Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Politics and co

Of to a bad start: Hani Mustafa attended the Cairo International Film Festival

Tunis By Night

The 39th round of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF, 21-30 November) has monopolised the attention of film buffs since last week. Suffering a huge drop in the value of its budget since the floating of the Egyptian pound – and cast out of the Opera House by the Opera chairwoman Inas Abdel-Dayim, who was silent for 11 months after CIFF requested the use of the main hall for the opening and closing ceremonies only to turn down the request weeks ago – CIFF is evidently the least of Minister of Culture Helmy Al-Namnam’s concerns despite its considerable value as one of Egypt’s principal cultural and artistic events. Another problem – not so much CIFF’s as the Egyptian film industry’s – is the lack of an Egyptian film in the official competition, something that hasn’t happened since CIFF was established. 

Due to distance or miscalculation, the opening ceremony at the Conference Hall in Fifth Settlement, New Cairo, was delayed for nearly two hours. Since the hall had not been checked, the opening film, Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s Hollywood feature The Mountain Between Us, was stopped by the director (a member of the jury) a few minutes into the screening due to unacceptable sound quality, a decision perhaps influenced by the fact that few viewers were left to see the film so late in the evening. Such problems do not happen at major international or regional festivals, which is all the more reason for the state to pool efforts and expertise to avoid them in the future, recognising the value of Egypt’s oldest and the Arab world’s second oldest film festival after Carthage.

***

Among CIFF’s highlights this year, Philippe Van Leeuw’s Insyriated is one of those political films that avoid the pitfall or moralising, managing to use politics as a trigger to deal with deep human and psychological issues reflected in or inspired by political reality. The second long feature by the Belgian director-screenwriter after The Day God Walked Away (2008), it premiered in the Berlinale’s Panorama, where it won the Audience Prize.

Insyriated opens in an unidentified Syrian city with an elderly man smoking a cigarette while he watches the street out of the window at dawn. He looks saddened by the sight of buildings destroyed by bombing even before a number of pedestrians approaching a vegetable seller disperse and tun as a sniper begins to target them; no one falls. The scene shifts to Halima and Samir in their room with their infant son discussing travelling to Lebanon now that the situation in Syria is no longer bearable before revealing an upper middle class flat, presided over by Umm Yasine (Hayam Abbas), who tries to control everyone who lives in the house and keep everything in order.

The script is structured like a classic stage play with the action taking place in the course of a day at a single location: Umm Yasine’s flat, a kind of safe house in which she lives with her two daughters and her son Yasine, together with a teenage boy, Karim, one of her friends’ sons, who seems to be in a relationship with her teenage daughter. The elderly man who appears at the beginning is Umm Yasine’s father in law, the children’s grandfather. There is also a servant from South East Asia called Delhani. It becomes clear that Halima and Samir have moved down from their own flat higher up in the same building – destroyed by bombing – taking up a room at Umm Yasine’s. 

The main event takes place when Samir steps out and is hit by the sniper. This detail is witnessed by Delhani from the kitchen balcony, and when she told Umm Yasine the latter asked her to keep the information to herself till nightfall, since no one can leave the house before then without being killed. The camera moves around the flat’s residents through the rooms and corridors, while an armed man with another in a suit, a security agent keep asking about the people who live in the flat and whether they need help, only to be sent away by Umm Yasine – building up to the moment they break in, evidently looking for a sniper and the full scale of the tragedy comes through. 

While Umm Yasine and her family hide in the pantry, Halima – who can’t catch up with them – is raped by the security agent: a scene whose precise detail is both shocking and painful. After it is over Halima’s relationship with Umm Yasine deteriorates, especially when she finds out Umm Yasine has knowingly kept the news of Samir’s injury from her.

Halima rushes out into the street where her husband lies, still alive. With the help of Karim she carries him back up into the flat where Umm Yasine dresses his wounds and phones her husband, whose friends – Kalashnikov-bearing men – soon arrive. The film ends with the same shot of the elderly man smoking a cigarette and watching the street out of the window at dawn.

With snipers and cuts in the water supply – not to mention the 1970s-style curtains and the husband’s PLO-style friends – the director seems to borrow the motifs and tropes of Lebanese Civil War films… 

***


Insyriated

But if the Arab Spring, which broke out seven years ago, was a hateful nightmare for some peoples, for others it marked a significant political transformation. In Elyes Baccar’s narrative debut Tunis by Night, screening in CIFF’s official competition, the tragedy which takes a backseat is rather more personal. Tunis by Night focuses on the period leading up to the Jasmine Revolution, which seems to be a source of inspiration for many filmmakers in Tunisia. The action takes place in the period following the trigger of the Arab Spring, when after he felt humiliated by a policewoman Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Sidi Bousaid, set fire to himself and died.

The film opens with a wide-angle shot of a woman helping an elderly man who is evidently drunk into a house. In the next scene it is morning and the woman has brought the man, Youssef his coffee. She knocks on the door and he asks her to wait until he is decent, then she comes in. He drinks his coffee, dresses carefully and leaves for work. These scenes are repeated throughout the film again and again, showing just how dry and distant is Youssef’s relationship to the woman who turns out to be his wife and the mother of his children. The interior design of the house emphasises Youssef’s isolation from his family. The house has two floors. On the first is a complete living space shared by the mother and the children, and on the second is a bedroom and private bathroom occupied solely by Youssef. 

Youssef is the presenter of one of the most popular and important radio shows in Tunisia. It is a social programme that benefits from Youssef’s eloquence and culture, and he is left to his own devices. But as tensions rise in the country and the security tightens its grip during this stage of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule, the station manager walks in and asks Youssef not to speak of the current political events, making Youssef very angry.

Youssef’s daughter is liberated girl, a rock musician at a nightclub who is constantly fighting with her brother who shows Islamist tendencies (even though he is also seen turning down a bearded man’s offer to join an Islamist group). The director does not pursue this line of conflict in the usual stereotypical direction, but keeps it within the confines of the household; the brother does not represent the forces of Islamism, he is simply a religious young man.

The drama peaks when Youssef decides to make this his last episode on the radio and so speaks eloquently and movingly on the political situation, identifying not only Bouazizi but the Tunisian people as its victim. The station manager orders the technicians to cut off the broadcast and replace it with music, signalling the end of Youssef’s career. 

At the same time the daughter, whose boyfriend has asked her to take part in a threesome with another man to her disgust, tries to kill herself and speaks emotionally of her father’s absence from her life after she is taken to the hospital. It is the girl’s misadventure more than Bouazizi’s that drives the change in her father, revealing a positive and humane character who is nonetheless in a state of depression and defeat. But the link between the two suicides cannot be lost on the viewer.

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