Cairo Cinema Days 3: Our recommendations
 
 

2018 was a prolific year for Arab cinema, as evident from the line-up of this year’s Cairo Cinema Days. The third edition of the Zawya-organized event (the first to be hosted in their new space) promises a rich viewing experience for film lovers in the city, with its comprehensive program of narrative features, documentaries, shorts and restored classics.

In this guide, we offer a list of titles we think you should see, either because they are undeniably well-crafted films, topical works that are likely to get you thinking, or manifestations of a unique approach to the art of filmmaking.

Cairo Cinema Days 3 runs until April 16 in Zawya and Zamalek Cinema.

 

Narrative features

The Day I Lost My Shadow

2018 | Soudade Kaadan | Syria, Lebanon, France, Qatar

In a Damascus neighborhood during the early days of the war, Sanaa (Sawsan Arsheed) leads a tense, solitary life with her only son, Khalil (Ahmad Morhaf Al-Ali). With her husband working abroad, she is practically a single mother. We see her struggle to provide a semblance of a normal life for her child, rushing to beat the power cuts and water rationing in order to get the laundry done in the film’s opening sequence. It sets the tone perfectly, establishing the unique bond between mother and son, as well as the urgency that prompts Sanaa to join siblings Reem (Reham Al-Kassar) and Jalal (Samer Ismael) on a dangerous trip to secure a gas cylinder so she can cook for Khalil.

Sanaa, Reem and Jalal end up stranded in the outskirts of the city with no way of returning, and it is then that Sanaa realizes Jalal has no shadow, and we come to understand the significance of the film’s title: those who have been traumatized by the war, who have viscerally experienced its weight, lose their shadows, along with their fear. And even though Sanaa has been touched by the war, it is clear she has not fully grasped it the way Jalal has, and so we are hooked: When — and how — is Sanaa going to lose her own shadow?

What follows is a rich, slow build-up to that moment, set in a world where elements of cinema verité and magical realism intertwine in a manner that is not always successful but remains intriguing nonetheless. One scene, in which Sanaa joins the village women of a family that hosts her and Reem for the night as they dig graves for the men who have left to join a protest, offers some of the most powerful imagery to come out of the region this past year.

Director Soudade Kaadan’s background as a documentary filmmaker (this is her first narrative feature) is clear in the grittiness with which she captures her characters’ reality. This aspect of the film is more gripping than its metaphorical dimension, as the symbolism of the shadow as a concept remains underdeveloped throughout. Yet the real edge to The Day I Lost My Shadow is its unconventional treatment of the conflict in Syria, how it permeates the film so entirely and yet is never mentioned in direct terms, like a constant, humming threat in the background — abstract but ever present.

The Day I Lost My Shadow won the Lion of the Future award in last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Saturday, April 13 at 9pm — Zawya (Screen 1)
Monday, April 15 at 7pm — Zamalek Cinema

 

Yara 

2018| Abbas Fahdel | Lebanon, France, Iraq

Iraqi director Abbas Fahdel’s fifth cinematic endeavor is a relative departure from the usual themes he has previously tackled. He creates a film that probes the space between narrative and documentary without directly concerning himself with revealing or explaining — or even engaging with — any factual aspects of the story. Rather, with little intervention or imposition, he takes reality as a window through which he contemplates the relationship of the image as a visual context to the space it conveys and the individuals who move within it.

As a director, he takes a step backwards to preserve the unity, spontaneity and organic flow of the surroundings, making do with observing and tending to this natural continuity until it reaches a point of completion. Perhaps this explains why Fahdel was keen on assuming almost every creative role involved in making this film, from writing, filming and directing to editing and sound design.

The film takes as its starting point a simple love story that develops between a village girl living with her grandmother in a remote mountain village in Lebanon, and an outsider who stumbles upon their house by chance on one of his strolls in the mountainside. Right from the start, it is easy to see that the film does not aspire to realism — not in its approach to the events or the characters — and neither does it promise any dramatic build-up, escalation or plot twists. It merely seeks to trace the regular rhythm of people in Wadi Qadisha, in what can be seen as a documentation of daily life in the area. Indeed, all of the characters in the film — with the exception of Michelle Wahba, who plays Yara, and Elias Freifer, who plays Elias — are inhabitants of the village.

