The 33rd round of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) opened on 10 November, with some 150 films from 67 countries competing for the golden pyramid.
It has apparently become usual practice for the festival administration to leave important decisions unresolved. The dearth of Egyptian films participating in the festival raised not a few eyebrows, with a last-minute scramble by festival administrators to persuade Egyptian producers to participate. Until the festival opened it had not been decided whether or not the Egyptian film The Nile Birds would compete with the 16 films in the international competition. It finally did compete, and the audience were treated to a stunning film of epic artistic standard. This author expects The Nile Birds to be among the award winners; since Watani International goes to press before the winners are announced we promise our readers a special review of the film in a future issue.
The Egyptian production Heliopolis competed in the Arab Film Competition with ten other films. It was entirely unclear to audiences why an Egyptian production qualified for the Arab Film Competition but did not qualify for the international one and vice versa.
Some 14 films participated in the Digital Film Competition.
In the wake of the Indian film Slumdog Millionaire winning eight Oscar awards, the executive committee of this year’s festival selected India as guest of honour. Bollywood’s outstanding contribution to the history of film throughout the last century has left an indelible mark on the international screen. Some 30 Indian films representing different trends of thought and artistry were screened at the festival.
The festival honoured the Egyptian director Ali Abdel-Khaleq, cameraman Mohsen Nasr, film editor Ahmed Metwally, as well as two veteran actresses Shweikar, and Nadia al-Guindy.
On the international front, the festival honoured Salma Hayek who starred in the Mexican film Midaq Alley (El-Callejon De Los Milangos), taken from the Egyptian novel written by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz; Lucy Liu; Samuel L. Jackson; and Tom Berenger who was also a jury member.
This year’s festival paid tribute to the Algerian film industry that is rapidly rising in the firmament of relative cinema art, honouring the director Ahmed Rashdy who has played an important role in the flourishing of this industry following the independence of Algeria in 1962. Twelve Algerian films were screened.
Eight films which had been nominated for the Academy Awards were screened in the festival. Among them were the Finnish Letters to Father Jacob directed by Klaus Haro; the Estonian December Heat directed by Asko Kase, and the Moroccan Nour-Eddin Lakhmar’s Casanegra
Several seminars were held on the sideline of the festival. One was dedicated to the memory of the famed Egyptian director Shadi Abdel-Salam, during which his outstanding The Night of Counting the Years was screened.
The festival opened with the Indian film New York, directed by Kabir Khan. Unfortunately, the majority of the audience had attended opening night and left; not more than a score waited to view the film. The film masterfully tackles the issue of terrorism through events which take place following 9/11. It focuses on the struggle of Muslims in the US to come to terms with issues such as identity, loyalty, equality, and freedom in a post-9/11 world where public opinion was charged against Muslims and Islamic-oriented terrorism.
Another Indian film screened was Adoor Gopala Krishnan’s Four Women. It tackles the predicaments of four women in a male-dominated society. One is the ‘fallen woman’ for whom it is impossible to ever marry the man she loves. Another is a woman married to a man who cannot have children; she dreams of having a baby but her husband adamantly insists he will not see a doctor because he would lose face. A third is the housewife whose day is consumed by never-ending house chores, and the fourth is the spinster who—against social norms—chooses to spend her life alone without male support.
Journey to Algeria
This is the title of a film authored and directed by the Algerian Abdel-Karim Bahloul. The film tackles the courage of a widow whose husband died in the Algerian war of independence, leaving behind six children. She falls victim to the greed of her fellow villagers who, seeing her as a simple, uneducated peasant woman, try to rob her of her husband’s property. She decides she has to go to the president of the new republic to secure her rights. She does not get to meet Presdient Ben Bella, but ends up meeting the minister of defence instead. In utter candour she asks him, “Does our hard-earned independence imply substituting corruption for foreign occupation? Why should my orphaned children suffer while you and others like you enjoy the fruit of their father’s death?” Her questions cross local boundaries and extend to countless other countries which had fought so hard for independence only to reap severe disappointment later.
The happy ending of the film—the minister works to give her her usurped right—is, in my opinion, weak and unrealistic.
How has the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis changed over the years? Have Egyptians themselves changed? These questions were tackled in the film Heliopolis, directed and authored by Ahmed Abdullah al-Sayed. It is a distinguished film which belongs to what is termed ‘independent cinema’, meaning a genre of films produced on a limited budget with the aim of competing in festivals or joining in private screenings, not for public screening.
The film depicts a day in the life of several Cairenes, and their broken dreams. The style of buildings in Heliopolis still exists, but life has changed and the crowds are suffocating.
The silent scenes in the film were more expressive than dialogue.
The Long Night
This Syrian film, directed by Hatem Ali, tackles the human dimension of political imprisonment through the life of a group of four persons who had been imprisoned in the same cell for some 20 years. Three of them are released together on one turbulent night. They go back home to their families only to discover that 20 years have made a lot of changes; that their families have adapted to living without them. The film is full of contemplation and meaningful implications about the imprisonment of the soul, in case of prisoners and their family all the same.
The two-hour film from Estonia depicts the attempt of a rebel association of employees to occupy a town, and how the police abort their attempt.
The strongest scene of the film was when a child shoots a rebel who had once shot the boy’s father before his eyes. The shot paralyses the rebel, which makes him feel so insulted that he commits suicide. The film is rich in suspense.
Another Palestinian-American film, directed by Shereen Dabis, tackles the story of a widow called Mona, who lives alone in the West Bank with her teenage son. Her dream of migrating to the United States, the promised land, comes true, but she sees a reality completely different than her dream. Americans are amazed to find out that the mother and son are Christian; the prevalent idea is that there are no Christians in Palestine.
The festival activities still fell short on punctuality and commitment. Films scheduled were replaced with other ones at the last minute. Films carrying Arabic subtitles were only partly translated.
The inclusion of the Egyptian young actress Ghada Adel and the Moroccan singer Sanaa’ Muzian in the jury was criticised, considering that jury members are normally chosen from among experienced film makers, actors, or actresses.