Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

For the love of earth

Hani Mustafa and Soha Hesham review some of the highlights of this year’s Panorama of European Cinema

Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club
Al-Ahram Weekly

November was the month of treats for film lovers. No sooner did the Cairo International Film Festival end last Wednesday than the Panorama of European Cinema opened on Thursday. It’s an eagerly awaited annual event taking place for the seventh year in a row, and it has established itself under the direction of director-producer Marianne Khoury. Among the highlights this year is the acclaimed Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film, Winter Sleep, which won the FIPRESCI award at the Cannes Festival this year. Ceylan’s Once upon a time in Anatolia had won the Cannes Festival’s Jury Prize in 2011.

Winter Sleep might come as a shock to Ceylan fans not only because it goes on for over three hours but also because it contains very little drama and is chockfull of dialogue. Set in a tiny mountain village, the film revolves around the former theatre actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), now the owner of much real estate and the director of a hotel in the mountains. The narrative concerns not what happens to characters but the gradual process of characters revealing their depths through events that may or may not change them. The process hangs on the accumulation of information. Aydin who appears perfectly ordinary at the start of the film turns out to be a household despot who controls his wife and his divorced sister, with whom he is seen conversing in what seems to be one of the longest dialogue scenes in the history of cinema.

In addition to his real estate and hotel business, Aydin writes a weekly column for the local paper; his ambition, seemingly never to be realised, is to put together an encyclopedia of the history of Turkish theatre. It is the desire to remain on stage forever, but Aydin’s merciless treatment of his tenants, making one of them, Ismail (Negat Isler) hand over his household appliances in lieu of unpaid rent, reveals a more disturbing aspect of his selfishness. The hatred directed at him is indicated in the opening scenes when one of the tenants’ little boys throws a stone at Aydin’s car as Aydin’s secretary-chauffeur drives him past.

He seems like a strong character, constantly in control, yet in another long dialogue scene with his wife Aydin’s fragility comes through. The overbearing presence of the landlord sheds light on the life of the village, with Ismail’s brother Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kilic), the local mosque imam, trying to ingratiate himself with Aydin — in contrast to Ismail, an unemployed alcoholic who refuses to cow to him. The human depth with which everyone is portrayed is unfailing, with the smooth drama — multiple subplots and sidelong glances at the social structure, including hints that Aydin’s wife is of lower social rank than him and his sister — supplementing the power of the dialogue and the brilliance of the acting. Beautiful cinematography completes the picture of the seething winter in this cave-like hotel, which might look from afar as if it is asleep but is in fact quivering with wakefulness.

This year the Panorama is also screening three films by Wim Wenders: the famous, multiple award-winning and Oscar nominee accomplished with the musician Ry Cooder, Buena Vista Social Club (1999, among the highlights of the first Panorama in 2004), Paris, Texas (1984) and the legendary director’s last, The Salt of the Earth (2014, codirected with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado). Pais, Texas is among Wenders’ most important fiction films; it won the Cannes Festival’s Palm d’Or and a FIPRESCI on its release. Paris, Texas opens with a man in a dark suit and a baseball hat emerging, soiled and covered in sand, from the Texas desert — a gripping introduction to the story of Travis, who has been away from his family for four years and, now that his wife too has disappeared, is being brought back to his family by his brother Walt — a powerful statement on failure and sacrifice.

Notwithstanding the relevance and interest of these two films, Khoury’s accomplishment regarding Wenders is to have brought to Cairo his 2014 production: Wenders’ documentary on the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, on which he collaborated with Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro. Screened in the Un Certain Regard of the Cannes Festival, Salt of the Earth won the Special Jury Prize as well as the audience prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The film combines Salgado’s stunning photographs with interviews with the master describing the stepping stones of his career and different stages of his life as an economics student in Europe who went on to work in finance only to end up falling in love with photography. The combination of these two elements gives way to a full, deep human experience as well as a window onto the environmental collapse of the planet. It is as much a biography of Salgado as a portrait of the world and its people, and it ends with Salgado back in the village where he was born, where his wife has spearheaded an initiative to plant trees.

***

Produced in 2012 but not released in Denmark until 2013, the Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt — set in a quiet small town in Denmark — revolves around Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher adored by the children and friends with the parents. One day Lucas’s student Klara (played with endearing power by the Annika Wedderkopp) complains to the headmaster Grethe (Susse Wold) that Lucas exposed himself to her. Driven as it seems by her love for the teacher, who has been taking special care of her while her parents are absorbed in marital conflict, Klara thus unknowingly undoes Lucas: Grethe informs first Klara’s parents, then all the children’s; a court case is brought against the unsuspecting teacher; and before long Lucas, a fresh divorcee fighting for custody of his son Marcus with a passion for deer hunting, is reviled and ostracised as a paedophile, even beaten up when he goes to buy groceries.

While Klara, who seems to have got the idea from porn magazines shown to her by her brother, can barely understand what is happening, variously affirming and denying the initial accusation, Lucas’s life is turned upside down before he is finally released from custody when it transpires that the children’s stories about him taking them to the basement of his house are false since his house has no basement. The film features brilliant cinematography by Charllotte Bruus Christensen. The screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm is equally strong, ending on an ambiguous note — “one year later” — with Lucas and Klara’s father, his friend, attending the ceremony whereby Marcus is granted his own hunting license.

The story of a 19-year-old orphan novice, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who suddenly finds out she was born Jewish, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) is shot in black and white. Set in 1960s Poland, it lacks any soundtrack music, reinforcing the tension in which Polish Jewry has lived. The head nun in Anna’s convent insists that she should meet her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) before taking her vows. Wanda turns out to be a heavy smoking, hard drinking judge, and she decides to tell Anna the truth: that she was born Ida Lebenstein, to a Jewish mother. Together aunt and niece embark on a journey of discovery to locate the rest of the family, and their relationship develops, largely in silence, against the backdrop of exceptional cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal.

Anna, who is astonished by her aunt’s behaviour and eventually introduced to a young musician, is torn between the newly discovered real world and the world of the convent. Eventually they find the undertaker who buried Wanda’s own son, now dying in hospital; Wanda insists on taking the remains to the family cemetery. When eventually Wanda kills herself, Anna’s dilemma seems finally resolved: she can take her aunt’s place, living in her house and adopting her habits, as well as slipping into a relationship with the young musician. But in the end the beautiful girl chooses to go back to the convent where she immediately takes her vows to become a Catholic nun.

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