The recurring panoramic scenes of the valley’s natural beauty make every event taking place in the film appear small before it, as though the drama cannot independently exist beyond such a formidable environment. The film almost effortlessly maintains the natural workings of the space in a romantic melange between the developing love story and the corresponding consonance between humankind and nature. A sense of peace and tranquility dominates Yara and Elias’s mountain strolls and their discovery of the village — they foray into empty houses without trouble, they sleep wherever they wish with no hassle. The director does not resort to traditional romance tropes, foregoing a musical score and relying only on the sounds of nature to enhance this state of harmony with nature. The dialogue, too, is minimal throughout the film.

Yara premiered in last year’s edition of the Locarno International Film Festival.

Saturday, April 13 at 7pm — Zawya (Screen 2)

 

Weldi (Dear Son) 

2018 | Mohamed Ben Attia | Tunisia, France, Belgium, Qatar

In Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia’s second feature, his follow-up to 2016’s successful Hedi, a sensitive depiction of a fraught family situation unexpectedly turns into an insightful commentary on contemporary jihadism, and the weight and meaning of fatherhood in a world riddled with violence.

Riadh (played by Mohamed Dhrif in a powerfully moving performance) is a crane operator nearing retirement, who leads a seemingly stable domestic life with his wife, Nazli (Mouna Mejri) and their son, Sami (Zakaria Ben Ayed), who is preparing for his Baccalaureate exams. Nothing appears to disturb the humdrum of the family’s daily routine except for Sami’s migraines, which Riadh attributes to regular pre-finals stress, even after Sami asks to see a psychiatrist.

It is clear that Riadh is a non-confrontational person, who — despite his evident love and concern for his child — is unwilling to deal with the possibility of something deeper being wrong with Sami, or with his own life. When his close friend, Sameh (Imen Chérif) — who works with him on the docks and frequently jokes about men and sex — suggests he is not paying enough attention to his wife, he is reluctant to acknowledge any issues in his marriage. And so when Sami disappears one night, leaving behind a message that says he has gone to Syria (to join the Islamic State, as is subtly implied), it is Riadh who is suddenly faced with the ultimate test.

The next half of the film is devoted to Riadh’s search for Sami, which takes him all the way to the perilous Turkish-Syrian border, despite Nazli’s hysterical pleas for him not to abandon her like their son. The night before he is set to cross into IS territory, he encounters an old man who correctly assumes he’s looking for a son who has joined the jihadists, yet Riadh insists, “My son has nothing to do with those people, my son is a good boy.”

It takes a painful, haunting moment of realization for Riadh to grasp that he has lost his “good boy,” and that while his love for him may be boundless, his ability to protect him is excruciatingly limited. It is the same moment where we, the audience, realize that Weldi is not the standard family drama it appears to be in the beginning, nor is it a thriller about war or terrorism, as we fleetingly suspect it to become. Rather, it is a nuanced character study of an ordinary father who suddenly has to deal with extraordinary circumstances.

The film, which at times seems to unfold too slowly, is carried almost entirely on the shoulders of Dhrif’s masterful performance, which lends layers of depth to an already hefty role. A minimal yet evocative score by Omar Aloulou accentuates the father’s struggle, steering clear from melodrama and keeping it grounded in the simplicity of the life that Riadh was snatched from by his son’s disappearance.

Ultimately, the most compelling question posed by Weldi, despite its politically charged context, is a rather basic, human one: What becomes of a father when he can no longer practice his fatherhood?

Weldi was screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight selection in last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Thursday, April 11 at 9pm — Zawya (Screen 1)
Sunday, April 14 at 7pm — Zamalek Cinema

 

Sofia 

2018 | Meryem Benm’Barek | France, Qatar

Director Meryem Benm’Barek takes an unflinching look at Moroccan society by zooming in on Section 490 of the Morrocan penal code — which states that extramarital sex is a crime punishable by law — offering an incisive portrait of class relations in the country. Through a solid, nuanced screenplay, Benm’barek picks apart the religious and political contradictions at play, particularly the ingrained patriarchal traditions that define all social forms of the “family,” along with the feminist values that challenge them at every turn.

