Zawya’s new festival, a celebration of regional cinema and a showcase of recent Arabic films in Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said, has film enthusiasts sitting up in their seats. Curated by Zawya director Youssef Shazli and co-founder and curator Alia Ayman from festivals around the region and Europe, Cairo Cinema Days runs from May 9 to 16 and includes more than 40 features, documentaries and shorts (all films have English subtitles), two retrospectives, four masterclasses and industry guests.
The name is a reference to recent regional festivals such as Beirut Cinema Days, Palestine Days of Cinema and Carthage Cinema Days. Shazli says they were inspired by these festivals, and share similar goals and some films, but are not reproducing them. “The festival is trying to achieve something that Zawya has been working towards since its inception, which is to create a space for Arab films that are not Egyptian to be seen in Cairo,” Ayman says. “It’s a moment of reflection on where we are and where we are going as regional filmmakers.”
We watched 40 films in the past few days in order to publish a guide that we can stand by. Below are bite-sized reviews (with no spoilers) to help navigate the program. We were particularly impressed by the documentaries. That said, since these are our team’s personal takes, we would encourage you to go see them for yourselves, as often people take different things from films.
After the first few scenes of this Tunisian drama about a lethargic young man struggling to fulfill social and familial expectations, we decided it looked too good to watch with a huge MAD Solutions watermark in the middle of the screen. The opening is carefully made, with impressive acting and an intriguing setup, so we look forward to watching Mohamed Ben Attia’s love story, which has received praise in both the Arabic and English press, in the cinema. Co-produced by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers (The Son, The Kid With a Bike) and acclaimed at this year’s Berlinale, it opens Cairo Cinema Days.
Eman El Naggar’s first feature is a touching 89-minute film on guilt, grief, loss and the struggle to let go. Remarkable locations around Cairo and strong cinematography (despite overly-saturated colors) create a very strong sense of space, yet a mostly awkward performance by Dunia Maher (who plays the lead, Marwa) and a poorly written resolution lessen the effect of what could have been a profound meditation on individual self-definition within the intricacies of a rich family life. The film won a Certificate of Appreciation at the 2016 Cairo International Film Festival.
The Beach House
The blue color pallet that drenches Lebanese director Roy Dib’s feature sets the mood for the eerie developments of a story that unfolds step by step in one house, in one night, among four characters. Tension mount as the characters play mind games using references to their Arab roots and European influences. The film will hook you from the off, but at more than one point you’ll likely find yourself asking what the hell’s going on. It’s interesting to note that Dib’s film is screening in Cairo Cinema Days but was refused a permit to show in Beirut for sexual content, in the same week that Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City showed in Beirut but was not allowed to be screened in Cairo.
Vatche Boulghourjian’s film excels in cinematography, with beautiful shots of the meandering Lebanese countryside accompanying us on our journey with Rabea, a blind young musician, as he searches for his true parentage. The film starts off a bit slow but picks up after the first quarter, with compelling performances by the entire cast, except unfortunately Rabea’s own, which dulls what is otherwise a captivating story about war, identity, fate and belonging. The film won the 2016 Grand Rail d’Or Audience Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Last of Us
A refreshingly unusual take on migration, this 95-minute Tunisian feature is a dialogue-free exploration of a young African man’s journey as he steals a boat and attempts to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Although the intense and visually striking set-up by Ala Eddine Slim eventually gives way to a tedious and much less convincing second half, the film remains a significant experiment, winning the Lion of the Future award for Best Debut Film at the Venice Film Festival.
The Dark Wind
Based on a true story during the aftermath of the Yazidi massacre in the summer of 2014, specifically focusing on a woman dealing with the trauma of kidnapping and rape, Kurdish director Hussein Hassan’s third film is imperfect but feels important. Shot with basic, efficient storytelling techniques on location in refugee camps and villages, switching between action scenes and calmer but no less difficult moments, it becomes increasingly powerful.
Oliver Laxe’s two-hour Morocco-based Western is cryptic and engrossing, with stand-out moments of fascinating characterization, incredible long, wide shots of the Atlas Mountains and remarkable attention to detail in costumes. There’s a lot going on in the French-born Galacian director’s deliberately mysterious second feature, which won the Nespresso Grand Prize in the Critics’ Week competition last year.
