By the end of the 44th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF, 13-22 November), cinephiles were all but sated. The event featured 97 screenings from all over the world as well as masterclasses with the great Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and the French actor-director Mathieu Kossovitz, among others, and conversations with actor Lebleba and director Kamla Abouzekri, recipients of CIFF’s Lifetime Achievement Award and CIFF Faten Hamama Honoree, respectively, panels like Green Filming and workshops like the Short Script Speed Mentoring Programme with Sard-Mariam Naoum.
Among the highlights, on the first day of screenings, was Italian filmmaker Mario Martone’s Palme d’Or-nominated Nostalgia in the Official Selection-Out of Competition. A Neapolitan gangster drama that doesn’t quite live up to expectations, it is the story of a middle-aged man, Felice (Pierfrancesco Favino) returning to his hometown after 40 years of absence. The film stresses the detail that he had come from Cairo where he was allegedly a Muslim, though this was in no way relevant to the drama. Felice wanders around Naples reminiscing about his childhood, which triggers flashbacks.
Felice manages to reach his mother Teresa (Aurora Quattrocchi) after he finds strangers in his childhood home, which she has sadly sold, moving to a small ground floor apartment with no light. But the mother’s sight is severely impaired and, realising she is likely to be living her last days, in an emotional scene Felice buys her new clothes and bathes her while she asks him why he never came back before and whether he has children of his own. Felice does have a wife back in Cairo whom he calls. She is a doctor while he owns a real estate company, the implication being that they have a good, prosperous life.
After the mother dies Felice befriends the priest Don Luigi (Francesco Di Leva), who informs him that Oreste (Tommaso Ragno), Felice’s childhood friend, with whom he was involved in crime before he left, is now a feared gangster against whom he, the priest, is an campaigning. And he enlists Felice in the fight against Oreste, asking him to settle down and become a member of the community (for which he must pretend to be a Christian). Just as his wife is arriving from Cairo, Felice is suddenly and largely inexplicably shot dead; and the film, which showed potential to go to different places at various points – familial epic, or suspense, for example – goes to waste.
A rather more powerful experience was Chinese filmmaker Li Ruijun’s Return to Dust, screened in the International Panorama Section. A work of beautiful simplicity, it is about a middle-aged couple no longer tolerated by their families and brought together in an arranged marriage that turns into a true friendship that becomes that talk of Gaotai, the small village in which the film is set.
Youtie Ma (Wu Renlin) and his wife Guiying Cao (Hai Qing) are both farmers, and they help each other through their hectic daily routine, sowing and reaping with the help of one pathetically weak donkey whose little bell becomes a central motif of the soundtrack. A government decree to tear down officially uninhabited houses – one of which they moved into following their marriage, since their families would not help them buy a house – undermines their security.
Cao, who suffers from incontinence and a limp, confesses to Ma that when she saw him sharing his food with the donkey she thought that he was kind hearted and that their marriage would be good since the donkey has a better life than she does with her family. Scenes of the two of them working – Cao sitting on the plough, Ma setting mud bricks in a spiral to dry, or the two of them wearing flash-lit helmets covering the bricks with plastic on a rainy night – are deeply moving. They benefit from the exceptional eye of cinematographer Weihua Wang. When Cao is designing a cardboard box for chicks, the light from inside gives the couple a magical quality.
Ma has the same, rare blood type of his hometown tycoon landlord, and he is forced to give him blood when he needs it. The film remains apolitical in tone, but through this detail it manages to be a critique of corruption and an expose of the brutality to which peasants are subject. “Return to dust” is a reference to the fact that the rubble of a house costs more than a standing house as well as to Cao’s death near the end. In the last scenes Ma is seen releasing his only remaining companion, the donkey, before asking himself the question, “Haven’t you had enough?”
Born in 1974, Kamla Abouzekri, the recipient of the Faten Hamama Award for Excellence, is the daughter of the novelist Wagih Abouzekri. Her passion for cinema manifested in childhood, long before she studied cinema.
Abouzekri has been a CIFF jury member and had her film Youm Lel Setat (A Day for Women) opened the 2016 CIFF. Starring Elham Shahine, Hala Sedki, Farouk Al-Fishawi and Nelly Karim, it tells the story of the launch of a public swimming pool for women located in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Cairo. Though women have been a major focus of her work, Abouzekri says she doesn’t want to restrict herself to women. She has created controversial characters and broken stereotypes.
She started her career assisting acclaimed filmmakers like Radwan Al-Kashef in his film Al-Saher (The Magician, 2001), Nader Galal in his film 131 Ashghal (131 Hard Labor, 1993), and Mohamed Kamel Al-Qaliouby in his film Al-Bahr Bidhak Leih (Why is the Sea Laughing, 1995). She made two short films, Nazra lel Samaa (A Look to the Sky) and Qetar Al-Saa Al-Sadesa (The Six O’clock Train, 1999) before her debut Sana Oula Nasb (First Year Con, 2004), collaborating with screenwriter Samira Mohsen, and featuring Ahmed Ezz, Nour, Khaled Selim and Dalia Al-Beheiry.
Such commercial success did not prevent her from pursuing a more art house approach in films like Malek wi Ketaba (Heads and Tails, 2006), co-written by Ahmed Al-Nasser and Sami Hossam, which tells the story of acting tutor Mahmoud (Mahmoud Hemeida) at the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts who is facing a life crisis after finding out about his wife’s infidelity. Starring alongside Hemeida were Hind Sabry, Aida Riyad and Khaled Abul-Naga.
In 2006 she collaborated with screenwriter Tamer Habib on Aan Al-Ishq wal Hawa (Of Love and Passion), starring Ahmed Al-Saqqa, Mona Zaki, Menna Shalabi, Tarek Lotfi, Ghada Abdel-Razek and Khaled Saleh. But 2009 was the more significant year for Abouzekri as she collaborated with screenwriter Mariam Naoum on Wahed Sefr (One-Zero), starring Elham Shahine, Nelly Karim, Khaled Abul-Naga and Ahmed Al-Fishawi, which tells the story of eight characters over the course one day when a very important football match takes place in Egypt and the Egypt team wins One-Zero. The film participated in Venice Horizons Award section at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 and won the Horus Award for Best Director and a Special Award at the Cairo International Film Festival in 2010.
Her television debut was the sitcom 6 Midan Al-Tahrir (6 Tahrir Square, 2009), starring Karoline Khalil, Hussein Al-Imam, Sayed Ragab and Sayed Al-Roumi. She has since proved equally if not more popular due to her participation in nearly every Ramadan season, and her collaboration with screenwriter Mariam Naoum on Bint Esmaha Zat (A Girl Named Zat, 2013), Segn Al-Nesa (Women’s Prison, 2014), both tackling some significant issues related to women’s rights, was epic. Her “success partners’”as she calls them include the talented cinematographer Nancy Abdel-Fattah and the music composer Tamer Karawan.
In 2017, Abouzekri joined the Ramadan race again after years of absence with Wahet Al-Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis, 2017), based on Bahaa Taher’s award winning novel, starring Menna Shalabi and Khaled Al-Nabawi. Her light comedy Bi 100 Wesh (Many Faced, 2020), starring Asser Yassin and Nelly Karim, was a huge success across a very diverse audience. Her latest was Betlou Al-Rouh (Backbreaking, 2022), a drama from within the Islamic State (IS) set in Al-Raqqa, starring Menna Shalabi, Ahmed Al-Saadani and Mohamed Hatem, in which Abouzekri brilliantly demonstrates the horrors of IS in rich detail within the span of 15 episodes
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.