Sofia (Maha Alemi) is a 20-year-old woman living with her family in Casablanca. She has extramarital sex and finds herself in a predicament when signs of her pregnancy begin to show. Her med-student cousin, Lena (Sarah Perles) helps her navigate the situation, and the hospital where Sofia gives birth allows them just one day to prove the identity of the father, while authorities investigate the matter. We find out that the father, Omar (Hamza Khafif), comes from a less privileged social background than Sofia, creating a telling dynamic when Sofia’s family insists the two should get married.

Family has always been central to authority in Arab societies, and so it is often used as a starting point to tackle wider social and political issues. From Sofia’s familial ordeal, Benm’barek opens up broader concerns about the role of the western world, France in particular, and its place in the consciousness of the Maghreb. She presents Moroccan society in a confrontation with its gravest moral dilemmas, effectively employing jump cuts to create a tense, gripping rhythm whereby only pivotal moments — the beats essential to the film’s dramatic development — make it to the screen.

In Sofia, each class of Moroccan society — complete with its fears, philosophies and aspirations — gets due representation, as manifested in the solution posed by each character, driven by specific social urges. Everyone From Sofia’s father to Omar’s mother to Lena, everyone has stakes to consider and to protect. In a sense, complicity is presented as the only viable solution.

Sofia won last year’s Best Screenplay award in the Un Certain Regard selection at the Cannes Film Festival, and was later screened in Cairo International Film Festival’s Critics’ Week.

Friday, April 12 at 7pm — Zamalek Cinema

 

The Tower 

2018 | Mats Grorud | Norway, Sweden, France

Young men hanging out at the entrances of narrow alleyways, cramped houses with balconies touching the skies. Director Mats Grorud begins his animated story with small, poetic details from the daily lives of the inhabitants of Burj al-Barajneh, one of the biggest, most populous refugee camps in Lebanon. The film, a sprawling saga spanning multiple generations of Palestinians in search of hope, is inspired by stories Norweigan-born director gathered during a stay in the camp.

The events begin in the present day. Wardi is a young girl who lives at the camp with her family, but is most attached to her grandfather, Sidi, who decides to give her the keys to the family home in Galilee. With that, we are taken along a poignant journey into the memory of the Palestinian people, starting in early 1948 through five pivotal chapters in the history of Wardi’s family, leading up to 1986, 38 years after the Nakba, when the refugee camps were attacked by Lebanese militia.

Using two different animation techniques (stop motion and 2D) and through expressive character design, the film’s animation team succeeds in capturing the features of pain and defeat, particularly with the grandfather, paying attention to such details as skin texture and body language. A uniquely vivid soundtrack transports viewers straight into the world of the camp, aided by masterfully layered production design, and is definitely the film’s strongest feature. We seamlessly move through the camp’s every nook and cranny — at any given point, if you look over Wardi’s shoulder, you will see a carefully constructed background, be it a long, winding alley or kids engaged in conversation, and if you look upwards, young people flying pigeons and flower pots on window sills.

This story of a young generation striving to resist and find meaning, and an older one cultivating the land and searching for something to hold on to, is one that is certainly worth experiencing.

The Tower was nominated for the Golden Pyramid in last year’s edition of the Cairo International Film Festival.

Saturday, April 13 at 1.30pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

 

Documentary

Habb Barri (Wild Relatives)

2018 | Jumana Manna | Lebanon, Germany, Norway

To preserve the world’s agricultural biodiversity, the Global Seed Vault on the Arctic Ocean island of Svalbard, Norway (often referred to as the “Doomsday Vault”) holds backup specimens of the world’s seeds, in case the other gene banks keeping them in other parts of the world are ever under threat. This is exactly what happened to the one in Aleppo in 2015, after the uprising that had engulfed the country devolved into a brutal civil war. To make up for the loss of the seeds, the safe-guarded copies were brought back from Svalbard to be replanted in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, in an effort to re-establish the bank there. The idea was to re-cultivate the crops then return the seeds to the Global Vault, and, not so surprisingly, it is a group of Syrian women refugees who ended up performing that labor in the hot, sprawling fields.

