Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Dream makers in Tahrir Square

Hani Mustafa sums up the first few days of the Cairo International Film Festival

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Al-Ahram Weekly

After a year’s hiatus due to the security breakdown that followed the January revolution, the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF, 27 November-6 December) is back in its 35th round with its full range of sections — the official competition, the Arab competition, the newly instituted Human Rights Films Competition, as well as the media sections outside the competitions: world cinema, African cinema, Turkish cinema, Arab revolutions cinema, tolerance and extremism cinema — showing films from all across the world. The festival also celebrates the golden jubilee of the Algerian Revolution, screening a number of fiction and documentary films in this context, including the well-known Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina’s Chronicles of the Years of Fire, which won the 1975 Palme d’Or.

No doubt this round of the festival met with many obstacles. The first of these was the change in the managerial team a few months before the start of the round: in August, critic Youssef Sherif Rizkallah and his team were suddenly replaced with the old team headed by actor Ezzat Abu Auf by Minister of Culture Saber Arab, due to the administrative decision to place the event under the ministry’s direct jurisdiction after its management had been handed over to the NGO that placed Rizkallah at the helm — something that upset many in film circles who felt that the minister rushed into a step compromising the festival’s independence and ultimately reducing its budget.

Many expected there would be a boycott campaign like the one that took place at Cannes in 1968, when numerous directors — Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura and Czech filmmaker Milos Forman, for example — withdrew from the festival in solidarity with the student uprising. Yet the persistence of the festival’s management and the film community’s concern that, not held for two years in a row, the region’s oldest film festival might become a thing of the past, resulted in pooling efforts to make sure the round is held even with as few good films on its programme as there are. This may also be the reason that so many important figures with international connections ended up contributing their expertise to the CIFF. These include the producer-director Marianne Khoury, whose European Film Panorama initiative proved a great success in the last few years.

The fact that screenings are all held in one place this year may be a positive decision on the part of the management, since the 175 on the programme are being screened in various venues within the Opera House grounds. These include the main, small and open-air halls as well as Al-Hanager Theatre and the Creativity Centre. This has evidently made it easier for viewers to reach their films of choice, since all the venues are within walking distance of each other, as well as facilitating security measures to protect the festival and the viewers from possible attack. Still, the festival was almost cancelled due to Tuesday 27 November’s million-man demonstration, which resulted in shifting the schedule by one day.

The site of that and other demonstrations is practically a bridge away from the Opera House grounds in Tahrir Square, which drove a number of the guests to use the lost day to visit Tahrir Square. Among the most prominent visitors to the square was the head of the official competition jury, the Italian film producer Marco Muller, who was overjoyed at the sight of what he called a “very well-organised” demonstration. Muller, who headed the Venice Film Festival for eight years until the 2011 round, and who now heads the Rome Film Festival, is very sympathetic with Egypt — to which he bears “an ethnic connection”, since his originally Greek grandmother lived in Alexandria before emigrating to Brazil. He therefore appreciates the depth and variety of Egyptian culture.

Iranian-Candadian director Babak Payami, a member of the jury, was among those who went to Tahrir Square on Tuesday. Expressing great respect for the organisation and power of Egypt’s secular forces, he said he is optimistic because he feels Egyptians have been aware since the beginning of the politicking of the forces of political Islam with the intent of controlling the state and turning it into an Islamic republic — the way it did following the popular revolution in Iran in 1979. The passion these filmmakers felt on contact with Tahrir Square on Tuesday drove them to return to the square for the “Martyr’s Dream” million-man demonstration on Friday.

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“The Turkish model”, by now an established expression in Egypt, means different things to different people. Coming from cinephiles who watch a lot of world cinema, it means some of those exceptional films that were acclaimed and/or received prizes in world festivals: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Three Monkeys, for example, which received the jury and the best director prize at the 2011 and 2007 Cannes Festival, respectively; or else Semih Kaplanoglu’s trilogy Eggs, Milk and Honey (2007, 2008, 2010), which was nominated for various prizes; indeed Honey received the golden bear at the Berlinale.

