The Capital of Arab Cinema By Grégory Valens

in 29th Cairo International Film Festival

by Grégory Valens

One of the main film events on the African continent, the Cairo film festival, which celebrated its 29th edition, is an international festival. What distinguishes it from the other major African festivals, the Fespaco in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and the JCC in Carthage (Tunisia), is that it doesn’t focus only on African and Arab cinematographies, but presents an international competition with entries from Europe, Asia and the Americas as well as Arab and (when available) African films. This brings the festival professional recognition (it is acknowledged by FIAPF, the International Federation of Film Producers, as one of the 12 competitive international festivals of the so-called “A-category”) but also causes its limits: as there are not enough good films throughout the year to be presented in world premiere once Berlin, Cannes and Venice picked the best, the Cairo festival has to face the same programming problems which affect events such as the Moscow or Karlovy Vary festivals in Europe, or the World Film Festival of Montreal and the Mar del Plata festival in Argentina.

Whoever had to follow the entire competition programme (rather short, of 15 films) had to make his way through a Finnish childhood melodrama which seems designed to be nominated at the Oscar for best foreign film (Mother of Mine / Äidesistä parhain by Klaus Härö), academic biopics from Japan (Adan by Sho Igarashi, on modern painter Takashi Isson Tanaka) or China (A Bright Moon / Yi lun ming yue by Lu Qi, on artist and professor Li Shutong) which fail to captivate as they obviously address to audience who know these national figures, unknown to the rest of the world, or an incomprehensible Italian patchwork (Door or the Seven Stars / La porta delle sette stelle by Pasquale Pozzessere). If the French witty and deconstructed comedy The Russian Dolls (Les Poupées russes) by Cédric Klapisch or the tense, intriguing criminal thriller following the destiny of two young bank robbers, Who the Hell Are Bonnie and Clyde? (A miskolci boni és kládj) by Krisztina Deák were very enjoyable, it is eventually from the Arab and Middle-Eastern entries that came the best surprises of the festival.

The production conditions of Bader Ben Hirsi’s A New Day in Old Sanaa (Yom Jadeed fi Sana’a Qadeem) have to be mentioned, as this is officially the first film ever to have been shot in Yemen. The film deals with issues such as feminine condition, patriarchal societies, the composition of the family, but in a light and clever way: it takes the form of a comedy following the pattern of ancient plays by Plaute or Aristophanes, where quiproquos, disguises and errors change the destiny of the characters. As a young groom is forced to choose between reason (a woman he is promised to) and passion (another girl he saw dancing in the streets, without her veil), the film tends to a rather compromised resolution. But the bold attempt to make a film on women, and to have many actresses exposing themselves in a film where it is said over and over that women under their veils are not to be looked at has to be acknowledged. What the film could have definitely counted without is the point of view of the foreigner (precisely, an Italian photographer) who narrates the story and shares his ecstatic discovery of another culture. The film is much more interesting for what it tells of the Yemeni society than for what it shows of a European exploring it.

Ahlam, an Iraq/UK/Netherlands coproduction directed by Mohamed Al-Daradji, is also relevant both for its content and its production. Shot in Baghdad after the US-led war, the film shows an aspect of Iraki war during the bombings very different from what television reports usually offer. In the errance of the character escaped from the psychiatric hospital where she was cured, it is not difficult to see a metaphor of a country losing its path, ignoring when it may come back to a shelter, forced to live day by day. In spite of structural lacks and abuse of handy cam shots, Ahlam is one of those films which have an atmosphere accompanying the spectators long after the screening is over.

The least that can be said of the Iranian entry So Close, So Far (Kheili dour, kheili nazdik) by Reza Mir-Karimi is that it is extremely different from the Iranian films that make their way through international festivals and art houses distribution. It is also an atmosphere film, but the assured directing and the accomplished cinematography allow the spectator to get immediately involved with the moral subject the film deals with. This father and son missed relation due to incommunicability owes much to Antonioni or Wenders; additionally, it cleverly takes the form of an initiatic journey, but perverting the pattern of the subgenre, as the journey does not lead to peace and revelation but to punishment. The last sequence, which insists (a bit too much, unfortunately) on the punishment, is a remarkable achievement in depicting with simple studio effects and narrative ellipsis a tragic, very original ending.

The German film Seeds of Doubt (Folgeschäden) by Samir Nasr may be included in this overview of Arab and Middle-Eastern films, for the subject it deals with (an Algerian doctor, married to a German woman and father of a young boy, living in Hamburg, is faced with terrorism suspicion in post 9/11 Germany) but especially since its director is Egyptian-born. Samir Nasr made a triumphal return home with the premiere of his debut, receiving the award for best first film.

Finally, one may wonder if the Cairo festival should not focus even more on Arab and Middle-Eastern cinemas (and maybe emphasize more on African films), as it is this specificity that make it worth, undoubtedly, to visit this friendly festival.