In her striking documentary, Habb Barri (Wild Relatives), Palestinian director Jumana Manna attempts to make such a complicated premise more accessible by explaining the process herself, in sparse voiceover narration, directly addressing the audience. She intersperses the interviews that permeate the film with wide, picturesque shots of nature, both in the frosty Arctic and the dry Beqaa Valley, where stalks of wheat dance in the breeze. It is a clear intervention by the director to add a touch of poetry to an otherwise cerebral experience, peppered with technical information and laden with political undertones.

These carefully composed frames add an extra layer to the film: it becomes a lamentation of our planet’s beauty, so intertwined with the environmental challenges that threaten it. But this isn’t the only dimension where the director’s standpoint comes through; Wild Relatives also operates as a deeper examination of the motives that drive the companies and governments behind such preservation efforts, and their effect on individual farmers in places like the Beqaa Valley, some of whom have their own selections of seeds and self-devised trading systems.

Manna’s presence is also evident in her treatment of the women refugees toiling in the fields, who she films with a degree of intimacy absent from her otherwise observational approach. She asks one of them if she knows how to cook mulukhiyya, and the girl laughs before describing how she makes the dish. This affinity translates in other scenes, where Manna shows the girls as they coyly smoke cigarettes and giggle, or dance in the fields while they work. This portrayal lays the groundwork for one of the film’s other pressing questions: Is such preservation work really that noble if it is dependent on displaced individuals whose presence in the valley is actually helping other farmers get richer by building refugee camps? Can any good really come out of such a tragic situation?

Crisp, intelligent and captivating, Wild Relatives is part-investigative report, part-contemplation on climate change and part-unusual take of the repercussions of the war in Syria.

Wild Relatives premiered in last year’s Forum selection at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Wednesday, April 10 at 6.30pm  — Zawya (Screen 2)

Erased, Ascent of the Invisible

2018 | Ghassan Halwani | Lebanon

In his debut documentary feature, animation artist Ghassan Halwani takes on some sensitive episodes of the Lebanese Civil War which are still shrouded in mystery, including cases of forced disappearances, estimated in some accounts at 17,000.

The disappeared are counted as alive in government records to this day, with no definitive fate for them or their loved ones. Throughout the film, Halwani attempts to experience the paradoxical states generated by this official data. Through his interrogative mission, Hawlani creates a process of removal and omission,  resembling a sort of “live décollage,” where an image gradually takes shape as certain parts of it are cut out.

Halwani’s narrative is built around an incident he himself witnessed: a man he knew was kidnapped and, years later, he thought he saw that same man in a crowd. He traces the contours of this phantasmic encounter by utilizing cinema to create a real document of the disappeared. He achieves this by revisiting memories and analyzing the routes of disappearance and questioning the official narrative.

The film opens with a still shot of an empty space, which we soon realize belongs to the man who was kidnapped but has been manipulated to conceal other people who were in it. This image is accompanied by a conversation between Halwani and a man who we later find out is the one who captured the photograph. Nothing appears in the image save for ghostly remains — a hat, shoes and a text on the wall. Halwani’s cinematic reworking of the image imbues it with an aura of magnetism, strengthening its emotional impact by involving the audience in the process of searching for clues among the missing details.

The film employs a number of visual tools — photographs, drawings, maps, text, and animation, as well as documentation techniques — to create a charged rhythm that reflects the tension and urgency underlying his attempt to understand what happened. The only human faces which appear in the film are those of the disappeared, creating a feeling of continued presence within their absence. Halwani also engages with the concept of collective memory — and the role played by the passage of time in disguising damage — by using repetitive sequences of news clippings and audio-visual reports on mass graves and the numbers of missing people. The result is an intriguing, well-crafted piece of cinema.

