Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Art house of others

Hani Mustafa at the 9th Panorama of European Film

Art house of others
Art house of others
Al-Ahram Weekly

In its ninth round the annual Panorama of European Film has become one of the most important cinematic events in Egypt, awaited by cinephiles every year. Producer-director Marianne Khouri’s formula of the best European productions from the previous two years with some older classics has gained a positive reputation, even though Khouri herself has left the management of the Panorama to a group of young people including her son Youssef Al-Shazli, her mark remains strongly felt through strong relations with producers, distributors and filmmakers in Europe as well as connections with the press and film criticism. This year the Panorama has introduced animation and European city sections (the latter featuring Berlin). There is only one film from outside Europe, Charlie Chaplain’s The Greater Dictator, which though an American film deals with Hitler.

Italian filmmaker Piero Messina’s The Wait was among last week’s highlights. Its director’s fiction feature debut, the film opens with a Christ on the cross – a lifelike, life size Catholic depiction – whose foot an elderly woman enters the church to kiss. Immediately after, the scene shifts to a funeral in which Anne (Juliette Binoche) looks dumbstruck as she bids her son Giuseppe goodbye. Later Anne receives a phone call from Guiseppe’s girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), who tells her that after inviting her to spend Easter with him and his mother here in Sicily, Guiseppe failed to pick her up at the airport as agreed. 

Anne’s response to this phone call – her decision to tell Jeanne that Guiseppe is out of town and should be arriving later, rather than admitting the truth and facing her grief – is the central premise of the film. Jeanne sends Guiseppe voice messages, which Anne is able to listen to, uncovering a secret she had not been aware of. After Anne’s manservant Pietro explodes, telling her she must tell Jeanne the truth and let her go, Anne still does not manage to tell Jeanne the truth and tells her Guiseppe has decided to split up with her instead. 

The closing scenes recall the opening images of Christ on the cross, with Anne participating in the Easter procession to the sea where a large statue of the Virgin Mary is to be floated on the water as per the Sicilian tradition. It’s as if Messina is drawing on the story of Mary’s disbelief when Jesus dies, and her thinking that he would rise again (which of course Jesus does). Messina manages to transform every frame into a beautiful work of art, providing an appropriate and gripping soundtrack and movement to match. Together with a masterly performer by the Oscar winner, this makes for a spontaneous and poetic film of immense appeal.  

***

Another highlight was the Georgian filmmaker Russudan Gliurjidze’s House of Others, another debut that won the Euroasian International Film Festival Grand Prix and represented Georgia at the Oxfords in 2016. The film is set in 1992-93 in the immediate aftermath of the civil war. Making use of the great scenic beauty of the mountainous area where the battles took place, the film tells the story of a family made up of a man Astumar, his wife Liza, their teenage son Leo and their little daughter. Living in a town not far from the site of carnage, at the start they are forced to move into a remote house in a safer part of the country which, invested with a sense of mystery, nonetheless inspires a sense of awe and fright. 

Swathed in wintry, often rain-soaked imagery, the film manages to maintain a remarkable visual beauty as well as communicating the psychology of devastation associated with civil war. Astumar’s family is isolated from all but one other family made up of two middle-aged sisters and a teenage girl. One of the sisters, Ira, dresses like a soldier and is enamoured of weaponry to the point of blowing up a shed full of wine bottles in the middle of the night. Leo befriends the teenage girl while the tension between his parents mirrors the two sisters’ repressed anger. 

Distressed and suffering from hallucinations – he sees a girl in black walking into the woods – Astumar decides to return to town with his family even after the driver tells him the crossfire there is ongoing. This palpably affects the other family, with the girl devastated by the loss of Leo and Ira disappearing into an area known to be full of landmines. The filmmaker explains nothing, never unravelling the mystery that enfolds the action and concentrates instead on communicating the psychology of his characters.

***

The British filmmaker Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story, which won many awards including the Cinema Peace Award in 2016, deals with civil war, albeit in the form of a documentary. Filmed over five years starting before the Arab Spring and ending after the family leaving Syria, real-life footage depicts a profound love story while telling the story of a revolution turned civil war. It opens with McAllister’s trip to Syria in 2009, when though his primary interest is touristic he tries to find out as much as he can about the political situation. 

