer from structural weaknesses, but one has the sense that they result from the extent of the horror of its subject.

It was the Russian filmmaker Maria Guskova’s 28-min The Return of Erkin, a fiction film, that won the best short film award. Opening with a thin man’s release from prison, the film follows this man to his home where he intends to apologise to his father but is thrown out by his brother. Guskova does not reveal what it was that her hero did wrong, focusing entirely on his life situation following his release. When he visits his ex-wife, for example, he is thrown out again – by her new husband. In time he obtains a job transporting cotton.

With little dialogue, the filmmaker manages to convey Erkin’s difficult psychological state and his ultimate loneliness. Dramatic development relies on a very special scene: that of a village wedding in which, when someone dances for the bride and groom, he is rewarded with money. When Erkin dances, his brother gives him money – only to beat him up in the next scene.

But it is at this point that his father takes him in again... Using non-professional actors including the protagonist – whose sullen despair is deeply convincing – Guskova exploits the beauty of the countryside setting to remarkable effect.

Though it won no prizes in the animation competition, Fredric Even and Louise Mercadier’s 15-min stop motion take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a beautifully executed and original work of art in its own right.

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