In addition to a notable mention from the jury in last year’s Locarno Film Festival, Erased, Ascent of the Invisible took home the award for Best Documentary from France’s Cinemed Festival, the Bronze Tanit award at the Carthage Film Festival, and the award for Best Artistic Contribution in last year’s Cairo International Film Festival’s Critics Week.

Monday, April 15 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 2)

 

Still Recording 

2018 | Saeed Al-Batal and Ghiath Ayoub | Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, France, Germany

Still Recording is the story of two best friends, Saeed and Milad, who are both studying art. Saeed decides to leave Damascus and join forces with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Douma, and Milad follows him shortly after. Milad is preoccupied with the meaning and possibility of producing art under such circumstances, while Saeed is concerned with searching for truth through the lens of his camera and his conversations with rebels. The film captures some meetings the rebels hold within the Free Syrian Army, and the mistrust some of them harbor of the leadership forces who do not achieve much success on the ground.  

Two of 500 hours of footage (taken between 2011 and 2015) make it to the final cut, and played over a changing timeline, edited so we can acutely feel the lumbering passage of time between each shot. We hear the sounds of explosions and humming aircraft overhead, we witness moments of relative lightness between the rebels at night, we watch their multiple retreats and their victories, few and far between. Abrupt cuts highlight the contrast between scenes of normal daily life in Damascus and violent death in Eastern Ghouta.

At its heart, the film is an indictment of war, but also an attempt to problematize the notion of revolution and the rationale put forth by the rebels. Discussions and debates about the right of the regime vs the right of the rebels over the streets take place in ongoing conversations between one of the soldiers in the Free Syrian Army and another soldier in the regime forces over a radio device. The regime soldier is the one voice defending the state and its supporters, and we hear it over heavy static and a choppy signal. The rest of the film is dedicated to analyzing the voices of the opposition and deconstructing allegiances, as well as scrutinizing the media service offices that popped up all over Syria to cover minute-by-minute news.

Above all, Still Recording is a quest for truth in the life that remains amid the rubble, one that questions the politics of image production within the context of independent Syrian media outlets aligned with the opposition, particularly in relation to affect.

Still Recording took home the Audience Award in last year’s Venice Film Festival’s Critics Week.

Saturday, April 13 at 4.30pm — Zawya (Screen 2)


You Come from Far Away 

2018 | Amal Ramsis | Egypt, Lebanon, Spain, Qatar

In her fourth documentary feature, director Amal Ramsis follows the life of a family whose understanding of each other is hampered by language. She joins them on a long journey across a history of pain, tension, and the search for a place of belonging: from Moscow to Athens and Jerusalem then onto Spain. In search of a family forgotten at a time of war, in affirmation of roots scattered around the world, in a quest to examine the question of continued revolution, the end of war, and the beginning of memory, the film is also a story of anti-fascist resistance in every corner of the globe

In her editing process, Ramsis tried to define departure and interpret memory. She uses vivid imagery of roads that never seem to end as a visual stand-in for being constantly on the move, and close shots of the elder sister’s wrinkled skin as a representation of age. She establishes the audio-visual language of the film through rapid cuts between the past and the present, deconstructing the concept of time through a visual narrative that features scenes from the present juxtaposed with sound and text depicting stories from the past, most notably those told by freedom fighters. Perhaps this contrast/collation is in itself a direct critique of neoliberalism and the ideals of modernity as compared to the glorified mention of the communist revolution and leftist ideals.

Using archival footage of Palestine during the Nakba and of Arab presence in both camps of the Spanish Civil War, as well as some quick establishing shots of the 2003 Iraq War, You Come from Far Away conveys a long, tortuous tale spanning several conflicts and revolutions across the world. It is a sad, painful story that emphasizes the damaging effects of imperialism, among which was the manipulation of Arabs in wars among other countries. Ramsis manages to make it an engaging and uplifting experience, nonetheless, as she takes us along on that enlightening trek around the world.

She also addresses the concept of the archive — a pressing question for many Arab directors as of late: we can identify a common thread between this film and other contemporary Arab cinematic works, such as Mary Jermanius Saba’s A Feeling Greater than Love (2017) and Mohamed Rashad’s Little Eagles (2016).  

