The tower of film

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 15 Nov 2022

Hani Mustafa raises the curtain on the 44th Cairo International Film Festival

EO
EO

The annual Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) is a major film event not only in Egypt but across the region as well. It is the only festival in the region that is registered in the International Federation of Producers in Brussels (FIAPF). Many film figures  and cinefiles from all over the world are in the process of enjoying the 10 days of the 44th round (13-22 November), featuring 97 screenings recently produced in addition to masterclasses, discussion panels and workshops.

At the Cairo Opera House last Sunday, the opening ceremony saw the honouring of the Hungarian director Bella Tar with the Golden Pyramid Award for Lifetime Achievement, as well the Egyptian actress Lebleba, who received the same award, and filmmaker Kamla Abu Zekry, who received the Faten Hamama Award for Excellence. The ceremony also commemorated the late multi-talented actor Samir Sabri, who passed away last May, screening a short film about his works.

 

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Among the films being screened in the International Competition is the Palestinian film Alam (A Flag), Firas Khoury’s long narrative debut, which he also wrote. It tells the story of an ordinary life. However, sometimes even the simplest Palestinian life can be confusing. For many, the lack of basic information about the situation of Palestine, especially knowing the difference between what is happening in the lands that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority (after the Oslo Agreement) and what is happening in the Arab towns inside Israel is not easy.

Since the start of Palestinian cinema in the last  quarter of the 20th century, the Israeli occupation has been a major subject in both documentary and narrative films, whether the film is set in the territories occupied in 1967 or inside Israel. Every part of what might be considered ordinary life in Palestine contains an aspect of this political reality which  can lend the drama powerful atmosphere.

Set in an Arab town within the Israeli borders, where Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship but lack basic rights compared to Jewish citizens, Alam is about a high-school teenager called Tamer (Mahmood Bakri). The introductory scenes gave the audience a fair idea of the life and feelings of ordinary teenagers with their rebellious attitude and adolescent angst. Using a similar structure to Ziad Doueiri’s beautiful 1998 film West Beirut, the filmmaker depicts these mixed feelings and the confusion of Tamer’s group of friends in  high school.

The drama develops around the group’s dangerous plan to replace the Israeli flag on the rooftop of the school with the Palestinian flag on the eve of the Israel’s Independence Day, which represents the Palestinian Nakba (the Palestine dispossession). It all happened when Tamer’s colleague Safwat (Mohamed Abdel-Rahman) suggested that radical act. Tamer was forced to agree because he wanted to impress Maysaa (Jaboor Kawn), a new girl in his class, especially since he is competing with Safwat for her attention.

The filmmaker manages to construct the characters very convincingly. Tamer who seems to lack any motivation is transformed by his love for Maysaa. He lives in an extension room outside his parents’ house which was once his grandfather’s place. Tamer’s closest friend Shekel (so nicknamed perhaps for his materialistic personality) doesn’t care about anything other than hash, but he turns out to be very supportive of his fiend Tamer. While on the other side Safwat seemed to be enthusiastic about  acts of resistance and he is keen to express his ideas about the forged history of Israel.  

Although the title of the film refers to a symbolic notion of the homeland, the filmmaker manages to criticise patriotic clichés and sloganeering. In a scene between Tamer and Safwat, the latter says that he doesn’t like flags, they are only a piece of cloth with some colours, and recalls his father saying that the raising flags is the first step to freedom but the ultimate freedom is to burn them.

 

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In CIFF’s Special Screening section, the Polish film EO directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, which won the Jury Prize in the Cannes Film Festival in 2022, among other awards, is another highlight. No one can argue with the fact that animals in general possess positive values. One of the most important features of this film is that the main character is an animal which brings to mind the long history of using animals as major characters in literature centuries before the invention of cinema. Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Kalila wa Dimna is one of the earliest fiction narratives that humanised animals characters during the Abbasid era in the eighth century.

