Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1401, (12 - 18 July 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1401, (12 - 18 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Summer at the Institut

A festival of Arab films and lectures on the Arab world are on this summer’s menu at the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris, writes David Tresilian, while Soha Hesham speaks to Youssef Nasser, the young Egyptian director who won the jury prize

a still from Photocopy
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Institut du Monde arabe in Paris was buzzing last weekend amid the torpor of unusually hot early summer weather for the opening of the Festival of Arab Cinema (Festival des Cinémas Arabes, 28 June-8 July as well as Les Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire du Monde Arabe, Arabes, Français, Quelle Histoire, 25-27 May, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris), a new addition to its programming and a welcome new event on the French capital’s cultural agenda. 

Running until 8 July when the awards will be announced, the new festival replaces the Biennale of Arab Cinema hosted on a biennial basis at the Institut from 1992 to 2006. The latter has been sorely missed by French and European film-goers since its last edition a decade ago, and it is hoped that the new Festival, also planned to be held every two years, will be a fit successor to it.

The signs are positive, and the new festival, perhaps more tightly focused than the old Biennale, has made a strong start. The competition, divided into feature and documentary films, includes full-length and shorter films in both categories, and this year there is a special section outside the competition dedicated to new Saudi cinema.

There are also special tribute showings of films by Lebanese director Jean Chamoun and Algerian director and screenwriter Mahmoud Zemmouri. In addition to the festival’s appeal to the wider public, there are sections aiming to encourage exchange and development among film professionals. Euro-Arab film workshops have been organised for both feature-length and shorter films, and there is a special session on the opportunities and challenges facing Palestinian filmmakers, both in terms of production and financing.

Heading the jury for the fiction competition (feature-length and shorter films) is Moroccan director, screenwriter and actor Faouzi Bensaidi, notably backed up by Egyptian screenwriter and producer Mohamed Hefzi, president of this year’s Cairo International Film Festival, and Algerian actor Salim Kechiouche, familiar to international audiences from Franco-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adele (Blue is the Warmest Colour), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. 

Egypt has a strong showing in the competition, with Ahmed Amer’s Kiss Me Not (Balash Tebousini) and Tamer Ashri’s Photocopy facing a field of 11 other features produced over the last two years, most of them in the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Kiss Me Not and Photocopy are both first films. 

It is also strongly represented in the shorter films part of the fiction competition where some 30 films are in play, including four from Egypt. Director Ahmed Nader has entered his Affability (Wanas), a first fiction film after a string of documentaries, and Noha Adel has entered her first film Into Reverse. Swiss-Egyptian director Christophe Saber has two short films in competition, Punchline and Sacrilege.

The jury for the documentaries competition, full-length and shorter films, is headed by French documentary filmmaker and critic Serge Le Péron, notably backed up by Egyptian documentary filmmaker based in France Samir Abdallah. The dozen films in the full-length section of the competition include two from Egypt, Ahmed Rashwan’s Khan the Mentor (Khan Al-Muallim) and Mahmoud Suleiman’s We Have Never Been Kids (Abadan Lam Nakun Atfal), already recognised by many awards including from last year’s Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt. 

Khan the Mentor is a portrait of Egyptian film director Mohamed Khan, one of the most important directors of the 1980s, 1990s and beyond and responsible for a series of unforgettable films about Egyptian society, often focusing on the lives of women. They include The Wife of an Important Man (Zawgat Ragol Mohim 1987), Dreams of Hind and Camelia (Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia,1988) and Supermarket (1990), as well as a biopic about late president Anwar Al-Sadat Days of Sadat (Ayam Al-Sadat, 2001). 

The poster of Kiss Me Not

We Have Never Been Kids, a portrait of a single mother bringing up her children in a poorer district of Cairo, takes the relationship of the personal and the political as its theme (it is shot against the backdrop of the 25 January and 30 June revolutions). It is a striking addition to an already impressive body of work by director Suleiman.

Among the shorter films in the documentaries competition are two from Egypt, Bahaa Al-Gamal’s My Window and Youssef Nasser’s Sculpting in Time, a portrait of sculptor Nagui Shaker.  

Visitors to the festival this year may be intrigued by the focus on new Saudi cinema, with a dozen shorter Saudi films being shown over the first three days. Saudi Arabia is taking the first steps towards developing its own film industry, though the international success six years ago of Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s feature Wadjda, a portrait of a girl growing up in the capital Riyadh, shows what the future may hold.

The festival’s Saudi focus includes mostly fiction (one documentary) films by young Saudi directors, often women, who have trained in an ad hoc manner, sometimes in Saudi Arabia, sometimes abroad, if the biographical information available at the festival is any guide. Saudi Arabia at present does not have recognised film schools, though some of the young Saudi directors represented have worked in video-production and television. Film-making in the country may face technical and other challenges.

However, the Saudi films on show in Paris include a range of often-intriguing subjects, testifying to the story-telling skills that may be waiting to be tapped in the country. At the very least, the Saudi cinema industry will be one to watch.

Winners of the Arab Cinema Festival

EURO-ARAB DIALOGUE: Earlier this summer, the Institut also presented the fourth edition of its Arab History Days, three days of lectures, debates and presentations on Arab themes that have become a fixture of the Paris calendar.

This year’s theme, focusing on relations between the Arab world and France, played to the institution’s strengths since it is able to call upon French academic and other expertise on the Arab world and to provide a prestigious platform for scholars and commentators to present their ideas to audiences both at the Institut itself and listening to the simultaneous broadcasts on the radio station France Culture.