Sunday, April 14 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 1)


Samouni Road

2018 | Stefano Savona | Italy, France

Farag doesn’t want Islamic songs played at his wedding, he wants to keep everyone happy with patriotic songs as he’s worried about being affiliated with a certain political party. Yet this caution, which is shared by the entire Samouni family, who take pride in being farmers who keep to themselves, not fighters, does not spare them from the brutality of Israeli raids: 29 members of the family were killed by Israeli forces in 2009 in what Israel calls Operation Cast Lead and Hamas refers to as The Battle of al-Furqan.

At the time, Italian director Stefano Savona was in Gaza shooting another film when he met the family, only ten days after the massacre. He decided to stay and film the surviving members as they prepared for the funerals and roamed among the ruins of their homes, trying to salvage whatever remained. Farag, the son of one of the martyrs, has to delay his wedding. The director returns a year later after learning that the family was getting ready for Farag’s postponed wedding. His younger sister, Amal, who survived the raids with an injury, leads us through the wedding preparations as she recounts what happened.

Despite having enough material for his film, the director’s documentary project of post-war life in Gaza is delayed, because before he can finish it, he finds himself in Tahrir Square in January 2011, documenting the Egyptian revolution instead. The result was Tahrir: Liberation Square, a film that carries the same poetic and hopeful spirit characteristic of that period.

In 2013, Savoni revisits the material for his older film, but this time he wonders how he can tackle the past. The raid might have devastated the family, but must his film, too, deprive them of their loved ones? That is when he decides to collaborate with illustrator Simone Massi, and they agree on using animation to go back in time. They create black and white oil paintings that capture certain moments from the memories of those who survived. The film restores moments Amal and Farag shared with their father, Attiya, where he speaks to them of the pigeons he raises and the olive trees the family grows. Such scenes, in addition to re-enacted shots of the attack — filmed by drones then overlaid with illustrations based on the family’s narration — are deeply moving.

The same way Savoni uses animation to go back in time, he inverts the timeline of events in the editing process choosing to start the film in the moment preceding the wedding. We see the members of the Samouni family float through semi-houses and semi-roads — a semi-family attempting to move on. It is a rebellion against the linearity of time, one laced with the knowledge that it must continue nonetheless.

There’s an air of primitiveness in the imagery of Samouni Road — he making of bread, children playing around the olive trees, the joy of getting running water in the houses, the flies that do not stop tormenting the characters of the film. But this primitiveness does not fall into the trap of romanticism or metaphor. Rather, it achieves a sense of rawness that makes you feel you’ve jumped right into the daily rhythm of actual life there in all its calmness and  vigor. Some have compared the film with Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine’s Gaza Surf Club (2016) in the way it offers viewers an alternative visual narrative of Gaza. But Samouni Road may well be the most honest group portrait of this region that we’ve seen in a while.

Tuesday, April 16 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 2)

 

Restored Classics

Omar Gatlato 

1976| Merzak Allouache | Algeria

The first film by prominent Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache, Omar Gatlato is a landmark of Arab cinema. When it was released, it was considered a unique experiment in terms of both form and content, particularly at a time when most cinematic productions took place within pre-determined formulas that glorified the revolution, the socialist experience, and president Houari Boumediene’s agricultural reforms — a trend that reached its peak in 1975, when Algerian director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s boldness is evident in its very title, which translates to “Omar whose masculinity killed him” in colloquial Algerian. The protagonist, Omar (Boualem Benani) is an employee in his late twenties. He is funny yet vaguely mysterious when he speaks about his daily routine and his relationships at work, as he directly addresses the camera. One senses from the very start that Omar is a creature of the periphery, that he has not yet come into actual contact with life’s more challenging complications.

In its portrayal of the difficulty Omar faces in meeting women in spite of his rampant fantasies, the film sheds light on a crisis in Algerian society, which, unlike the vision propagated by the state’s narrative at the time, was actually disintegrating under the weight of corruption. The film also poses a number of questions regarding art, particularly that of state-sponsored types of art in comparison to more local forms of artistic expression. We see the film’s young characters mock the fusha-speaking actors in a play but listen in awe when shaabi singer Abdelkader Chaoui comes on stage.