Fables in which the author uses animals to make a moral point abound. George Orwell’s 1945 Animal Farm, for example, uses animals to examine political ideas and beliefs. Likewise filmmakers use animal characters not only to entertain or educate children but also to discuss deep human issues. Since the early years of the 20th century, animals have been among the top characters in beautiful films like Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life in 1918.

EO film is about a journey in the life of a donkey moving from one place to another, sometimes facing terrible circumstances. The opening scene reveals the relationship between EO, the donkey, and Kasandra, its owner and trainer at a poor circus. Red-lit, in short and rough cuts with close shots of Kasandra looking worried while she caresses EO, who is motionless on the floor, the scene is accompanied by very powerful music. Everything then changes to normal lighting and the donkey is just part of the circus program.

The tragedy begins when some animal-rights movement pushes the government to close this circus because it abuses and tortures animals. First, EO is moved with the other animals to a state shelter. However, because he still remembers how he was treated with love and care by his friend Kasandra, he tries to escape, searching for her, and then he is taken to another place, only to escape a second time. The core of the film is this journey with stops at different places that contain the different stories of different types of people: workers, farmers, trailer drivers, thieves, and even former aristocratic royalty. Most of the time EO faces difficulties but sometimes he is cared for, yet no one can replace the love of Kasandra in his heart.

The filmmaker doesn’t use linear narrative but rather presents sketches that combine the donkey’s perspective with ordinary shots resulting in an avant garde look with beautiful cinematography and a powerful soundtrack. Above all, how the donkey appears on screen – the way an animal that, unlike dogs or chimpanzees, is not known for its intelligence can act so well – remains Skolimowski’s greatest miracle.

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In the International Panorama section, the Dutch filmmaker Martijn de Jong’s long narrative debut Narcosis tackles a tragic and sensitive human subject. The loss of a dear person has been depicted by many filmmakers around the world. This topic usually results in a touching and sometimes depressing experience, but when the filmmaker manages to explore this dark area using all of their artistic tools they end up with something remarkable. Nanni Moretti’s 2001 The Son’s Room, which won the Cannes Palme d’Or among other awards, is one example.

Narcosis explores the life of Merel (Thekla Reuten) who lives with her husband John (Fedja van Huêt) and their children Boris (Sepp Ritsema), almost 10, and Ronja (Lola van Zoggel), five. It is a respectable small family living in a beautiful old country house in the suburbs. The loving father, who is always respectful to the children, is seen buying an old phone booth to decorate the house but also for them to play with.

A few minutes into the film, John – a seasoned scuba diver – travels to South Africa to dive into a famous, dangerous cave called Bushman’s Hole or Boesmansgat, never to emerge again.

The script follows the mother and two children as they suffer from the consequences of the missing father. They don’t have the chance to hold a funeral or bury him, or even grieve properly. The filmmaker examines changes in the behaviour of the son, Boris, who seems to prefer being alone most of the time, sometimes practicing to stay underwater longer in the lake near the family’s house. Boris’s sister Ronja, on the other hand, is not accepting the idea of losing her father. She can be seen using the old phone booth to speak to him, without it being clear whether she is actually contacting the other side or simply expressing her missing him. The mother, for her part, is overwhelmed by financial issues.

The filmmaker, who co-wrote the script with Laura van Dijk, gives the story another artistic dimension. Mixing reality with the supernatural, a pattern that is common in the magical realism wave of literature and cinema, he gives Merel the psychic ability to contact the dead. This is her profession, but after the death of her husband, she leaves this job and works in a beauty center because she is afraid she will be in contact with John and confirm that he lost his life. She is tormented and unable to move on with her life.

The filmmaker uses a slow tempo that matches the static life of the family, capitalizing on brilliant acting by Reuten, Ritsema and van Zoggel, especially adept at expressing the hidden anger mixed into grief. On the other hand, the excellence of the cinematography exposed the details of the atmosphere that surrounded the family whether inside the house or outside.   

The title of the film, which means drowsiness, or unconsciousness, refers not only to the state of the family after the death of the father, but also to the condition of lacking oxygen during diving for too long.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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