Film production may have been impacted by two years of pandemic restrictions but the general feeling this year is that cinema will survive after all. The spirit of going to a movie theatre to see, where the sharing of emotions is celebrated in a unique way, was evident as of the first day of the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival CIFF (26 November-5 December), with the audience lining up to buy tickets as if gaining entry to a world of dreams.
The War in the Balkans (1991-2001) has been the deadliest European conflict since WWII (1939-1945), with ethnic cleansing and genocide following the collapse of the Yugoslav federation in 1991. Such tragic stories are the raw material for any number of strong films. One such is the Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic’s Quo vadis, Aida? which won, among others, the Audience Award in Rotterdam International Film Festival, the best actress award, and the Golden Star for Best Film at El Gouna Film Festival. The film focuses on the escalation that let to the Srebrenica Massacre. This year in CIFF’s Official Selection Out of Competition, Kosovan filmmaker Blerta Basholli’s debut Hive references a massacre that took place in 1999-2000 in the Kosovan village of Krusha e Madhe when the Serbian forces killed hundreds of Albanian men and male teenagers.
The film opens with the protagonist Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) searching a group of corpses for her missing husband’s body – to no avail. The script doesn’t follow or investigate the massacre, only the deteriorating financial situation that results from the husband’s absence. Living with her disabled father-in-law Haxi (Çun Lajçi) and her two children, Fahrije works in her husband’s beehive to produce honey, but production is not sufficient to cover the family expenses. And so she manages to convince a group of colleagues at the village solidarity council to produce ajvar (red pepper sauce) and sell it in the supermarket, as a sustainable means of finance. Thus the filmmaker-screenwriter weaves the symbolic significance of a beehive into the story: Fahrije and her friends are bees secreting ajvar in jars.
The camera follows Fahrije’s struggles, showing grimness on her face and calmness in her responses. Despite the patriarchal norms that generally prevent women from driving, she insists on learning to drive to transport her wares: villagers smash her car window, breaking some ajvar jars, and the red pepper seller sexually harasses her; even her teenage daughter is unsympathetic. All this takes place while the search for her husband continues, with Haxi refusing to give a DNA sample in order to identify the corpse, holding onto the hope that he is still alive... Hive is a beautiful film not so much about the horrors of war but about the triumph of the human and the female spirit in the face of adversity.
The Lithuanian filmmaker Laurynas Bareisa’s Pilgrims – another Out of Competition screening – takes a less historical approach to murder, with the action revolving around a crime but without the film being a whodunnit or a murder mystery as such. Pilgrims concerns a man named Paulius (Giedrius Kiela, in her first role) who, with his ex-girlfriend Indre (Gabija Bargailaite), decides to revisit the places were his younger brother was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Information about what happened to the brother is revealed only gradually, with the filmmaker setting out to confuse the viewer somewhat – perhaps to reflect Paulius’s desperation to understand what happened four years before. With Indre, he travels to another town to visit the house of the murderer, who was living with his grandmother when he committed the crime, asking around for any clues but finding nothing more than what they know from the investigation and trial.
The townspeople are very cold to Paulius and Indre, and it is unclear whether this is the culture in Lithuania or whether this is deliberately cultivated by the filmmaker. In one scene, a resident takes Indre to the outskirts of town to show her the site of another murder in which his own classmate was raped and murdered in the house of a man who also killed his wife and son before burning down the house and dying. It was his way of explaining why the townspeople or so reluctant to talk about the past.
The climax occurs not when Paulius finds out about the crime – he doesn’t – but when he finds out that some of the people he talks to were witnesses or near accomplices since they allowed the murderer to show off by hauling his captive out of his car trunk during a party. Perhaps he gains the closure he is looking for when he finds out the murderer was strangled to death by a cellmate in prison. Despite unanswered questions – why start tracing the crime four years after it takes place – the film benefits from beautiful cinematography and direction as well as sound acting from both Giedrius Kiela and Gabija Bargailaite.
For over seven decades now the Arab-Israeli conflict has preoccupied Arabs everywhere, appearing in Arab films, but very seldom have the occupied Golan Heights in Syria appeared as a setting in this context. Soviet-born Syrian filmmaker Ameer Fakher Eldin’s debut Al Garib (The Stranger), about his parents’ home in the Golan, premiered at Venice Film Festival last September and was selected in the Critic’s Week in the 43rd edition of the Cairo International Film Festival.
It tells the story of Adnan (Ashraf Barhom), a villager from the Golan who feels deeply alienated – it is never stated why – but refuses to leave the Golan Heights even though his wife repeatedly suggests they should, and suffers from the disappointment of his father Abu Adnan (Mohamed Bakri) because he failed to qualify as a medical doctor after studying for two years in Russia. Adnan’s cow is ill and produces milk mixed with blood, his three-legged dog is often bullied by other dogs, and an Israeli cooperative has its eye on his apple orchard. Adnan’s only positive experience is when he helps a wounded man sneaking through the fence that separates the occupied territories from the rest of Syria. The scene shows the human side of Adnan as he finds out about the young man’s story and identifies with him.
The story lacks a cohesive drama and there is little development in terms of either plot or characters, but while the film is visually compelling the acting is the film’s strongest point, with Fakher Eldin benefitting from performances by two established actors. The iconic Palestinian actor Mohamed Bakri’s international career took off when he starred in Greek-French filmmaker Costa Gavras’s 1983 Hanna K; Bakri has acted in over 60 films and TV series since then, and has also directed six films. Ashraf Barhom, another Palestinian, has had an equally prominent international career, starring in Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005), Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora (2009), and Louis Leterrier’s Clash of The Titans (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.