In another memorable scene, where Omar is watching a melodramatic Indian film in the cinema before the screen goes up in flames, Allouache zooms in on typical masculine behavior within movie theaters, from smoking drugs to sexual harassment. The film is, in a way, a satirical documentation of life in Algiers during the 1970s, with Omar’s voice over narration acting as a vehicle for the mental and emotional struggles of the time. Overall, the film’s soundtrack manages to be a rich, honest and vivid amalgam of the world in which the film takes place.

Omar Gatlato was screened during the Critics’ Week at the 30th edition of the Cannes Film Festival and won the Silver Prize at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival.

Sunday, April 14 at 9pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

 

Ila Ayn? (Where to?)

1957 | Georges Nasser | Lebanon

A turning point in the history of Lebanese cinema, Ila Ayn? is considered the first “real” Lebanese film — in terms of production scale and value — that seriously deals with a matter of public interest in Lebanon (in this case, it’s immigration). It was also the first Lebanese production to ever take part in the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, giving the country a spot on the world’s cinematic map.

Even though the film is at times melodramatic, there is a certain poetic feel to it, as it explores and analyzes — at a calm and leisurely pace — the reasons behind the immigration of so many young people from Lebanon at the time. A society deeply divided over the meanings of identity and citizenship, and rife with conflicts between radically contradicting ideologies, left many individuals alienated, driving them to search for alternative possibilities elsewhere, particularly Latin America and the United States.

Over a timespan of 20 years, director Georges Nasser follows the story of a simple village family from the moment the husband (Chakib Khoury) gives up his land and moves to Brazil in search of a better future for his wife and kids, to the moment he returns without a penny to his name. He finds he has been forgotten by everyone and his son is trying to follow in his steps and leave the country with the same naive hopes. The film’s editing is very inventive in conveying the passage of time, as well as the country’s economic stagnation, as things hardly change at all during those years.

Nasser also focuses on certain folkloric elements of country life — from how weddings are celebrated, certain foods are cooked and tools are used — to contextualize the relationship between the people and the land. Despite the film’s clear, direct message, it never comes off as didactic, as Nasser employs stretches of silence and powerful visual metaphors to translate feelings into images.

This newly restored copy of Ila Ayn? was screened in the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its premiere in the same place.

Saturday, April 13 at 4pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

 

In conversation with Ahmed Elghoneimy 

Director Ahmed Elghoneimy’s three short films may appear to be set in worlds entirely different from one another, but the truth is they actually have much in common, with their varying depictions of masculinity and undertones of muffled violence. Each zooms in on a set of social dynamics that governs the interactions of men in a particular context or community, and the myriad ways such codes are practiced, broken or negotiated.

In Bahari (2011), Elghoneimy recreates a real incident he experienced on the streets of Alexandria, where he was held and interrogated by two local men, and he casts one of the actual assailants to play himself in the film. In The Cave (2013), he paints an imagined portrait of an old schoolmate, based on real fragments from that person’s life, and uses him to play the part of the protagonist. In his latest, Tripoli Tide (2018), the center of the film is a boy who grapples with loss on the threshold to adulthood — he, too, is not an actor, but a child Elghoneimy met on the streets of Beirut while doing a residency in Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works program.

In addition to their insight and intensity, each of Elghoneimy’s endeavors is the result of a layered and unconventional artistic process, one that has brought the Alexandrian director’s work much attention and acclaim over the past few years. He almost always starts with an idea, brings in a non-actor, and builds the project around him: his personality, his experiences, his very own rhythm. This is why the opportunity to not only watch Ghoneimy’s films but also listen to him discuss them — the concepts within them and the variables that make them work — is one not to be missed.

(All three films will be screened back-to-back, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker)

Friday, April 12 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

Osama Fawzi Retrospective

Even if one didn’t know Osama Fawzi in person, one could easily tell, from his films, what he was like: restless, intelligent, bored, angry. But his was not the kind of anger that seeks to make a statement, rather, a sort of nonchalant contempt. He was the kind of boy who would sneak out from the confines of his family house, stumble across a group of vagabonds, befriend them and forget to return home.

