El Gouna Film Festival: Big screen charms

Hani Mustafa , Wednesday 20 Oct 2021

From the political to the human, over five rounds El Gouna Film Festival has treated the audience to films from all over the world and in all kinds of styles

Clara Sola
Clara Sola

In many Arab film festivals, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the most popular political topic. One of the latest films tackling this subject is the Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab’s Amira, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti section. It is being screened as part of El Gouna’s Feature Narrative Competition.

Amira is Diab’s third long narrative film, after 678 made in 2010 and Ishtebak (Clash) in 2016. The first was about sexual harassment and it won the best international feature film at the Chicago International Film Festival, among other awards around the world, while the second revolves around a group of people detained in a police truck during the turmoil following the ouster of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Ishtebak participated in the Un Certain Regard competition in Cannes in 2016 and won several awards around the world such as best director at the Cairo International Film Festival and the Silver Tanit in Carthage Film Festival.

Captain Volkonogov Escape

Unlike Diab’s previous films, Amira is a non-Egyptian drama. The script, also written by him, discusses a peculiar tragedy in the occupied territories – the smuggling of prisoners’ sperm from Israeli prisons to be processed in vitro fertilization (IVF) to impregnate the prisoners’ wives. It might sound outlandish but it is a real issue that has been covered by the press.

The film opens with Warda (Saba Mubarak), together with her daughter and brother-in-law Bassel (Ziad Bakri), rushing out of the house to visit her husband Nawwar (Ali Suliman) in prison. It becomes clear that her daughter Amira (Tara Abboud) was conceived using Nawwar’s smuggled sperm. Diab focuses on the tight security they suffer while going past the prison gates in order to speak with Nawwar for a few minutes through a glass pane using a handset. When Nawwar asks them to repeat the operation, the gynaecologist discovers that he has always been infertile; and a DNA test confirms the fact that Amira is not his daughter.

Although the sudden plot twist might prove gripping, it felt somewhat petty and obsolete. Warda is accused of having been unfaithful, while Amira is tormented not only by what is being said about her mother but also by the thought that she is not the daughter of the Palestinian hero she thought she was. The melodrama predictably takes on an extreme tragic turn when it turns out Nawwar’s sperm was replaced with that of the Israeli prison guard. The one possible saving grace is that the film raises the question of whether identity is biological or environmental.

Russian cinema has been a continual pleasant surprise since Sergei Eisenstein showed his work in the early 20th century. Many Russian classics were also international masterpieces. Andrei Tarkovsky who made Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979); Nikita Mikhalkov who directed Burnt by the Sun (1994); Mikhalkov’s brother Andrey Konchalovskiy who directed, among many other films, House of Fools (2002); Andrey Zvyagintsev who made The Return (2003) and Leviathan (2014): few of these remarkable films sought awards on the festival circle but they contributed much to the human condition and the art of filmmaking.

The tradition resurfaced with Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova’s The Man Who Surprised Everyone (2018), which won over 20 awards including a special mention at El Gouna. This year the Russian couple made Captain Volkonogov Escaped, another feature competition entry. It premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, and follows its protagonist’s long, tormented path to salvation.

Set in 1938 in Leningrad (present-day St Petersburg), while Stalin’s secret service, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) employed all kinds of brutality, the film opens with a group of young men playing volleyball inside a beautiful hall in some sort of a medieval palace which as it turns out is the NKVD headquarters in Leningrad. It focuses on the young NKVD officer Captain Volkonogov, who witnesses and participates in many interrogations and executions before paranoia within the NKVD causes his colleague and friend to be executed.

Amira

A beautiful period piece that loses none of its tension for accurately and beautifully portraying a profoundly different world, it tells the story of how Volkonogov sees his dead friend, who tells him he went straight to hell, and his quest to leave the NKVD and seek the forgiveness of the victims’ families. In the opening scene, close shots of the ball hitting a beautiful chandelier and being caught in its crystals are a beautiful example of the recklessness of power and its disdain for national heritage at the time.

Magical realism may be defined by Latin American books like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967), The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982), and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (1989) but some believe it goes all the way back to Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis (1915). More recently it has influenced cinema, especially in Latin America, and the Costa Rican filmmaker Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s debut Clara Sola, which premiered at Cannes and is also in the competition, may be the most recent such film. Its actors are amateurs but their performances are brilliant, especially Wendy Chinchilla Araya, who plays a lead, and the cinematography making use of the landscape is thrilling.

Clara (Wendy Chinchilla Araya) is a withdrawn 40-year-old woman who lives with her mother and niece (her sister died a few years back), and seems to have a stronger connection with animals and insects than human beings. The film opens with her in the company of the family’s white mare that seems to reflect her personality. Aloof and peculiar, the mare only responds to her.

She is a slow speaker seemingly with mental issues, and the villagers believe she is possessed by the soul of the Virgin Mary, giving her the power to heal, something her mother capitalises on to the point of being reluctant to let Clara have spine surgery she needs in order not to undermine her supernatural image. In one scene the mother is seen rubbing Clara’s hands with chilli to prevent her from touching herself; Clara is attracted to the only male in her life, her very young niece’s fiancé.

Magical realism – which in film is explained through the supernatural, the unconscious or a cosmic accident – manifests in Clara bringing her pet beetle back to life when it dies and, most dramatically, in the climactic master scene when during Clara’s birthday party she finds out that her white mare was killed and she explodes in a frenzy breaking everything around her and seeming to cause an earthquake.

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