Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Little eagles, little wars

Hani Mustafa and Soha Hesham attended the first round of Zawya Art House’s Cairo Cinema Days

#Those who remain # The Beach House # Mimosas # Mare Nostrum; # Little Eagles # Maroun Bagdadi
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The Cairo Cinema Days (CCD, 9-16 May) is the latest initiative by Zawya which, organised by a team of young and dedicated film people, is directed by producer-director Marianne Khoury. The event took place in Alexandria, Port Said and Ismailia as well as Cairo, and included some 40 Arab films – fiction, documentary and short.

The CCD opened with Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Benattia’s Hedi, which took part in the Berlin Film Festival’s official competition and which won the best debut and best actor award, the latter for Majd Mastoura’s performance. It was also screened at the Luxor African Film Festival last March (when I reviewed it for Al-Ahram Weekly). In Luxor the film also won the best actor award (shared with Amr Said for his role in the Egyptian filmmaker Magdi Ahmad Ali’s Mawlana).

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Other CCD highlights include the Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Rashad’s Little Eagles, a  long documentary which premiered at the Dubai Film Festival last year. It is of the personal documentary genre, in which the filmmaker tells his own story directly, addressing his difficult relationship with his working-class father, who irons clothes for a living and whose work has often kept him away from his son. With immense difficulty, Rashad manages to coax some interesting stories out of his father – about his mother, Alexandria and Omm Kulthoum.

The confrontation is such that at one point the filmmaker admits to having wished he had a more caring father.

He envies his friends Bassam and Salma their families – both leftists intellectual who took part in the Student Movement against the Sadat regime in the 1970s, with Bassam’s being an intellectual and Salma’s an engineer who works closely with factory workers, and who despite being a Muslim married the Christian doctor and trade unionist Mona Mina – something he is not too shy to show. This too occasions extensive conversations in which the two men tell Rashad about their activism and their time in prison.

In the process of opening up with such frankness, presenting his ideas and dreams, the director develops an understanding of himself and his relationship with his father, whom he grows to respect. This adds to the value of the work. The film is named after the nursery established by leftist intellectuals at filmmaker Ali Badrakhan’s villa in Haram, which Bassam and Salma both attended as children.

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In Jumana Menna’s A Magical Substance Flows into Me, the artist attempts to document the work of the German Jewish musician and music historian Robert Lachmann, who left Germany in the mid-1930s and established an archive of eastern music at the Hebrew University, recording and establishing a radio programme for the traditional music of the various ethnicities living in Palestine at that time.

The film opens with those broadcasts followed by interviews with Kurdish, Moroccan, Yemini, Samaritan, Bedouin and Orthodox Christian communities. Through her conversations about their music, the filmmaker generates a mosaic of the Palestinian demography prior to the Nakba of 1948. The eastern spirit is evident in the traditions of all these communities even though each has its own specificity.

Notable in the film is her conversation with an elderly Samaritan to whom she plays hymns from the 1930s, who listens only to discover that the performer was his father in law. The Samaritans explain that their population in Israel has dropped to several hundred. It is at this point that it becomes clear that traditional Samaritan costumes and behaviour can be virtually indistinguishable from those of Sunni Muslims in religious contexts.

The director privileges intimate settings like the kitchens where musicians are seen cooking or making coffee.

One such conversation – with a Moroccan Jewish singer – is especially powerful, with the camera emphasising her hands as they add herbs and spices in a demonstration of the precision of Moroccan cuisine. Besides her songs and music, the girl discusses her relationship with Israeli society, explaining how Israel is trying to smooth over and eliminate the cultural multiplicity of the Diaspora.

Using a sublime cinematic language, the film manages to convey a powerful and necessary message about the nature of Palestinian and Jewish society irrespective of the conventional Arab-Zionist conflict, with ethnic music uttering what politics is incapable of formulating and, most importantly, contradicting the Israeli propaganda machine’s claims about a single unified cultural identity for all Jews.

