19 December 2010
For the duration of some 10 days from the end of November to 9 December Cairo audiences were treated to an assortment of films that supposedly included productions of the best and brightest film makers worldwide. The 34th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) started on 30 November with aplomb and with its fair share of glamour but proceeded with the organisational flaws that have by now become customary and that make the festival lose brilliance.
For Egyptians, the festival is the window through which they get to glimpse first-hand some of the works of international studios. But the thrill lost its edge when it was discovered some films had already been screened in previous CIFF rounds. The two Mexican productions The beginning and the end (1993) and Middaq alley (1994), both based on novels by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz; and the Dutch Paradise now were screened in 2006. All of which highlights the dire need for efforts to regain the original brilliance of the CIFF and rescue it from degenerating into a mere ceremonial event that would inevitably fall into oblivion.
In the eyes of the world
This round was dedicated to the veteran Egyptian actor Mahmoud al-Meleigi and actress Amina Rizq, both of whom should have turned 100 today had they been living. Guests of honour Richard Gere and Juliette Binouche were also honoured.
In its 34th year, the main theme was “Egypt in the eyes of world cinema”. From the seductive mysteries of Pharaonic Egypt to the chaotic charm of modern Cairo, cinematographers have captured the myriad faces of this ancient land. Included in this section is the 1961 movie by Italian director Fernando Cerchio, “Nefertiti Queen of the Nile” and 2009’s “Cairo Time’” by Arab-Canadian Ruba Nadda.
The Festival was opened with the English film Another Year by the director Mike Leigh. The film is a drama about an old married couple who try to help friends and neighbours overcome unhappiness. In a humane frame, it captures life’s paradoxes of hope and despair, anguish and joy.
The Italian Ricki Tognazzi’s The Father and Foreigner reveals the condition of European unease towards the contemporary Arab through the character of Walid al-Alami, a Syrian who resides in Italy. Alami, played by the Egyptian actor Amr Wakid, meets Diego Martini, played by the Italian Alessandro Gassman, who works in the Italian government. Martini has a disabled baby whom he considers a biological error. In the medical centre where the child is under treatment Martini meets Alami who also has a disabled child. The warmth and acceptance with which Alami handles the babies, inspired by his oriental tradition and upbringing, manages to change Martini’s sentiments towards his own son. Alami and Martini become fast friends.
The screenplay, however, appears to have intentionally kept the ‘Arab character’ an unfathomed mystery. It is not clear what is Alami’s relation to terrorists, or why the Italian intelligence attempts to persuade Martini to spy on Alami. The Arab is still the shady character that challenges European intelligence; how he comes to terms with his own traditions and with modern-day Western culture is a mystery. Wakid played the role with a mastery which promises to launch his career internationally. Wakid and Gassman shared the best actor award.
The CIFF deserves to be applauded for screening the Turkish Ask your heart by Yusuf Kurcent within the official competition. The film tackles the issue of mixed marriages, a very thorny issue in the Egyptian community where such marriages are strongly frowned upon. But, apparently, Egyptian society is no exception where mixed marriage is concerned. Ask your heart tells the story of a village on the Black Sea during the 19th century when many Christians had to convert to Islam because they were no longer able to pay jizya (the tax paid by non-Muslims who live in countries governed by Muslim rule). They became Muslim on the official level but remained Christian at heart; they even built churches in the basement of their houses. It was never obvious in that village then who was really Muslim or Christian. Mustafa, who is a practising Christian but a Muslim on paper, falls in love with his neighbour who turns out to be Muslim. Their possible union threatens the social peace of the entire village. The story ends tragically; the girl kills herself by setting herself aflame.
Among the International Competition 17 competing films was Juanita Wilson’s debut movie As If I Am Not There. At the Toronto Film Festival, the film garnered much acclaim. It was said that few films this year, if not this decade, will challenge one like this movie. Described as an artistic triumph that works as a historical document, the film is based on real horrific events that happened during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, and on real life experiences that were told during the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague.
Khaled al-Hagar’s Al-Shouq (Lust) represented Egypt in the official competition. The film gloomily depicts the poverty, misery, and suppression which reign in underprivileged areas in Egypt. Through the family of Shouq, a destitute woman in Alexandria who loses her son to kidney failure, the screenplay attempts to paint a picture close to reality but ends up fragmented and loose. The talented actress Sawsan Badr saves the day for an otherwise weak film, and goes on to win the Best Actress prize. The film won the Golden Pyramid.
The prize of the Best Arab Film went to the Egyptian Microphone, directed by Ahmed Abdallah. The leading character Khaled, played by Khaled Abul-Naga, returns to his home in Alexandria after a longtime absence, looking for his love, only to find her preparing to leave Egypt for good. His renewed relation with his father is stressed and he feels alone. Strolling along the streets of Alexandria, Khaled gets to meet other people, a street singer, a young female band whose members play rock music on rooftops of building, and a number of artists. His life undergoes complete change; he is a new man.
In the international competition for digital feature films, Egypt was represented by Mohamed Abdel-Hafez’s The Door. Abdel-Hafez is a physician who stands behind the camera for the first time, and the cast is formed of first-time actors. The film was touted to have cost no more than EGP500—a misleading figure since it does not take into account that the director and the cast voluntarily got nothing for their work. In all cases, the film as an unusual experiment warrants appreciation, even though it has all the flaws of a first-time amateur work. It harps on the theme of paradise lost; a young man in dire circumstances is hosted by a kind uncle who allows him free use of his home, all but one room whose door is kept locked. The young man’s attempts to know what is behind the closed door brings ultimate disaster.
Egyptians abroad honoured
Honouring Egyptian creative figures abroad was one of the most remarkable programmes of the festival in this round. The director Fouad Said who is also the inventor of Cinemobile and co-Chairman of Said family Investment, a 60 years old group with assets of several billion dollars, was honoured.
Born in 1933, Mr Said has been overseeing the investment trust for over 50 years. The group has focused its activity in emerging markets and participated in significant private and public investments internationally. Mr Said is well recognised for being one of the first large private investors in Hedge funds and Leverage Buyout funds.
Mr Said received his Master of Arts from University of Southern California and his Master of Business and Economics under Peter Drucker at Pepperdine University. In the late 1960s Mr Said revolutionized the television and movie picture industry by inventing Cinemobile, for which he received an Academy Award from the Hollywood Motion Pictures Academy. After this first success, Mr Said focused all his efforts on the family trust and its multiple investment projects.
The Egyptian worldwide actor Khalid Abdalla was also honoured. He was born in1980, Glasgow, Scotland of Egyptian heritage, and raised in London, England. Abdalla came to international prominence after starring in the 2006 Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA-winning United 93, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, which chronicles events aboard United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked during the 11 September 2001 US attacks.