He eventually meets Amer, a Palestinian revolutionary, whose wife and the love of his life Raghda, being a dissident, is indefinitely detained by the Assad regime. He also meets their three sons: Shadi, a young man; Kaka, a teenager; and Bob, a child. The film depicts the family’s life in the absence of the mother, with Kaka telling McAllister in English how he wants to fight the regime that has deprived him of his mother. 

Following the 2011 demonstrations some political detainees are released and Raghda rejoins her family, but she has evidently been changed by the experience and her love for Amer suffers. As the tension mounts in Tartus the family decides to move to the Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus while all of Syria is overtaken by violence. Later the director himself is arrested and detained by the Mukhabarat while the family moves to Lebanon; he follows them. 

After returning briefly to Syria, the increasingly unpredictable Raghda applies for immigration as a political activist and the whole family manages to move to France where she husband and wife are so estranged that Amer takes a lover and Raghda tries to kill herself. She leaves him and the children for Turkey where we see her working with the opposition. Back in Syria, Shadi’s girlfriend – so full of life while talking to McAllister in a Damascus cafe – has been killed. In France Kaka tells McAllister that he now hates the revolution which has destroyed his family. 

Throughout the film the camera remains intimately close to the characters, as if the viewer has been thrown into their daily lives. McAllister never gets lost in the political details of the conflict, keeping his film an account of a human experience.

***

Filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl was among those films eagerly awaited by cinephiles, the Dardenne brothers being among the world’s best appreciated art house cinema figures and having won the Palme d’Or twice for Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005). 

The Unknown Girl focuses on a young, dedicated doctor named Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) who has replaced an elderly doctor at his private clinic; typically of the Dardennes, the camera slowly trails her while she examines her patients at the clinic and during house calls, revealing something of the life of each patient: a man from eastern Europe whose friend acts as an interpreter and who is unable to go to hospital for lack of residence papers, for example. Jenny’s own intern, unable to face human suffering, decides to drop out of medical school and return to his village to work with his hands. 

The story begins when the doorbell rings an hour after closing time and Jenny does not open it. The next day she encounters two policemen from whom she finds out that the person who had tried to see her was an unregistered, nameless young woman – a refugee – whose corpse was found earlier that day by the river bank. Racked by guilt and braving all kinds of difficult, occasionally violent situations, Jenny determines to find out the name of the girl, convinced that she has a family that wants to know what has happened to her. The film stands out for excellent acting, especially from Haenel; but it was largely badly received at the this Panorama.

***

At the screening of Croatian filmmaker Zrinko Ogresta’s On the Other Side, writes Soha Hesham, the audience was amused when the large white cat seen wandering around the seats suddenly appeared on screen in the video warning against using mobile phones preceding the film. It was an appropriate introduction to a masterly work of trickery, surprise and occasional confusion. The story of an elderly nurse, Vesna (Ksenija Marinkovic), who leads a mechanical life in Zagreb, it starts with a phone call from her ex-husband Zarko (Lazar Ristovski), who she has not seen for 20 years, asking to see her and their son Vladimir (Robert Budak), a married man by now, and daughter Jadranka (Tihana Lazovic), who is in the process of getting married. 

As Vladimir and Jadranka refuse to have any contact with Zarko, clues to the story begin to emerge. After Vesna is seen at the cemetery where it becomes clear she used to have another daughter who died, Jadranka is seen having trouble getting a job because of her father’s name. Two middle-aged men visit Vesna asking after their families’ burial places. It is then revealed that Zarko is a war criminal who was fighting on the other – Yugoslavian side when Vesna decided to flee to the capital with her children. Calling her at night, Zarko begins to woo Vesna again, playing on her loneliness to the point when she considers visiting him in Belgrade.

Having worked on the screenplay with screenwriter and musician Mate Matisic (who also composed the music with his brother Simun), and benefitting from perfectly synchronised cinematography by Branko Linta, Orgesta withholds and reveals information to astonishing effect, with beautifully paced action. The film ends with a stunning twist as Vesna begins to question the identity of her caller...

Ogresta is known for his debut Fragments: Chronicles of a Vanishing (1991) followed by Washed Out (1995), Red Dust (1999), Here (2003, awarded the Special Prize of Jury at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival), Behind the Glass (2008) and Projections (2013). On the Other Side received a Special Mention at Berlin International Film Festival, the Belgrade Victor Award at Fest International Film Festival, the Big Golden Arena, Grand Golden Arena Awards as well as a number of awards at Pula Film Festival.  

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