Yet Fawzi’s films do not necessarily pay homage to the vagabond’s way of life; they merely mock the pre-imposed norms that define ours — that particular brand of hollow, reserved formality — the practice of which reduces one’s actions to a performance or act. It is an effect that resembles death, and Fawzi devotes many scenes to portray it. People act when they follow the rules — they lose meaning but become “good” individuals, in the eyes of society, and in the eyes of God. Such ideas are evident in all three of his films. Funerals — the epitome of social performance and death — often act as dramatic peaks in his work.

In I Love Cinema (2004), the child protagonist (Youssef Osman) stands atop the mourners in his father’s funeral, and pees. In Fallen Angels’ Paradise (1999), Nonna (Amr Waked), Adel (Sari Al-Nagar) and Boussy (Saleh Fahmi) fiddle with their friend’s corpse, stealing his gold tooth to sell: the living trump the dead, after all, and Tabl (Mahmoud Hemeida) would have done the same had he been alive. That was Osama Fawzi: he revered nothing, not even death.

He turns respected employee Mounir Rasmy (Hemeida in Fallen Angels’ Paradise) into a master gambler, fooling around with a trio of ragamuffins and in love with a sex worker. He makes Nemat, the proper, conservative headmistress (Laila Elwi in I Love Cinema) paint nude women and get involved with a man who isn’t her husband. Fawzi only appreciated the wild ones, the Demons of the Asphalt;  those who would avidly listen to the barber’s stories without being worried about their time being wasted — because so what if it is?

This is an invaluable opportunity to watch Osama Fawzi’s work on the big screen.

Demons of the Asphalt | 1996
Thursday, April 11 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

Fallen Angels’ Paradise | 1999
Friday, April 12 at 4pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

I Love Cinema | 2004
Monday, April 15 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

 

Special Mentions   

The next few films may not be the best among the selection, but each stands out for one or a few elements that might make it worth your while.

aKasha

2018 | Hajooj Kuka | Sudan, South Africa, Qatar, Germany

A comedic take on the tragic reality of the Sudanese civil war, aKasha was filmed during the annual ceasefire imposed on the soldiers by the weather. In addition to its humor, there’s something interesting about watching a Sudanese film captured in such a restrictive time and place. The film premiered in last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Friday, April 12 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 2)

 

The Giraffe

2018 | Ahmed Magdy | Egypt

The Giraffe is an intriguing depiction of a dystopian Cairo, that begins with a bizarre piece of news: only two female giraffes remain in Egypt, a female in Alexandria and a male in Giza — officials are adamant on making them mate, but their trials with both of them are failing. The film’s unusual premise and experimental spirit warrant a watch.

Tuesday, April 16 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

 

Into Studio Masr

2018 | Mona Assaad | Egypt

An important document for the current generation of filmmakers grappling with production limitations in Egypt, Into Studio Masr follows the experience of a young group of film enthusiasts and professionals who take on the mission of modernizing the famed Studio Masr when it is offered up for privatization in 2000. In the film, interviews with members of this collective grant us an insightful look into the intricacies of the Egyptian film industry and the magic of cinema in general, guaranteeing an engaging watch despite the film’s classical structure.

Saturday, April 13 at 6.30pm — Zawya (Screen 1)

 

Of Fathers and Sons

2017 | Talal Derki | Syria, Lebanon, Germany

Syrian director Talal Derki documents the daily life of a radical Islamist family, where the father, a Nusra Front fighter, trains his boys to follow in his steps, preparing them for a life of Jihadism. Even though the subject matter, and the angle from which it is filmed (Derki lived with the family for two and a half years) is rather problematic, particularly at this moment in time, the Oscar-nominated film is likely to enrich the current conversation on the ethics of documentary filmmaking in such a politically turbulent context.

Tuesday, April 16 at 7pm — Zamalek Cinema

 

 

 

 

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Leila Arman 
Mohamed al-Amin 
Nour El-Mallah 
Yasmine Zohdi 
 

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