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The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), which remains an integral part of Arab collective memory, has created or facilitated no end of stories and human experiences allowing a seemingly endless string of contributions by filmmakers through the last few decades. It has a strong presence in the first CCD, with a Maroun Bagdadi retrospective including Little Wars and Out of Life, made in 1982 and 1991 respectively.

In Little Wars – screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1983 Cannes Film Festival – Bagdadi dealt with the start of the war in 1975 through a network of young people implicated in or affected by the armed conflict. It was Out of Life, however, that won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes’s official competition, placing Bagdadi among the handful of Arab directors who have won awards at Cannes. The film depicts the experiences of a French correspondent covering the war, including being kidnapped and witnessing all kinds of horrors.

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Vatche Boulghourjian’s Tramontane is a tragic take on the Lebanese Civil War. Set in 1988, it is the story of a blind 24-year-old professional musician named Rabih (Barakat Jabbour), who lives with his mother and plays in a local band. The first shocking dramatic development is when Rabih decides to travel with his band to perform outside Lebanon. He attempts to obtain a passport at the police station, only to discover that his ID is forged.

The policeman, who knows Rabih’s family, is sympathetic enough not to arrest him and to ask for his birth certificate instead, but why is Rabih’s ID forged?

At first his mother Samar (Julia Kassar) tries to dissuade him from finding out, trying to dismiss the matter as red tape and insisting that his uncle Hisham (Toufic Barakat) would produce the birth certificate required.

Persisting, however, Rabih discovers that, unbeknown to him, the woman he grew up with is not his biological mother; it was Hisham, her brother, who brought him to her during the war; the trail takes Rabih to the village in which he was born, where evidently something terrible happened, but no one will tell him the full story.

Much of the film consists of Rabih in the company of a taxi driver going from one point to another, Hisham – who turns out to have been a militiaman – having disappeared once he heard that Rabih found out about his forged ID. He locates a fellow member of Hisham’s militia at a mental asylum where, though not insane, he chooses to live. He too refuses to talk about the past, however, and the film ends with Rabih failing to find out who he is.

Both Jabbour and Kassar give powerful performances, but despite its quality the film ends up being conventional, direct and too symbolic for comfort – starting with the protagonist’s blindness symbolising his inability to see the truth.

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Also from Lebanon, there is Eliane Raheb’s Those Who Remain (in Arabic it is named after a famous Najah Salam song, Mayel ya ghzayl, which has a dabka rhythm and deals with Lebanese identity). A documentary, it deals with a man named Haikal who lives in the mountainous region of Akkar in northern Lebanon, very close to the Syrian border. The film opens with the man asking directly why he was named Haikal, a word with several possible meanings in Arabic. Is it a reference to the church altar? Also known as Haikal Al-Shambouk, after the area where he lives, Haikal is no typical Lebanese from a clearly defined “house” and sect.

Haikal owns a cafeteria on the mountain road where trucks sometimes pass. Raheb, who produced and edited the film as well as directing it, shows him working in his land, however, trimming trees or at rest smoking his pipe. She asks him about his life and interests, and from his brief but telling responses we find out that, in 1975-76, he belonged to the militia led by the Phalangist-Lebanese Forces leader Elie Hobeika, then called Al-tanzim (the organisation), but did not stay long and did not join the Lebanese Forces, so that by the time the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre took place, he was no longer involved – but the director isn’t as interested in such testimonies as she is in the man’s character.

Haikal was abandoned by his wife, who took the children with her, but he took it upon himself to build a stone house on the mountain in the hope that the will visit him there. Raheb films Haikal all through the year, showing him in all seasons, and presents the Muslim woman who helps him at the cafeteria – a job she has had for 15 years. This brings up sectarian tensions in the area, and Raheb deals with the issue of Christians opposing the sale of land to Muslims, interviewing a Muslim man who despite owning land since the mid-1960s has been unable to build a house on it because the mayor refuses to accept the court order.