For a television drama producer, however, “the Turkish model” means Turkish soap operas dubbed into Syrian Arabic: Nour, Forbidden Love or Fatema — which proved very popular among viewers due to its combination of romance, simple drama and complex relationships filmed in extremely luxurious sets, driving television producers in Egypt to look frantically for dramatic material that could produce adequate competition, especially in Ramadan.

Yet most important of all is “the Turkish model” in the political context: the mixture of European-style governance and society with “the Islamic reference point” is often invoked as the answer to post-2011 Egypt, and some activists feel it is the way to reconcile the rise of the Islamists with their desire to maintain the life they have at the social level. In reality there is absolutely no connection between “the Islamic reference point” in Turkey, where there is a long, rooted and established secular tradition, and its Egyptian counterpart. Be that as it may, however, the festival administration thought it important to introduce a special section devoted to Turkish cinema — no so much to screen important films like the ones mentioned above as to acknowledge the presence of that Middle Eastern power among us, reflecting the ridiculously optimistic hope that Egypt will turn into another Turkey. 

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Thus the CIFF 35 viewer is unable to stop thinking of politics as they attend screenings, regardless of the quality of the film on offer. A film is in its simplest form a story; and in many cases the story intersects or overlaps with the viewer’s own stories. No doubt the critical political situation in Egypt, especially over the last week, was present during the vieweing of CIFF films however unclear or subtle their politics.

Zeynap Ustunipek’s Love in the Secret Garden, one of the official competition films screened in the context of promoting Turkish cinema, is set in 1978. It tells the story of Cennet, a girl who lives in a mountainous, provincial area, who one day — while picking wild herbs from a secluded place she calls the Secret Garden — finds a young man who has been shot in the shoulder. Cennet treats the young man as she finds out he is a revolutionary anarchist, a deserter accused of murdering an army leader in the course of a small battle. Their relationship develops against the backdrop of Cennet’s unhappy marriage to a lame, violent man. Concealing information as the action unfolds, Ustunipek develops the relationship between the revolutionary young man and the provincial girl; we do not find out about Cennet’s marriage until near the end of the film, before the violent conflict between the two men, when she interferes to kill her husband and save her lover.

The drama is of the traditional romantic kind, yet the director imposes some political philosophy on the dialogue between the girl and the young man towards the end of the film with no apparent object other than giving an idea of this period in Turkish history, which was full of political flailing and power struggles, ending with the well-known coup of 1980 led by General Kenan Evren, and the end of military rule following the adoption of the present constitution two years later. The film does not deal with the political events of this period, but subtly presents some gestures which document general human conditions: the oppression of women in the provinces, and the perennial struggle between the military and revolutionaries.

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The vast majority of Lebanese films are infused with the atmosphere of the civil war (1975-1990). Joe Bo Eid’s Heals of War, which is being screened in the Arab film competition, is no exception. The viewer can register Bo Eid’s exceptional skill and his special cinematic language, yet with greater probing it becomes clear that the breadth of Bo Eid’s cinematic culture nearly obliterates his individual artit’s personality. Many scenes are derived from well-known European art-house films, in some cases indeed simply reproducing a scene without acknowlegement; it is not a situation in which the director is paying homage to an older filmmaker. One scene, for example, is practically lifted from Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatora’s Malina.

The film deals with the interconnected lives of a group of individuals in a Christian mountain village not far from Beirut, where the villagers and militiamen afford a variety of human types. Rather than a conventional screenplay, the director relies on non-chronological sketches narrating a variety of human details in a style reminiscent of the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s unique work: Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention and The Time that Remains. Yet Bo Eid has none of Suleiman’s poetry or sense of irony; he simply shows an overeagerness to be shocking — something particularly obvious in the relationship between a girl and a young man who plans on being a monk: a very uninventive take on seduction. Yet the director does not stretch the dramatic line to the end, ending the film with their marriage. Bo Eid presents superficially beautiful fragments that nonetheless have no depth, uniqueness — or meaning.

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