Latin American Spotlight A Swan on the Nile By Lucy Virgen

in 30th Cairo International Film Festival

by Lucy Virgen

Three women in burkas stare at an exuberant woman in a skimpy bikini who shouts to a taxi driver, “Take me to the Film Festival!” This cartoon, published in the Cairo-based, English-language Egyptian “Gazette”, neatly illustrates the schizophrenic conditions under which the city lives during the Cairo International Film Festival. Although the government censors all media within the country, the festival’s need to be taken seriously in the international arena has led to a compromise, creating special-circumstances screenings of films that would otherwise be banned, tantalizing the local press and audiences alike.

Censorship, as described by a festival programmer in an interview with “Screen” magazine, applies not only to onscreen depictions of graphic sexual content; mere references to homosexuality, politics and religion are also forbidden. Most audiences seem happy with the festival’s offerings, if some sort of passion is being expressed on the screen; meanwhile, the local press longs for films with political content. Both audiences were satisfied by the Brazilian film Zuzu Angel, the story of a mother looking for her missing son under a military dictatorship in 1970s Brazil, which was received more than warmly by locals; its director, Sergio Rezendes, was greeted with a great rush of emotion at his every public appearance.

Cairo has three competitive sections — one for productions from Arab nations, a second for international films and a third for international digital features. The non-competitive sections offer a sampling of international films and a national spotlight; in the case of this 30th edition, that spotlight was expanded to the whole of Latin America.

The focus on Latin America proved uneven, but in sync with the rest of the program, encompassing the opening night’s Brazilian film Two Sons of Francisco (2 Filhos de Francisco – A História de Zezé di Camargo & Luciano) and four films in the main competition: From Brazil, Rezendes’ Zuzu Angel; from Mexico, Patricia Arriaga-Jordán’s The Last Gaze (La Última Mirada) — winner of the FIPRESCI Jury Award — and Ramón Cervantes’ Resisting Life (La Vida Inmune), and from Argentina, Marcelo Schapses’ Speed Begets Oblivion (La Velocidad Funda el Olvido), which took the Best Actor award.

Other sections screened more than twenty Latin American films; highlights included Francisco J. Lombardi’s Black Butterfly (Mariposa Negra), Pablo Trapero’s Born and Bred (Nacido y Criado) and other festival favorites such as Ricardo Benet’s News from Afar (Noticias Lejanas), Judith Vélez’ The Trial (La Prueba), Edgard Navarro’s I Remember (Eu Me Lembro), and Ciro Guerra’s Wandering Shadows (La Sombra del Caminante).

As a tribute to Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian author and Nobel laureate who died last October, the festival also screened Jorge Fons’ Midaq Alley (El Callejón de los Milagros) and Arturo Ripstein’s The Beginning and the End (Principio y Fin). Screenings were enhanced by the presence of a dozen filmmakers, actors and producers, who also participated in a panel discussion about Latin America Cinema with jury President Luis Puenzo.

Twenty Latin American films are a lot for any festival, and in an Arab country, which doesn’t even screen Latino international hits, might even prove too much. But the films found a common ground with their audience — a passion for melodrama, a colonial past, a chaotic present, male dominance, an encompassing religiousness, all of the above? — and the filmmakers were more than welcome; every film screened to a packed house, and the lively press conferences all seemed to end the same way: “We would like to see more…”

The last five years have been good for Latin American cinema — which is, upon consideration, a somewhat antiquated term for the group of more than 20 American nations that speak Spanish or Portuguese as a mother tongue. But even in a good year, the premier film festivals have a maximum of two Latin American productions in their main sections, and perhaps four or five screening in sidebars. And unless the name in the program is “Salles”, “González Iñárritu” or “del Toro”, there is little interest in these productions.

Outside of Latin American countries, these films are almost always treated as “ugly ducklings”. Sure, they’re intelligent, well made and appealing — if not as much of an acquired taste as Iranian cinema, or as star-driven as American movies. The success of the Latin American spotlight in Cairo suggests that other markets, on other horizons, could and undoubtedly should be explored if this cinema wants to be seen as the swan it is… even when that swan is swimming on the Nile.