Those Who Remain
A documentary in which the director, Elaine Raheb (Sleepless Nights), is very much present, this funny and serious film focuses on Heykal Mikhael, an older Maronite Christian man who is building a house against a beautiful landscape near the Syrian border. His long and complicated history, which very slowly emerges through questioning and interactions with others, is revealing about the civil war, sectarianism and a lot more.
Bezness as Usual
Dutch Filmmaker Alex Pitstra journeys to Tunisia to meet his long-absent father in the coastal city of Sousse, where young handsome Tunisian men (including Alex’s father) once saw Bezness opportunities in vacationing European women, charming them, acting as local guides and sometimes getting romantically involved. The result is a brutally honest documentary, full of moments of hilarity and endearing awkwardness, that sees Alex’s father, uncles and extended Tunisian family (as well as other half-European siblings) portrayed in all of their contradictory complexity. This is a remarkable feature about making amends and reconciling with the demanding nature of familial love.
A Maid for Each
Makhdoumeen (to be served) is this film’s Arabic title, and it sees Lebanese director Maher Abi Samra subtly confront Beirut’s society (and arguably even Cairo) with the reality of domestic laborers from other countries such as Bangladesh, Philippines and Sri Lanka. While this description might make it sound like an expository documentary, it really isn’t. Abi Samra mixes an observational approach, as we watch long, stylized takes of the staff of a “maid’s agency” in central Beirut go about their work, with panning poetic shots of the city as the filmmaker tells us stories of his friends’ domestic workers and grapples with his own guilt for having hired one.
Hady Zaccak filmed his grandmother, 103-year-old Hanriette, between 1992 and 2013. Capturing her ageing process, this intimate documentary stays close to its subject as Zaccak retells Hanriette’s life story as she told it to him over the years. It’s slightly uncomfortable at the start, since you get the feeling Hanriette is not very aware of being filmed, but the director deals with this swiftly and the film becomes an wonderful, emotional ride of laughter, tears and musings on life.
Zaineb Hates the Snow
For an endearing documentary in which a filmmaker again turns the camera on her family, Kaouther ben Hania (behind the acclaimed 2013 production Challat of Tunis) creates an intimate look at her cousin’s daughter, Zaineb, during six years of immense change in her life after her father dies and her mother moves to Montreal from Tunis to marry an old flame. Zaineb’s narration and the observational approach is the main storytelling method, and the filmmaker’s almost non-existent presence allow us to be completely immersed in Zaineb’s life, the challenges of immigration and the multiple identities it imposes.
Mohamed Rashad’s 77-minute documentary is named after an Egyptian youth camp program that brought together activists’ children in the 1970s. The film contrasts Rashad’s cold relationship with his father to those of his peers with activist parents, admitting a certain jealousy of their relationships with their families. While the premise is attractive, Rashad shows little connection between his relationship with his father and his discovery of the relationships between the activists of the 1970s and their children, and he doesn’t dig deep enough into either part, resulting in a fragmented essay that fails to fulfill its potential.
Gaza Surf Club
Reminiscent of Speed Sisters, Amber Fares’ 2015 documentary on the all-female Palestinian car-racing team, this German feature-length documentary (which we haven’t yet seen) by Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine fits into a wider trend adopted by western and Palestinian filmmakers, showing the occupation in a new light by juxtaposing the freedom of extreme sports with war and oppression.
A Magical Substance Flows into Me
An investigation into the different strands of local music inevitably brings Palestinian filmmaker Jumana Manna to the colonial origins of ideas of difference and segregation, and to Palestinians’ ongoing displacement from the land since 1948. This hour-long documentary, which uses ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann’s notes and recordings from the 1930s as a starting point, is personal and self-reflexive — Manna and her parents play roles — and it comes with laugh-out-loud moments and fantastic music scenes.
This quite hilarious, but also deadly serious, black-and-white docufiction follows a (fictional) young Algerian journalist as she asks her (real) fellow citizens what they expect to find in heaven and watches (real) online videos of Saudi sheikhs expounding on the subject — sometimes getting quite raunchy in their descriptions. Veteran director Merzak Allouache’s rather long film is revealing of how religion is marketed in the age of globalization, how jihadis are recruited, the political situation in Algeria and many Algerian Muslims’ healthy skepticism.
