Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Black films matter

Al-Ahram Weekly attended the latest round of the Luxor African Film Festival, which closed yesterday

Kindil Al-Bahr

Last Thursday the opening of the sixth Luxor African Film Festival (16-22 March) testified to the status the event has achieved in the continent in its short lifespan, becoming a true cinematic forum for Egyptians and other Africans alike. Festival president Sayed Fouad, festival director Azza Al-Husseini and their team have been exerting their utmost of achieve just such a status, supplementing the four competitions – fiction, documentary, short and human rights films, with only the latter including films by non-African directors – with an exhibition of paintings by artist Mohamed Abla and one of photographs of Taheya Carioca by photographer Mohamed Bakr. But perhaps more importantly for new generations of filmmakers are the workshops led by such major figures as the Ethiopian-American director Haile Gerima, who won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Festival for his 1976 Harvest: 3000 Years and, more recently, the special jury and best screenplay awards at the Venice Film Festival for his 2008 Teza.


Zaineb Hates the Snow

Among the highlights of the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF) this year is the Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s Zaineb Hates the Snow, a documentary filmed over the course of six years about a widow who loses her husband to a car accident and must bring up her nine-year-old daughter and three-year-old son on her own. The film opens with little Zaineb drawing her family while the voice of a somewhat older Zaineb speaks of her departed father. She also speaks of her mother, who is now in love with a man named Maher who lives in Canada and wants to marry her. Editing is used powerfully as we go from the mother overtaken by emotion while on the phone with her boyfriend to Zaineb holding her Barney the Dinosaur toy and crying. As she tells the camera what’s upsetting her, the toy starts singing, “We are a happy family”. This makes the girl laugh in spite of her efforts to maintain her sense of sadness over the fact that her mother is in love with a stranger – a spontaneity that characterises the entire film and makes for a delightfully moving atmosphere. This is achieved by the filmmaker installing herself seamlessly into the daily life of the family and doing the photography herself so as not to disrupt the natural reactions. Occasionally she even interferes, reminding the viewer of her presence and of the fact that what is going on is real, not fictional.

The film is made up of four sections. The first introduces Zaineb and Maher as well as his daughter Wijdan on their visit to Tunis; it demonstrates their efforts to get close to Zaineb, who eventually gives in to the desire for a sister and so accepts the initially inconceivable idea of her mother marrying Maher. In the second section, which takes place a year and a half later at a time when Zaineb is passing from childhood into adolescence, the process of accepting the marriage is resumed while the mother and her fiancé prepare for the wedding. In the third section, another year and a half later, the family is living in Canada in Maher’s small villa. It is during this section that the issue of religion is raised, very subtly, as Wijdan (who has adopted her mother’s Christian faith) speaks to Maher of his Muslim beliefs. Zaineb tries to persuade Wijdan to convert and cries when her mother (who wears the hijab) tells her to stop talking religion, because she is convinced that only Muslims will go to heaven and she doesn’t want her sister to go to hell. In the last section of the film, three years later, the mother and Maher are divorced and Zaineb is a fully fledged adolescent but her connection with Wijdan appears to be much weaker; it seems all that keeps them in touch now is the filmmaker who – eager to see how they all feel about the past – is showing them what she has filmed. This is perhaps the most powerful scene, with the two girls childishly giggling and the mother nostalgically melancholy as they all gather to watch.

***


Agora

The LAFF has screened documentaries on the Marikana massacre of 2012, when 34 striking miners were killed by police in South Africa. This year the South African filmmaker Joseph Oesi’s Black Lives Matter – with a title drawn from the online campaign against the US police killing African Americans, which started in 2013 – opens with black and white footage of military operations against blacks under Apartheid, moving straight to scenes of the Marikana corpses being transported. The film goes on to show the victims’ family and friends remembering the painful episode, with the director interviewing the survivors and finding out about their present conditions.

But the film, being the work of a director who started his career as a TV journalist, is not only interested in analysing the social conditions that led to the miners’ protest but also eager to mount an investigation into the connections between the state and the mining companies, the huge profits made and the meagre taxes paid, and the fact that the miners’ wages are not enough for basic needs; they and their families suffer ill health as well. More generally the film deals with the persistence of patterns of abuse of natural resources in South Africa and exploitation of native labour after power was transferred to black politicians.

***


Black Lives Matter

Short film highlights this year include Agora by the Tunisian filmmaker Abdalla Yahya. A personal film of the genre that features either the filmmaker or a writer-artist stand-in for him, often incorporating a philosophical dimension – which can be gleaned from the title being a reference to the ancient Greek assembly and market space. The film opens with a child happily standing in front of a movie screen that is showing scenes from old, black and white films. After the opening titles, a young filmmaker named Khalid – the protagonist and narrator – is seen driving with his dog to a remote, poor area where he hopes to reignite his creative flame, as it were. A phone call from the producer makes it clear that he is late and has been blocked. Khalid makes the acquaintance of Mutaz, the child who brings him his bread every morning, from whom he finds out about the problems of children in poor areas.

The film takes on a documentary cast as the camera shows a loaf of bread being made while Khalid gives information about child labour, but this is skilfully woven into the fabric of the drama to produce a seamless whole. The turning point occurs when Khalid tells Mutaz about his work as a film director, only to discover that Mutaz – who doesn’t go to school and doesn’t have free time – has never heard of the cinema. And so Khalid is inspired to start his new project with the area’s children, giving them paper and colours to draw and showing them a black and white film on a proper, large screen in the course of making a movie about them. Yahya thus manages to compare and contrasts bread and art, two life necessities that are different from each other to the point of being opposites.

 ***


Luxor African Film Festival

Another short film worth mentioning is the Algerian filmmaker Damien Ounouri’s Kindil El Bahr (or “The Jellyfish”). At first sight the film appears to be realistic, with a family made up of a pretty woman, Nfissa, her husband, boy and girl and her mother all getting into the car and driving to the beach where the husband deposits them before going off to work. Nfissa, who appears to miss her husband despite their enjoying loving relations, decides to have a dip in the water fully dressed – only to be the victim of a group harassment episode that leaves her drowned. But that is where realism ends.

While the husband tries to push the police to look for Nfissa – the film seems to criticise his and her mother’s relative passivity regarding what happened to Nfissa – the drowned woman turns into a human jellyfish that electrocutes whoever comes near it, killing not only the young men who harassed her but others who were in the water at the time and did not step in to save her. The director thus mixes genres, moving from realism to fantasy and ending with something akin to documentary when the creature is captured and the film turns into a series of television interviews about her. This the director manages to criticise not only family and police but also the media, taking all of society to task for what it does to women.

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