The land Haikal cultivates, on the other hand, is disputed: both his family and that of his close friend Antoine claim they own it; but we find out from Antoine himself that he is not interested in the issue even though he is aware that members of his family are, yet he seems to believe that land belongs to whoever cultivates it. Here as elsewhere in Haikal’s unique yet uniquely revealing story, Raheb brilliantly depicts the latent sectarian and political conflicts that define the Lebanese identity, but also the fact that there is much room for tolerance – something movingly demonstrated when everyone at the cafeteria including the patrons, Muslims and Christians, get up to dance the dabka to Najah Salam’s Mayel ya ghzayl.
 
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The French-Moroccan filmmaker Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas (2016), his second film after You All Are Captains (2010), won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 and was nominated for the Grand Prix at the T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival in Poland. It seems at first to be set many centuries ago, since in the desert landscape all the medievally dressed characters ride horses, but before too long we are at a modern place with cars where workers are being recruited. With his car Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar) – a strange man with long hair, a distant stare and a strange way of speaking – appears holding a sign that says, “Don’t forget God”. Presumably tasked with escorting a caravan through the desert, Shakib meets Said (Saïd Aagli) and Ahmed (Ahmed Hammoud), members of the caravan who apparently plan on stealing from the sheikh, its leader – with whom they argue about the way to Sijilmasa: whether or not it is too dangerous to cut through the Atlas Mountains – but then the sheikh falls dead.

With Mauro Herce’s beautiful cinematography showing the Moroccan landscape – the mountains, the snow, the mule grazing and the river reflecting the moon – the film poses questions about Shakib’s identity, the conviction with which he speaks of religious faith and whether he might really be a prophet – something Said and Ahmed discuss – but one night he is seen releasing the mule that bears the body of the sheikh and making it run away into the desert, as if examining his faith. Afterwards the mule is found in the possession of an old man and his mute daughter who now join the caravan. In time the man and a companion, Mohamed, are shot dead and the mute girl kidnapped. This seems to drive Shakib insane, and he starts a fight with Ahmed. With very little action or narrative coherence the film relies on the beauty of the photography and the music, the latter disappearing towards the end. Laxe divides it into three sections that are not necessarily tied to any incidents, but they have titles that refer to the three main body movements of Muslim prayer.

***

The young Lebanese artist Roy Dib’s The Beach House presents four characters having dinner after a private concert by Raya (Sandy Shamoun) at her beach house. Having recently taken up singing, Raya gives small concerts with a very limited guest list. This time she invites two old friends she hasn’t seen for nearly ten years, Youssef (Rodrigue Sleiman) and Rawad (Julian Farahat), the latter Raya’s one-time boyfriend. After she finishes singing she introduces them to her sister Laila (Nesrine Khodr), telling her not to let them leave, who proceeds to tell them they should stay for dinner for Raya’s sake, because Raya has cancer. A few drinks and lines of cocaine later, Laila – a very strong character – is playing with everyone’s mind, acting as though they are on a double date as she starts asking Rawad if he still has feelings for Raya.

During dinner Rawad and Youssef find out that Raya is fine and that the cancer was trick to make them stay played by Laila, who through a series of fake political and social discussions also unearths everyone’s hopes and fears. In time, through a game of truth and dare, more drinking and dancing it is revealed that Raya is seeing Laila’s ex-boyfriend, that Laila is desperate for a child (whom she asks Rawad to give her) and – climactically, eclipsing all that follows – that Rawad and Youssef are a couple…

This is Dib’s debut feature, written jointly with Raafat Majzoub and smoothly filmed by Karim Ghorayeb. His 2014 short film, Mondial, won the Teddy Award for Best Short Film at the 64th Berlinale, the Best Short Film at Queer Lisboa International Film Festival and the Uppsala Grand Prix at Uppsala International Short Film Festival.