As has been the case in previous years, the History Days recognise mostly francophone research on the Arab world, with its Grand Prix des Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire du Monde Arabe being underwritten by the Académie du Royaume du Maroc, the state academy of Morocco. This year’s competition, awarded by a jury headed by Henry Laurens, professor of contemporary Arab history at the Collège de France in Paris, saw a particularly strong field, including works on modern and contemporary Arab history as well as on religious, artistic and other themes.

The 2018 Prize was awarded to French academics Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet and Muriel Debié for their Le Monde syriaque. Sur les routes d’un christianisme ignoré.

The programme of this year’s History Days was also as rich as ever, though like last year (reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in August 2017), there was perhaps less representation from the region than might have been hoped, possibly for budgetary reasons. The History Days have become a mostly French, possibly mostly French and North African, event, with not as much representation from the east of the Arab world, or from other intellectual traditions, as was in evidence during the first edition in 2015. 

However, within the limits the event has set itself visitors can have little to complain about. Where else anywhere in the world can audiences have easy access to three days of packed discussion on the Arab world, and all of it without paying?

One main attraction this year was a conversation between French journalist Christophe Ono-dit-Biot and the Syrian poet Adunis (Ali Ahmed Said Esber). Now in his 88th year (he was born in 1930), Adunis has produced an enormous amount of poetry, criticism, and works of literary history in Arabic and has been a major participant in the development of modern Arabic literature. He has lived outside his home country since the 1950s.

A meeting with Adunis is thus a major event, and there must have been curiosity among those attending about the form it would take and the subjects to be touched upon. In the event, Adunis spoke at large, in French, about Arabic literature and Arab history, perhaps deliberately steering clear of the present situation in Syria and other parts of the Arab world. 

Possibly the general tenor of his remarks can be given by Adunis’s view, expressed in Paris, that “Arab history is not, and never has been, the history of politics. It is the history of the poets” — that of rebellious, creative figures, or “renegades”, who have always represented whatever is vital and living in Arab culture in protest at the dead hand of the state. 

Other sessions at the History Days expressed more orthodox, more orthodoxly expressed, views about Arab political history and particularly its relationship to Europe. French researcher Manon-Nour Tannous and Henry Laurens were on hand to discuss Tannous’s book Chirac, Assad et les Autres, for example, shortlisted for the 2018 Prize, which reconstructs France’s relations with Syria from 1970, the date when president Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar, came to power in a coup d’état, to the outbreak of the 2011 Revolution.

Elsewhere, Laurens, accompanied by Bernard Rougier, professor of contemporary Arab politics at the Université Paris III, and Jalila Sbai, attached to the Collège de France, discussed the relationship, historical and in the present day, between the French state and Islam. Tannous and young researchers Thomas Maineult and Valérie Stiegler discussed the history of French diplomacy in the Arab world.  

Sbai spoke about the ways in which the French governments of the time had tried to administer the Muslim populations of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia during the French colonial period, inviting comparisons with British policies in India, while Rougier reviewed contemporary French government efforts to “organise” Islam in France both as a way of identifying legitimate interlocutors and of codifying aspects of the civil law.

Valérie Stiegler spoke about the complex inheritance French president Georges Pompidou had received from his predecessor Charles de Gaulle in the early 1970s, while Thomas Maineult described the changes of emphasis that took place after the election of François Mitterand as French president in 1981, notably towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tannous brought the story into the new millennium with Jacques Chirac’s commitment to Franco-Arab and Euro-Arab dialogue after his election as French president in 1995.



Among the Egyptian films participating were the long documentary Khan Al-Muallim (Khan the Mentor), directed by Ahmed Rashwan, the long fiction film Photocopy, directed by Tamer Ashri (starring Mahmoud Hemeida and Sherine Reda, it won the El Gouna Star for Best Arab Feature in El Gouna and the Best Feature Narrative Award at the Tripoli Film Festival in Lebanon) and the short documentary Al-Naht fil Zaman (Sculpting in Time), directed by Youssef Nasser — the latter two the work of Red Star production company. 

Sculpting in Time received the jury award for Best Short Film jointly with the Palestinian film Weladet Soura (A Picture Born), directed by Firas Khoury. 

Sculpting in Time is the life story of Nagui Shaker, perhaps Egypt’s best known puppet maker, an artist, a teacher at the Faculty of Fine Art and a widely revered mentor. His career spans 50 years and his film Seif 70 (Summer 70) has been collected by MoMA, among other prestigious institutions. Shaker’s experimental approach and innovative insights were instrumental to Al-Leila Al-Kebira (The Big Night), the genre’s greatest classic (with lyrics by Salah Jahine and music by Sayed Mekkawi).

“Nagui Shaker is a unique artist and human,” Nasser told the Weekly. “His character dictated the style of the film in many ways. He is uniquely versatile: painter, director, costume designer, poster designer; he was also the set designer on Ali Badrakhan’s Shafika wi Metwalli. And he is the kind of teacher who learns from his students, a modest character who never stops learning or starting new projects. Light Talk, for example, is a brand-new light installation on a giant scale. Al-Leila Al-Kebira was the only thing on TV that I could sit through as a child. My mother says it was the only cure for my hyperactivity. I was fascinated by it as a child so, as an adult, I started trying to approach Shaker until I managed to make contact with him in 2014. That’s when we started to work on the film. He was very generous with time and material.”

Nasser, 31, graduated from the Higher Institute of Cinema’s editing department and has been making short films since. He enjoys editing his own work, especially this one. “I spent long periods of time on the editing process. In spite of the challenge of a difficult structure and the huge amount of material, the editing process was exciting. After completing an initial cut, I started all over again. It was very challenging to compress 50 years into 26 minutes. Of course, there were other challenges like the music, one of the most important and attractive elements in my opinion. Shaker has a very distinct style, and so his work has to be the key player material in a documentary about him. His career has had many stages and I tried to trace and highlight them all.”

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