“Nothing is real, except the hazard.”
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Cairo International Film Festival is the greatest assembly of Arab cinema in Africa. Supported by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and strongly sponsored by MobiNil, the leading mobile-phone operator in Egypt, the festival has been directed for its past 22 years by a woman, Soheir Abdel Kader.
Here, in Cairo, the news is flying. I learned of a dear friend, Tunisian director Taib Louhichi, paralyzed in a car crash while scouting locations for his next film.I last saw him in Cairo two years ago, when he introduced his last film, La Danse du Vent, in the competitive program. I heard about the death of the Algerian director Mohamed Bouamari, an old friend I’d known since my first Cannes festival, back in the seventies. I learned about the disruption of the shooting of Jo-Youssef Chahine’s newest film, due to his ill health.
And I made a new friend in Mahrez Karoui, the Tunisian member of the FIPRESCI jury. It was his first participation in a Jury abroad, and he passionately shared the latest from the Carthage film festival, and discussed the Tunisian cinema.
Both of us met French-speaking Egyptian critics: An old friend, Sobhi Shafeek, who for years had been living in Paris, proudly offered us the first issues of “Film Realm”, a new quarterly magazine launched to mark the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Egyptian Film Critics Association (EFCA), of which he is the President. We met Dina Galal and Hala Al Mawy, two brilliant female film critics, and Ali Abu Shadi, President of the Egyptian Film Centre and Head of the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Short Films. (Ismailia is a small city near the Suez Channel.)
The second FIPRESCI jury to sit at Cairo, we saw eighteen films in the competitive program — a selection without any African entries, and without any films from the Middle East but three Egyptian features! Instead, the selections included a large number of commercial films, some very light fare, and TV programming.
Of the eighteen, we discovered three pearls. But only one work so strongly imposed itself that it was the unanimous choice for our award: Patricia Arriaga-Jordan’s The Last Gaze (La Ultima Mirada). The Mexican director’s first full-length feature — made at the age of fifty-two — offers a master class in a complex theme that the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty would appreciate: The theme of perception. Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour; Godard’s First Name: Carmen (Prénom Carmen); even Kiju Yoshida’s Women in the Mirror (Kagami no onnatachi) — all have considered this concept. Arriaga Jordan’s The Last Gaze belongs among them.
Her main character, a painter masterfully played the Catalan actor Sergi Mateu, is on the verge of blindness, which means his perception of the world must be experienced through his other senses. For him, Beauty and Art can have a different kind of attraction than the customarily shown angle, mainly used in advertising: the eyesight. But the director’s interest is in the encroaching inevitability of the painter’s failing eyesight, and his desperate search for the color red — the only one able to keep a dying retina alive. The Last Gaze tells the story of the improbable intersection of a book of photography — illustrating the work of the Chinese poet Hua-Lan Pei-Ji — and a brothel somewhere in the Mexican desert. Both the book and the brothel have the same name: “La Nao de China”, the Chinese Ship. (Somewhat tellingly, this is also the title of one of Arriaga Jordan’s short films.)
The Last Gaze also turns on another improbable collision of destinies — those of an aging painter, Homero, and a young girl, Mei, the daughter of a prostitute. The Last Gaze makes a radical break with the tradition of Mexican cinema — which often is realist or even hyperrealist, as in Arturo Ripstein’s work — for a more infrequently explored approach, as in The Last Gaze, exploring the idea that a spiritual state can be achieved through art.
On the other hand, our jury regrets the lack of opportunity to mention the Sri Lankan filmmaker’s Prasanna Jayakody’s inspirational debut, the Buddhist essay Introspection (Sankara), or Marta, the thesis film from young Moravian director Marta Novakova, produced at the famous Prague cinema school FAMU, set in an intentionally non-specific war zone.
The 30th Cairo International Film Festival opened in the splendour of an incredible dinner at the recently restored Mohammed Ali Pasha’s Palace, with nearly one thousand guests in attendance – among them Omar Sharif, the festival’s Honorary President, Charles Aznavour, Jacqueline Bisset and Danny Glover. (All celebrities were invited by Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian Minister of Culture.) On the opposite side, the festival ended in austerity.
I would also like to share a bit of personal suffering: I was dismayed at the pitiful French participation at Cairo, especially during a period when the front pages of the Egyptian dailies — in Arabic, English and French — were devoted to coverage of their nation’s pride at President Hosni Moubarak’s trip to Paris, meeting President Jacques Chirac and Ségolène Royal, and attending the opening of the prestigious exhibition The Sunken Treasures of Alexandria at the Grand Palais, all to consolidate the privileged relations between Egypt and France.