From the Israeli occupation that displaced his grandmother, to the Iraq war that displaced his entire family, to the ongoing Syrian war, Orwa Al Mokdad paints a picture of the human cost of the conflicts in the Arab world across generations in this personal 92-minute documentary. By following a civil activist and a fighter, among other characters in Syria’s north, where the filmmaker lives, and editing them together with video segments from his niece, Nour, who is 300 miles away in the south, the filmmaker confronts the question of why he cannot return to his hometown. While Mokdad’s raw shaky footage is compelling and gives the viewer humanizing insight into the lives of the film’s characters, Nour’s video-letter segments lean toward being overly structured and sentimental.
Samir in the Dust
Mohamed Ouzine trains his camera on his nephew Samir, a young man whose meager aspirations for a better life, which he seeks to achieve by oil smuggling, are dwarfed by the vastness of the surrounding natural landscape which seems to hold him captive in a small village on the Algerian-Moroccan border. This 60-minute documentary does not compromise on aesthetics, which, along with Samir’s ease in front of the camera, make up this work’s quiet, meditative charm.
Houses Without Doors
Avo Kaprealian’s 82-minute documentary is filmed almost entirely from a balcony, yet feels expansive. Using his family as a microcosm, the director focuses on the changes in the region that uprooted his Armenian family, who settled in Aleppo after the Armenian Genocide only to find their existence threatened again by the Syrian Civil War. By incorporating decontextualized scenes of struggle and displacement from old films, Kaprealian evokes the continuing trauma of swapping one’s homeland for a precarious existence.
Off Frame: Revolution Until Victory
Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to watch this, but we are planning to see in the cinema. It has been widely praised and looks fantastic for those interested in archives. Palestinian director Mohanad Yaqoubi has made this 62-minute documentary using rarely-seen footage the Palestine Film Unit, a group founded in the 1960s to document the Palestinian narrative.
These films are all fiction.
We Are Just Fine Like This
A heartwarming portrayal of the budding relationship between an adolescent boy and his grandfather, who pretends to be suffering from Alzheimer’s in order to avoid confronting certain family issues. Mehdi M. Barsaoui’s fictional short is an eloquent mix of familial tension and humor, packaged in a well-structured frame of 19 minutes, despite a somewhat rushed ending. This Tunisian film won the Best Muhr Short award at the 2016 Dubai International Film Festival.
The conflict between a father’s desperation and his desire to protect his daughter result in a gripping story set on an unnamed Mediterranean shore, where both wait to make their way to the next stop on their journey after fleeing war-torn Syria. Jumping to actual news footage from AP makes the film feel a bit heavy-handed in its approach to the refugee crisis, but solid performances and moments rife with genuine emotion make it worth watching. The 14-minute film, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is by Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf.
In 1948, a Jewish-Tunisian family moves into a house recently inhabited by Palestinians in Haifa to find a foul-mouthed parrot still living there. Starring famous actress Hend Sabry, this 18-minute Jordanian film by Amjad al-Rasheed and Darin J. Sallam shows a family attempting quick integration into their new country, as their heavily clichéd lack of language and social etiquette is repeated back to them by the vulgar parrot.
One Week, Two Days
Sudanese director Marwa Zein creates an intimate story about a couple, Leila and Ibrahim, as they go through an experience that is universally common and yet entirely unexplored in Egyptian cinema: the frustration of a woman as she waits for a late period. The tension is palpable: Ibrahim is hopeful — he seems to actually want a child — while Leila is scared, frantic at times. Women, Zein pointed out when previously discussing the film, do not necessarily want to be mothers. For this underpinning idea, One Week, Two Days merits the attention it has garnered so far, despite its flaws. The 20-minute film was screened in Egypt as part of this year’s Cairo International Women’s Film Festival.
