The Competition: Life: Save Yourself, If You Can By Wilfried Reichart

in 31st Cairo International Film Festival

by Wilfried Reichart

Love stories with happy endings, beautiful relationships, identical lives — these are not subjects of the competition of an international film festival. The 31st Cairo International Film Festival is no exception. What’s shown on the screens of this week-long international competition depicts a ruthless reality of social injustice, personal depression, deceived feelings, desperation and religious delusion. Nothing is easy, life is difficult and salvation is distant. The competition program is dependent on many factors and coincidences, but for one week these films are a portrayal of the world.

In the Spanish entry, Eduard Grojo’s The Moon in a Bottle (La Luna en botella), an author watches the patrons in the Café Rossignol, encouraged to write a novel by his publisher. He is looking for inspiration for his work in real people with their own dreams, aspirations and fears — such as the cabaret artist Pascal, who anxiously awaits the arrival of his old friend and his lover, or Don José, who is scared of opening a letter, or Alicia, who does not want to fall in love. All find themselves in despairing argument with the agents of their past, and searching to find their place in the present. Eduard Grojo bathes in the exotic surroundings of these comical characters, and shows a theatrical studio reality in his productions, which sell feelings like a circus attraction.

No Mercy (Nincs Kegyelem), from Hungary, by Elemér Ragályi, is much closer to reality. Staged like an intimate play, the film depicts the prison time, police interrogations and trials of a casual laborer, who has been accused of killing a man. In flashbacks, the crime is shown from the point of view of the accused; the evidence against him is far from overwhelming, but he is nevertheless convicted, a victim of social prejudice. Although in the end the true culprit is found, our protagonist can only find release from the constant indignity in suicide. Elemér Ragályi depicts the location of events, the prison, the courtroom, the desolate location of the crime in pictures that have lost their entire color, bringing to mind the grey life of an outsider.

In contrast were loud and colorful films from Egypt and the Philippines: in The Seventh Heaven, Egyptian director Saal Hendawi presents the melodramatic start of a love affair between a dervish dancer and a woman with a shady past. The ecstatic dervish dances are in clear contrast to the solemn production of the film.

And with all the clichés of life in the slums — the daily fight to survive, small pleasures and great desperation — the Philippine director Neal Tan produces his view of the narrow alleys of a shanty town, in Casket for Hire (Ataul: For Rent). In the process, he attempts to capture a feeling of solidarity in this community of squalor, leading the residents to fight together to keep their neighborhood from totally disintegrating. The moral at the end of the film, with the prompt that “life goes on”, is well placed.

An aesthetic glimmer of light from Romania offers a view styled on mannerism. Gheorghe Preda’s An Angel Hooked on Me (Ingerul Necesar) is set in the world of a pianist and composer who is being followed by an unseen admirer. Fear arises at the first irritation from this anonymous power, which manipulates her life. The scenes in the artist’s apartment, decorated in strict, minimalist black and white; the bleakness of the architecture of the modern tower blocks, the empty streets of the major city; all are reminiscent of the visual language of Antonioni. It is these composed settings, the images of the film, which convey the emotions of the protagonist — an exception amongst the competition entries, in which the requests are mostly formed in sprawling, illustrative dialogues.

The Mexican director Juan Patricio Riveroll also puts trust in the force of expression of his pictures in Ópera. Long settings in hotel rooms, journeys through the Mexican countryside, occasional stops at friends — not a lot happens, and yet everything is explained about the relationship between a married author and the student he takes on a journey through the countryside after a night of love. But it does not help him to cope with his romantic or creative crises, and the relationship ends before it can really begin.

Save yourself, if you can! The films of the international competition vary that cry for help in a diverse manner. Hardly any looked for new cinematic forms of expression in the innovative aesthetic style of Jean-Luc Godard, but the subjects of every film could be described by a Godard film title: Sauve qui peut (la vie).

These films were screened for the Cairo public in five large cinemas in the city — and, in a particular attraction, were not required to go before the state’s censors. However, the English-language daily newspaper “Daily News Egypt”, whose reporter stood outside the cinema interviewing frustrated visitors, used the title “Not What It Used to Be” to describe the festival. Soleiman, who works downtown, says that he and his pals have been terribly disappointed by the adult-oriented films at the festival in the past couple of years, as they’ve all been “about as hot as an iceberg”. And Saleh recalls: “In the good old days, there were huge crowds outside the cinemas and it was impossible to get a ticket. We used to see the international stars sitting among the audience.”

This time, it seemed, they were to be found congregating with industry attendees in the exclusive Grand Hyatt, on the northern tip of Roda Nile Island, celebrating together.