Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The wheelchair and the giraffe

Under the tutelage of Marianne Khoury, the young people of Zawya live up to the slogan of “Movies that you don’t see at the movies”. Last week Hani Mustafa enjoyed Hala Lotfi’s Coming Forth by day while in Rani Massalha’s Giraffada Soha Hesham was pleasantly surprised to find more giraffe than Intifada

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Hala Lotfi’s Coming Forth By Day premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2012, where it won both the Critics Association FIPRESCI and the best Arab filmmaker awards. In 2012 it also won the bronze Tanite at the Carthage Film Festival, the golden lion at the Oran Film Festival and the best African film prize at the Milano Film Festival. In 2013, Coming Forth By Day won three awards at the Alexandria Mediterranean Film Festival. Yet, not being commercial material, it hasn’t been seen since.   
The film is a day in the life of Soad (Donia Maher) and her mother Hayat (Salma Al-Naggar), who have been facing the impending death of her father (Ahmad Lotfi) since he had a stroke that has left him in a wheelchair. Without too much attention to dramatic structure but with an expert attention to detail, it shows how this misfortune has disrupted the life of the family at their simple house in one of Cairo’s popular neighbourhoods.


The film opens with Hayat’s desperate attempt to wake up Soad, whose refusal to sleep seems to reflect her resenting her life of toil, misery and sickness. The daily rituals involve changing the father’s diaper, airing the bedsheets after helping him onto the wheelchair and persuading him to have some breakfast before his medicine. With the camera moving slowly and the editing equally downtempo, Lotfi emphasises the static nature of the situation. Likewise the dialogue, of which there is little: it emerges out of the same stationary, quiet fabric.


Showing the whole ritual a second time, when Soad lifts her father off the bed again for lunch, seemed somewhat repetitive, however; and another set of rituals might have enriched the script more. But this does not take away from the main element in the script: the unhappy relationship between mother and daughter, which turns out to be strained by the father’s illness and the burden not only of caring for him but also of the housework.


The problem climaxes without exploding when Soad begins preparing to go out as the woman eyes her angrily. The dialogue has already made it clear that Hayat works as a nurse at a government hospital and that, since her husband’s illness, she has taken the night shift. She therefore wants to nap, and Soad going out will deprive her of her rest. At this point the screenplay forks out into two parallel lines, with the mother doing some housework while the daughter seeks out her own world outside the depressing atmosphere of the house.


The principal dramatic event takes place near the end of the film, when the father falls off his bed. The director manages to turn the scene into a shock by building up to it: before falling a sleep to be woken by the sound of the fall, Hayat shares a glass of tea with her husband while listening to an Om Kalthoum song. At this point the static sense of waiting for death gives way to the much more urgent certainty that death is coming.


For her part Soad first goes to the hairdresser’s, out of which she emerges transformed: much more pretty, feminine and aware of herself than she was in the house, when she kept phoning her boyfriend to make sure they would meet. Her outing is interrupted when she is told that her father is in the intensive care unit, she goes to see him and spends the rest of the night wandering around Islamic Cairo in what seems to be a search for spiritual calm. With noise and religious chanting, the sound track reflects the inner journey from the darkness of waiting for death to the Sufi twilight of accepting it.


The role of sound is aesthetically important throughout, with sound engineer Abdel-Rahman Mahmoud beautifully mixing the noise of the street with that of the radio and as such recalling the new realism of such directors as Mohammed Khan and the late Atef Al-Tayeb. It highlights the ability of cameraman Mahmoud Lotfi, the director’s brother (whose work received special mention at the Thessaloniki Film Festival last year), to turn each frame into a powerful work of art, making use of the contrast of light and shadow in and outside the house, and illustrating the idea of the title: coming forth by day.


The acting was adequate, with Donia Maher able to communicate repressed anger through looks (whether when her father refuses to eat breakfast or when her cousin, an army conscript, visits). Salma Al-Naggar inhabited her role but her anger towards the daughter was somewhat exaggerated at times, misleading the viewer into thinking that there was more of a problem between them than the father’s illness. The father’s role was much more simple and it was well performed. The poignant irony is that Ahmad Lotfi, an editor at Al-Ahram Hebdo acting for the first time, died while the film was being edited.


***

Set in Qalqliya in the Palestinian West Bank, filmmaker Rani Massalha’s debut Giraffada (2013) uses the giraffe as a metaphor for the Palestinian resistance. Its lead character, played by Saleh Bakri, is Yassine, a veterinarian with a passion for animals working at the only zoo in the whole of the West Bank. The film opens with Yassine caring for the animals, refusing to administer expired medication to them and objecting to the management’s lack of interest in their well-being. Yassine is a widow and a single parent. His son Ziad (Ahmed Bayatara) is nearly 10, and his main pastime is to feed the giraffes: a source of comfort for him that also makes his schoolmates bully him, since he blurted out that giraffes are stronger than lions and that their faces smell good. All this against the backdrop of the second Intifada and routine Israeli raids on the West Bank:

During one such raid — according to Massalha, a true incident that took place in 2002 — the giraffe named Brownie (the male in a couple that also includes Rita) panics and hurts himself. Despite Yassine’s best efforts, Brownie dies. It happens during the birthday party of the zoo manager, which is interrupted by the raid — cutting short the “Happy Birthday” being sung — whereupon Yassine rushes off to find Ziad with the giraffes. Everyone (including Yassine’s French photojournalist friend, played by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre) huddles together, hiding until the raid is over. Later the photographer will ask for Yassine’s permission to publish photos of Ziad grieving for the giraffe — only to be met with a firm refusal.

In fact Yassine is deeply affected by his son’s grief for the dead giraffe and his sadness about Rita, pregnant with Brownie’s child, refusing to eat. At one point he overhears Ziad confessing to Rita that he broke his promise never to eat until she did. In a serious quarrel, Ziad blames his father for not saving Brownie’s life, yelling at him that he hates him and running away to spend the night on the street under curfew. Ziad is found at the doorstep of the street peanut vendor Hassan (Mohamed Bakri, the father of Saleh Bakri), who takes him in and in the morning takes him back to Yassine. Yassine has no alternative but to seek the help of his old Israeli friend, the colleague vet Yohav (Roschdy Zem) to offer him a giraffe from an Israeli zoo near Tel Aviv, which they manage to smuggle into the West Bank with the help of Laure.

Yassine is seen fighting with the zoo management, a kind of stand-in for the Palestinian Authority, rather than resisting the Israeli occupation, something he thinks of as a postponed battle. Father and son, accompanied by Laure, sneak into Israel and, having no time for paperwork, eventually persuade Yohav to let them abduct the giraffe. The journey is a complicated series of escapes, at the end of which they take the giraffe home walking — its tall figure crossing the wall separating Israel and the West Bank — astonishing everyone on the way. Massalha thus eschews dealing with the resistance too directly, as most Palestinian filmmakers tend to, managing nonetheless to make a powerful statement on the conflict and the Intifada.

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