A Rare Physical Treat in Pandemic Times

in 42nd Cairo International Film Festival

by Anders E Larsson

About cinematic gems and encounters at Cairo International Film Festival 2020

What is a film festival, really? The films are the primary reason for arranging a festival, but, if anything, this extraordinary year has proved that the available online and streaming technologies are capable of delivering excellent screening opportunities to your very own armchair, in the sanctuary of your home. If you choose to arrange a physical festival, it is a given that it has to be so much more than its films. The surrounding activities and unfiltered, analogue encounters are at the heart of the festival.

Certainly, big screen projections are still a preferable format in terms of a pristine audiovisual setting, but the true reason behind the unique cinema theatre experience is founded in the human perspective: to take part in a screening together with other people is a shared sense, in real time, of mirroring your interpretation of the unfolding events in the reactions of others – in a way that you are never able to achieve with your laptop in front of you and tightly squeezed headphones on top of your head.

Another major trick in the manual of the typical film festival is the prolonged screening experience, the ongoing conversation with a multitude of known and unknown spectators and visitors after the actual film has ended. A film festival presents the perfect layout for engaging dialogue between creators, audience, the film industry, and pundits.

The year 2020 has not offered many chances for these kind of meetings, and with the strange presence of an isolating pandemic year hovering around us, it felt almost otherworldly to get the opportunity to actually travel in the flesh to the 42nd edition of Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) during ten days in December.

As one of the very few full-scale festival endeavors of last year, Cairo was a gift to the larger film community in these trying times. There was a tangible outpour of enthusiasm and energy among the attending critics, filmmakers and festival staff; it was hard to believe that, like in the old pre-Covid days, it was still possible to engage in face-to-face conversations about films. This special atmosphere turned CIFF 42 into a rare treat.

The 15 films in the international competition (14 features and one documentary) covered 13 countries and topics such as suicide pacts, mentally devastating grief, far-reaching psychological effects of terrorist attacks, return to society after time spent in prison, demolition of a landmark neighborhood, complexities of migration, racism and issues of social classes, nature versus shortsighted profits, and life after a career as a professional athlete.

The inclusion of just one documentary could perhaps be perceived as a bit odd. Is it, in fact, possible to judge fiction films and documentaries side by side, using the same critical glasses? Obviously, the reason for including the Egyptian filmmaker Mayye Zayed’s doc Lift Like a Girl (2020), lies in the fact that it is shot in Egypt and deals with successful female weightlifters of Alexandria; the film itself is a compelling and upbeat story of breaking boundaries and going against stereotypes. Lift Like a Girl premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and received its MENA (Middle East and North Africa) premiere at CIFF. The colorful, larger-than-life character Captain Ramadan, who trained and fostered numerous Olympic and World champions on a rundown corner-lot over the course of two decades, is the loudmouthed but caring motor of the film. Marian Mentrup’s propulsive film score is worth a special mention, and in Cairo, the film received three distinctions: two cash awards and the Bronze Pyramid for best first or second work.

In the Russian director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy’s Conference (Konferentsiya, 2020) (Silver Pyramid for Best director), we experience a reenactment of a traumatic hostage situation in a Moscow theatre. The narrative revolves around the siege at the Dubrovka Theatre in October 2002, where Chechen separatists held 850 people while demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Around 200 people died as a result of the siege, and in Conference the nun Natasha, a survivor, invites other survivors to take part in a therapeutic re-telling of the events in the actual theatre building. The purpose turns out to be a quite personal project for Natasha, and in Natalya Pavlenko’s stern portrayal there is an underlying brutality that increases all through the film’s 129 minutes. Pavlenko received the Best Actress award, and the acting is truly the strong part in Conference, as the sheer length and dramaturgic aspects of the film doesn’t fully work to its advantage.

The competition saw a couple of world premieres, among them German Lessons (2020) by the Bulgarian director Pavel G. Vesnakov. A solid piece of social realism about the ex-con Nicola who plans to leave Bulgaria for a new life in Germany. Julian Vergov garnered the award for Best Actor for an edgy and well-meaning depiction of a flawed character.

Two Egyptian feature films made their world debut on home soil: Islam El Azzazi’s About Her (2020) and Amir Ramses’ Curfew (2020), both with female leads. El Azzazi’s attempt to externalize the inner turmoil of a grieving widow – suffering a mental breakdown – falls short and ends up lining up images and sequences that lack dramatic development. Ramses’ story follows the homecoming of an elderly woman, fresh out of jail, and the reunification with her daughter’s family and her own troubled past.  Ilham Shahine shared the award for Best Actress with Natalya Pavlenko. Shahine works in a very different acting tradition, where bigger expressions and gestures are a part of the mix. Curfew as a film is, at times, a peculiar genre blend with comical elements, while its overall affinity to melodrama is noticeable.

The Mexican film 50 or Two Whales Meet on the Beach (50 o Dos Ballenas se Encuentran en la Playa, 2020), written and directed by Jorge Cuchi, was an equally problematic and engaging contender (and earned Cuchi the Naguib Mahfouz Award for Best Screenplay). Well crafted and executed, the story traces two youngsters who engage in a suicide pact and trigger each other to perform gruesome actions. With no shortage of graphic depictions of killings and bloody acts, paired with the youngsters’ detachment from reality, it undoubtedly hits a nerve. Is this what the lost, social media savvy youth of today look like? Has the society and the parents of our day and age nothing to offer? No consolation?

Another world premiere, and my personal runner-up, surely deserved a better destiny in the international competition: the Chinese eco- and brotherhood drama Anima (Mo Er Dao Ga, 2020), by first time writer-director Cao Jin-Ling. With the effects of deforestation and climate tampering looming in the background, Cao melds together modern forestry and ancient ways of life with the story of two brothers who choose different paths. Beautiful cinematography captures the snowy and golden Chinese woodlands, and along with strong actors the film leaves a deep and contemporary emotional impact. No awards were handed out to Anima, which must be seen as an unfortunate snub.

Therefore, it is satisfying that arguably the best film in competition also walked away with no less than three distinctions: Golden Pyramid Award for Best Film, Henry Barakat Award for Best Artistic Contribution, and The International Federation of Film Critics (The FIPRESCI) Award. Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock’s second feature Limbo (2020) tackles issues of migration, escape, and the longing for a proper place to call one’s own, to call home. Sharrock deploys a profound sense of humanity and deadpan humor in his perfectly executed tale of how people are affected by being in a state of immobility, waiting for either being accepted as a member of a new community or being sent back to the dire place you fled from. The remote island setting provides a congenial backdrop where the atmosphere of actual isolation and time standing still is utterly palpable.

As of now, Limbo has yet to be picked up for proper distribution. “Why wait?” is the cinematic message to any serious distributor, as the film is a global-reaching gem for our troubled times that deserves to have a spot in the regular (streaming) repertoire.  Limbo is a hopeful and soulful way to start 2021.

Anders E Larsson
Edited by Robert Horton