This 19-minute Sudanese short by Mohamed Kordofani boasts sharp imagery, which makes up for its overly simple narrative. After losing his father to an airstrike early on in life, Adam joins a gang of children led to rob houses and beg on the streets of Khartoum. As his conscience strikes, the young man must decide how to proceed. Enjoyable, but perhaps not a film that will linger long after it’s over.
Due to a faulty DVD we didn’t get to see Submarine yet, but the trailer for Mounia Akl’s Indiegogo-funded 17-minute film – which imagines a dystopian escalation of Beirut’s so-called garbage crisis and has been banned in Lebanon – looks beautifully shot, and it has received multiple accolades in international festivals in the past year.
This experimental selection including many artists sadly only shows once.
In this contemplative and surprisingly engaging 31-minute video artwork, Tunisian’s Ismaïl Bahri films a piece of white paper capturing the play of light and shadows on its surface with the movement of the wind, as we listen to the busy sounds of the city intermingle with curious passersby asking him about his experiment — from playful kids and an amateur photographer to a group of unemployed young men, and, of course, suspicious policemen.
Idle by the Sea
Nadah Shazly’s agile and absorbing score ties together Lebanese artist Kinda Hassan’s sequence of footage of natural phenomena, mostly sea-related, that is overlaid with voices musing on the sea, madness, death and birth. A meditative 19-minute experimental film.
The Boy and the Sea
A beautiful 5-minute silent animation by Samer Ajouri that starts off with a boy diving into the world of his imagination, before things take a strange and cryptic turn.
Maha Maamoun‘s 28-minute short, shot between Egypt and India, weaves a short story by Haytham al-Wardany about a drug dealer who turns into an animal with texts written by director-producer Azza Shaaban in India. The absurdity of the film’s events progress quickly as the two parallel stories unfold, and it shifts between poetics and urgency. It threads a fine line between a standard fiction short and video art and gets the best of both worlds.
Now: End of Season
Ayman Nahle ironically juxtaposes images of Syrian refugees waiting in the port city of Izmir, likely to attempt perilous journeys to Europe, with audio from a phone call between Ronald Reagan and Hafez al-Assad which never seems to get past the phone operators attempting to connect. The repetitive audio of a conversation thwarted by macho pride, combined with images of people idly waiting for what may be their deaths, creates a powerful 20-minute meditation on powerlessness, stagnancy and the absurd ineptitude of politics in the face of bare life.
In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain
The eerie, dreamlike aesthetic of this 30-minute sci-fi video essay is wonderfully refreshing; it looks like something that simultaneously takes place in the past, the future, and outside of the confines of time and space, which is appropriate for a film that playfully subverts reality and how nationalist narratives are constructed. For her clear allegory to the attempted erasure of Palestinian identity, Larissa Sansour constructs a fictional narrative centered around a resistance group that attempts to plant large deposits of porcelain to prove the existence of an (entirely fictional) past civilization.
Marouan Omara retrospective
Twenty-nine-year-old Marouan Omara is one of the more active and interesting directors on the Egyptian film scene now. He has been steadily producing short and mid-length films for the past decade, and has more recently found his calling as someone who makes collaborative work (most of his films are co-directed) and takes joy in a non-linear narratives that blur fiction and reality. Two of his latest shorts screen at the festival: The Visit (2013), a collaboration with his partner photographer Nadia Mounier and filmmaker Islam Kamal, and One Plus One Makes a Pharaohs Chocolate Cake (2017). Both were initially commissioned films that the filmmakers then took into another direction, and both interrogate the complex relationships that form between European funding bodies and the local context.
Maroun Baghdadi retrospective
It’s not easy to find the works of this late Lebanese director, whose creative career coincided almost exactly with the Civil War and whose oeuvre therefore consists of many works shot amid and about the conflict. So catch as many as you can. Baghdadi, a prolific director who had formative experiences working with Coppola and Scorsese (and was himself filmed by Wim Wenders), often tackled masculinity’s relationship with violence. Some of the films may now be seen more as fascinating novelties than anything else (like Little Wars, a soap opera-like story about love in war with self-consciously arthouse mannerisms), while others are great, probing films (Out of Life, for example — a questioning, sympathetic film that is also a realistic, gripping thriller telling the real story of a French photographer taken hostage by Hezbollah).