CIFF 37 day two saw the opening of the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition in which Karim Shaban’s first feature film, Fi Youm (In A Day), had its world premiere. This post is about Fi Youm because it is a film that deserves a post all by itself.
We are at a very exciting moment in cinema history. Rasha Salti, who curated last year’s D-CAF film program and is the Toronto Film Festival Programmer for Africa and the Middle East, said in a recent interview that “we could be witnessing a new golden age in Arab cinema.” The Horizon competition is an opportunity to see some of the emerging talent who might very well be reshaping the map of Arab cinema. Now only in its second year, it seems to be expanding and may offer some of the most well attended screenings at this year’s CIFF.
So at 9.25 pm, I passed by as Youssef Chahine’s Hadouta Masriya (An Egyptian Tale, 1981) played in the open theater to head to the small hall where Fi Youm was about to start. In many ways the film took me by surprise and the questions people raised in the brief Q&A afterwards pointed to some of the pressing issues Egyptian filmmakers and filmgoers face today.
Fi Youm interweaves the lives of six characters who live in contemporary Egypt. They are all struggling with an inefficient, aging and violent state that fails to provide its citizenry with basic human rights, such as protection from police aggression, healthcare and reasonable pension plans. The six characters do not interact with one another. Being Egyptians who exist under the same socio-economic condition is the only connection between them. There is a sense, however, that this is the connection of all connections, that focusing on it is like focusing on ground zero. Fi Youm is a film about hitting rock bottom.
This type of narrative structure, where characters appear to be related only due to their shared existence within a swamp of oppression and corruption, echoes that of various films that came out after January 25. One example is the collectively directed 18 Days (2011), which also interweaves the lives of seemingly unconnected people into the single unit of one film. Shared citizenship is the only connection possible. There is a case to be made that this narrative structure stems from current social and economic conditions in Egypt. Just as Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who wrote two key film studies texts, argued that WWII introduced the “time-image” to cinema, one can ask if the events of the past five years or so are now introducing a different type of image to the Egyptian and Arab cinematic repertoire.
Fi Youm is perhaps clearer about its intentions to reveal the connectivity within its film world than 18 Days. For one, it restrains itself to a single day, as the film title suggests. Yet, more interestingly, the six characters also share a rhythm in Fi Youm. They follow the tempo set by their footsteps in a scene in which they carry a coffin into a cemetery. Fi Youm is driven by internal monologue — the only type of verbal language it offers — in addition to abstract sounds and movements. It flirts with surrealism as it negotiates the relation between dreams, the unconscious and reality. To find its way in these tricky waters on the threshold of the “real,” the film relies primarily on time, which becomes a character of its own. I would hesitate to argue that Fi Youm is an example of a Deleuzian time image or that it is an Egyptian contribution to the growing movement of slow cinema, but I would read a paper that tries to tease out the relation that this film has to either of these things. I believe this is a film that behooves serious critical consideration, with all its possible shortcomings. It is trying hard to do something new.
In the Q&A, the expected question about financing an “independent movie” in Egypt came up. There has been a lot of debate lately about the meaning of the term “independent” in relation to cinema in Egypt, which is another indication that the tides are shifting in Egyptian and perhaps also Arab cinema in general.
CIFF’s programers this year seem to be aware of that. In addition to the Tribute screenings, which revisit films from the history of Egyptian cinema, they are organizing a series of lectures that explore questions of funding, state support and the like. I stumbled upon the schedule, which does not seem to be anywhere online, so here is the schedule for you (I am not sure if they will change any of the timings, so please check with the organizers if interested):
I would also like to point out that Ahmed al-Maanouni’s Alayam, Alayam (Oh the Days!, 1978), a film that many consider a monument of Moroccan and Arab cinema, is screening on Sunday at 3.30 pm as part of the Restored Classics series.