The 35th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), held for the first time since the Islamists came to power, was bound to raise controversy. The new regime has clearly had an effect on
the event; none of Cairo’s theatres hosted films, and screenings were limited to the Cairo Opera House. The festival seemed to be held under siege conditions.
In other ways, too, the festival did not escape the political events that have inflamed Egypt. It opened without the usual fanfare and fireworks, and Egyptians formed by far the majority of those attending. Female guests were garbed in mourning black, and a moment of silence was observed in honour of those who lost their lives during the recent uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Gaza.
The Egyptian director Wael Omar withdrew his film Al-Bahth an al-Naft Wal-Rimal (In Search Of Sand and Oil) from the festival to show solidarity with protests against President Mohamed Mursi.
Syrian State production banned
The Syrian film Al-Ashiq (The Lover) was excluded by the festival management on the grounds that it was made by a State-owned production company and supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The film was disqualified even though it was listed to be shown.
The political influence was also visible with the barring of [the Shia] Iranian filmmakers due to visit [the vastly Sunni] Egypt to participate in the festival. Many films that did make it tackled complex problems reflecting current situations. These included the French-Algerian film The Repentant, about a young Algerian terrorist, Rashid, who repents and tries to return to a normal life in spite of the numerous obstacles in his path. In a simple yet credible manner, The Repentant showed the struggle of a person damaged by terrorist ethics.
Tora Bora by Walid al-Awadi was a Kuwaiti entrant. It followed the travels of the parents of Tareq in search of their prodigal son in Afghanistan after he was brainwashed and went there for jihad.
This was the first time I had seen a Kuwaiti film, but it was a good introduction. In idea, performance and direction techniques, we can expect more from there in the future.
Do not forget me Istanbul
A Turkish entry, Do Not Forget Me, Istanbul, was among the films from Turkey that were well received at this year’s festival. In it we were given six glimpses, each directed by a different gifted director. The hero of the film is Istanbul itself, and the six stories come together to remind the audience that the history of Istanbul does not only belong to the people of Turkey but to other cultures too.
The strongest role belongs to the discontented Greek tourist who is robbed by a Turk, but subsequently meets a woman who helps him get his money back and retain a good memory of Istanbul in his heart.
Pakistani director Shoaib Mansour possesses a unique blend of boldness and enlightenment that makes his films interesting and highly attractive to all film lovers, as well as those opposed to ‘religious’ leaders who perpetrate cruel actions in the name of God.
After seeing Mansour’s 2007 In The Name Of God, which highlighted the dread of living under fanaticism and won the Silver Pyramid Award of the CIFF, I decided to follow all his films. This year Speak Up entered the international competition for human rights with the same boldness and strength, advancing the director’s struggle against the humiliation and oppression of all people, among them women. Using a strong background scenario, Mansour tells the story of a wise man—or sheikh, so-called by the villagers—who teaches the Qur’an to children. He is the father of eight girls, whom he suppresses to the extent that he prevents them from going out of the house. As women, he believes they are nothing but a pack of evil and foolishness, and does not accept any kind of discussion with them; whatever they do, he reacts aggressively. He is especially harsh towards his defiant eldest daughter Zeinab, who rejects his cruelty and oppression.
Marrying the prostitute
The girls are desperate as they suffer together, not only from their poverty but because their heartless father does not allow them even to work even though they all need the money. This leads him to accept a deal with a procurer, which involves his marrying a beautiful prostitute so she will give birth to a beautiful daughter to continue the procurer’s business—the ‘wise man’ is a suitable candidate because he habitually fathers girls. The ‘wise man’ accepts the deal and is given the money he needs; he justifies his actions by officially marrying the prostitute—as a Muslim he has no qualms about bigamy. But after he marries the prostitute and she duly gives birth to a girl, his conscience intervenes and he insists on keeping the baby. The procurer refuses, but his wife helps him take the girl. When the procurer discovers this, he goes to the man’s house to kill the girl, but the other eight daughters rescue her. In so doing, Zeinab kills her father. What ensues, however, proves that the daughters can live as honourable human beings once they escape suppression; the sisters carve out a living through hard work and intelligent decisions, and bring up their orphaned baby sister as a dignified woman.
The film is told in flashback, starting when Zeinab tells her story to the media before she is hanged for killing her father. This excellent and moving film puts its director on the summit.
The participating films included the Romanian film Beyond The Hills, produced by Romania, France and Belgium and directed by Cristian Mungiu, the first Romanian filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (2007). This is the story—with excellent performances—of two friends who grew up in an orphanage, with one leaving for Germany and the other finding refuge in a women’s convent in Romania. After a while the one in the convent suffers a mental illness. When she causes problems in the convent the abbess requests that she leaves, but attempts to evict her fail. Her psychological state worsens and she tries to set fire to herself, so the other nuns tie her up with an iron chain. They then send her to hospital, but she does not recover so they hold rituals similar to exorcism, but despite this she dies. Eventually, the abbess and some of the nuns are arrested and questioned about why they chained her. The film tackles heartrending issues about friendship, love, relatives, poverty and orphanhood without direct
mention, so that it touches the heart.
Pay back in Sweden
The last film, the French Rendez-vous à Kiruna directed by Anna Novion, won the Golden Pyramid for Best Film. The film is about a successful but lonely and emotionless engineer living in France who receives a phone call from Swedish police, who want him to identify the body of a young drowned man. He drives to Sweden, and on his way he meets a young man who has problems with his parents and so is travelling to his grandfather in Sweden. To start with he treats the young man with disdain and arrogance, but soon becomes more friendly. He arrives in Kiruna and checks the dead body, only to discover that it is his son whom he has never seen. The story began 27 years before when he fell in love with a young woman, but refused to marry her when she became pregnant or take responsibility for the child, so she left him and went to live in Sweden. There she married a police chief who brought up the child.
The film gives a red light to everyone who is without emotion in a world full of strife and trouble. The engineer is left to express his grief and deep loss.
If this round of the CIFF is summed up in a few words, perhaps the most obvious would be that the films outstandingly focused on human emotion, the heart was star of the show.
23 December 2010
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