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Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf’s Mare Nostrum, a 2016 Syrian-French production, is one of many notable short films screened in the CCD. In only 13 minutes, the shocking image of a father dropping his daughter in the sea and letting her drown is repeated, with variations, before news footage about a boat carrying illegal immigrants capsizing sheds light on his repeated if half-hearted attempts to kill his daughter by drowning; one time, when she clutches him to her, he nearly drowns himself, and is seen grieving hysterically when he loses sight of her. The Roman term for the Mediterranean – revived with an Italian operation to curb illegal immigration following the sinking of a boat off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 – adds to the poignancy of the work.  

***

Mohamed Kordofani’s Nyerkuk, a 19-minute film, is a work of passion. The 33-year-old Sudanese aircraft engineer based in Bahrain founded Kordofani Films, his own production company, after a year-long workshop.

Set in Khartoum, this short film is about a little boy named Adam (Tariq Fakhreldin), who lost his family to a bombing on the border and has been apprenticed to a burglar named Mazda (Khaled Abu Ashara) who nurtures his talent for opening locks without a key. Interspersed with discussions of whether or not stealing is religiously prohibited and images of poverty and urban deprivation, this demonstration of how a criminal is made ends with Adam picking up a gun firing at Mazda and the owner of the house he and Mazda have been caught robbing.

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Marwa Zein’s  One Week, Two Days, a 20-minute Egyptian-Sudanese production, is the work of another young Sudanese filmmaker who, having studied chemical engineering for three years, decided to pursue her passion at the Film Institute here in Cairo, also attending the Berlin Talent Campus, the Haile Gerima workshop at the Luxor African Film Festival and the Silver Docs AFI Documentary workshop. Her film Layl, developed at the Cinephilia Screenwriting Lab for Shorts, received an honourable mention in 2014. Her short film A Game was selected for the 2010 Cannes Short Film Corner and won awards at the Michigan Short Film Festival, the Avignon International Short Film Festival and the Ismailia International Short Film Festival.

One Week, Two Days depicts the journey of a loving couple, Laila (Yasmine Rais) and Ibrahim (Amr Saleh) through a transitional period in which they are deciding whether or not they want to have a baby. Using a range of camera techniques including strong blur in the opening scenes, the film boldly reveals intimate details of daily life to effectively convey the existential tension involved in bringing a human being into the world.

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Set in 1948, Amjad Al-Rasheed and Darin J. Sallam’s The Parrot is the 18-minute story of a Mizrahi Jewish family from Tunisia who after the Israeli Declaration of Independence move into a house in Haifa whose Palestinian owners – having departed abruptly – leave behind a big blue talking parrot. The newcomers include the mother Rachel (played by the famous Tunisian actress Hind Sabri), the father Moussa (played by the Palestinian Ashraf Barhom) and their little girl Aziza. A comedy full of political and historical allusions, it is a powerful comment on Arab-Jewish conflict and encounter.

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The Lebanese filmmaker Mounia Akl’s Submarine, a 21-minute film, is set in present-day Beirut where the heroine Hala (Yumna Marwan) seems to be camping out in her tiny home, taking uncomfortable naps on her couch in suffocating weather with the windows shut and the lights dimmed – an atmosphere of claustrophobia unexplained until one of the windows break, letting rubbish from the street straight into her living room – and so the panic of Beirut’s garbage crisis sets in. Many are leaving, but Hala refuses to accompany her uncle  Zizo (Adel Chahine) and his wife, who are giving up the cafe they own as well as their house to escape the rubbish. When they are gone Hala goes into the deserted cafe, turns on the lights – and starts dancing. But by the end she is seen walking alongside piles of garbage, dressed all in black, like someone at a funeral saying goodbye. This is the latest in a string of short films by Akl: Beirut, I Love You (2009), Cheers To Those Who Stay (2010), Anoesis (2011) and Christine (2014).

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