European cinema might be the focus of the Panorama of the European Film, but in recent years the festival has also shed light on underexposed Egyptian and regional cinema.
With the launch of Zawya in 2014, which created many opportunities year-round for less commercial Egyptian and regional films to be presented, alongside films from various corners of the world, the Panorama naturally renewed its commitment to its Euro-centred focus – European films are almost impossible to see in Egypt, after all. But Panorama’s young curators, Youssef Shazli, Stephanie Sicard, Malak Makar, Mouwafak Chourbagui and Alia Ayman, quickly realized that films from the Arab world will find their way into the program regardless.
The newest section introduced to the Panorama, dubbed Crossroads, takes a look at films produced as professional cooperations between Europeans and filmmakers originating from the Arab region. With many regional filmmakers looking for partnerships for funding purposes and a larger market, and European filmmakers looking to bring more diverse stories to audiences, co-production has been increasing. The Robert-Bosch foundation, for example, actively supports films that are co-produced by German and Arab filmmakers. They gave a presentation about their fund as part of the Crossroads activities.
Even though co-production in itself is an alluring topic, the Crossroads section looked beyond production to examine issues affecting societies from both regions. Its five films included documentary, fiction and everything between, and dealt with themes from migration to exile to remembering difficult pasts and unearthing untold stories.
A panel discussion was also organized at Cimatheque between the film’s directors (in person or on Skype) and moderated by Egyptian-British actor Khaled Abdallah, who is the star of Tala Hadid’s The Narrow Frame of Midnight, one of the films in the section. Sadly, the Kurdish director of Iraqi-German production Memories on Stone, Shawkat Amin Korki, was not present, although the discussion touched upon a lot of themes his film passes through.
Abdallah chose to focus on the theme of identity, or to be more specific, how we identify our origins. He asked each panelist, as well as the audience members who asked questions, to start by saying where they’re from. Yasmine Fedda, the director of Queens of Syria explained via Skype that she is originally Palestinian, she grew up in Kuwait, she lived in Syria as a child and her official nationality is Lebanese-Canadian. Her hybridity drew a laugh from the audience.
The story of Khaled Soliman al-Nassiry, one of the three directors of On the Bride’s Side, actually tied into their film. Nassiry was born a Palestinian refugee in Syria, where he lived alongside Kurds and Iraqis before moving to Europe to live with the woman who is now his wife. During the film, which documents how he and some Italians attempted to bring five Syrian refugees from Milan to Sweden by posing as a wedding party, he receives a phone call with the news that he has finally become an Italian citizen.
In The Narrow Frame of Midnight, Abdallah plays a Zacaria, a man with Moroccan-Iraqi nationality in love with a French woman. He sets out to find his brother, who has gone to Iraq to fight with militants. The film is picturesque and slow-paced, allowing viewers to uncover its layered meanings and commentary.
The question of identity is prevalent also in Hisham Zaman’s Letter to the King. Five refugees, mostly Kurdish and Afghani, living in an asylum centre in Norway go to spend a day in Oslo. Zaman films Oslo in from the perspective of these characters, and the city itself becomes a protagonist. Norwegians hardly have presence in the story and instead are replaced with immigrants who run the shops, cafes and restaurants we see.
Identity is dealt with in these films not merely in terms of “where am I from?” but in terms of the hybridity that comes with the geographical proximity of the two regions and the consistent patterns of movement between them that have dramatically increased in the past few years.
Abdallah told the panel’s audience that 2014 saw the largest number of displaced people in the world, at over 60 million people. He added that over 15 million people from this region are displaced, a figure that for political reasons does not include the over 5 million Palestinian refugees or people without refugee status.
On the Bride’s Side presents an atmosphere of emergency filmmaking. It tells the stories of the Syrian refugees and the filmmakers’ strong ties to immigration issues. The film becomes a necessary way of sharing these stories and the motivations of the Europeans risking jail time to organize the trip and make the film.
Queens of Syria is also full of heart-breaking stories from the Syrian crisis. Set in Amman, it documents seven weeks over which a group of Syrian women were mentored by theater directors to create a version of The Women of Troy adapted from their own stories. Between the final performance and the preparations, it gives a sense of the realities these women went through and what it means to be able to perform them on a stage despite fears of repercussions, in terms of both security and family relationships.
The necessity of storytelling is made very clear in Memories on Stone too. A group of filmmakers try to make a feature film about Saddam Hussein’s massacre of Kurds in 1988. They face the problems any filmmaker does: They have to cast a famous pop star as the lead to help them sell the film, they struggle to find a lead actress in a male-dominated society, and they fight to find a place to screen the film since the last cinema in Iraqi Kurdistan is being turned into a Turkish restaurant.
The main characters are completely committed to finishing their film. Each makes a massive personal sacrifice during Memories of Stone, ultimately asking a rhetorical question: Why would you give up your life just for a film? The film opens questions about the need to continue making meaningful films under harsh conditions. These concern production and distribution but also the role of the image in recording our modern history, which is monopolized by states and the media, whose narrative tends to be over-simplistic and filtered according to political agendas.
It seems that many filmmakers are holding themselves accountable to the urgent need to make work about contemporary Arab realities, which hopefully means we will be seeing more films encouraging questions about our constantly evolving identity – a genre of film much-needed in Egypt too. The Crossroads films were originally part of other selections at the Panorama, but after noting their shared concerns the curators found it made sense to create a program around them to explore what continual travel and drastic politics means for our regional identities, both individual and collective.
While some films were more engaging than others, by placing them together, and alongside the panel discussion, the Panorama allowed for a deeper viewing of films connected to the region, which I believe adds significant value to the event being hosted in Cairo at this point in its history.