As one of the biggest and oldest film festivals in Africa, Cairo Interntational Film Festival provided this year’s viewers with more than two hundred movies, divided into several sections. The emphasis was placed on the International competition (both Official and Out of Competition selections), as well as a review of New Egyptian Cinema, thus providing visitors from outside Egypt and Arab countries with a good opportunity to get acquainted with lesser known feature films, seldom seen through retrospectives in European cinemas, not to mention regular cinema distribution. Often, it is said that the cinema mirrors a nation’s cultural and economic, but also social and political state of affairs. Hence, the 38th edition of this festival offered exceptional insight into the contemporary Arab society, with all its diversity and challenges. However varied and diverse, the selection was still predominately (in terms of quantity) focused on contemporary European and Asian cinema; not only due to shortage of domestic feature films, but also because the festival tends to present a paramount selection of world cinema to the Egyptian audience. There is an additional reason as to why Cairo differs from similar festivals in Europe: there is a political assertion in backing up Egyptian cultural identity represented in the filmmaking sector, as CIFF’s major task is to prove stability and safety for visitors in Egypt and demonstrate the country’s capability of hosting such a great event. From that viewpoint, this festival is more than a mere cluster of movies: it is designed to emphasise the Egyptian filmmaking revival as well as to assure everybody that the country is steadily rising above political and social crisis. This introduction is important in order to understand the festival’s main agenda, because both the selection and the quality of the movies presented profoundly relied upon that principle.
For that reason, in this article ,I will focus on two movies that are, in my opinion, the best examples of the abovementioned pathway: Chronicles of my Village (Chronique de mon village) directed by the Dutch-Algerian filmmaker Karim Traidia and The Other Land (Al Bar Al Tany), directed by the Egyptian veteran and hit maker Ali Idrees. Both films were screened in the Official Competition and were well received by the audience. Chronicles of my Village is a seemingly clear-cut story about the events that took place in an Algerian village during the Algerian war of independence. The main character is ten-year-old boy, Bashir, who wishes he were the son of a martyr, since sons of martyrs supposedly have great futures. The boy is entrapped between his love for his father (who abandoned the family several years ago to join the Algerian guerrillas in the surrounding mountains) and his friend, Francois, a French soldier and an enemy of the boy’s country. Most of the events are viewed from the ten-year-old’s perspective, which makes this film seemingly innocent, but, on the other hand, it leaves an impression of lacking emotionally, since the boy turns out to be merely a spectator, witnessing how the small community’s everyday life is breaking apart. Although the movie does without deficiencies (some characters are quite dreary, several not necessary events could have been omitted, there are scenes that lack narrative consistency, etc.), Chronicles of my Village is a very good film and its major advantage is the powerful story that articulates a strong social message. Although it doesn’t stimulate us with a strong poetic visualisation or impressive movements of the camera, the movie sends a straightforward message about the outcome of the revolution, with the succinctly pointed opinion that bloody wars always leave behind a bitter taste and no heroes, with a victory that is “stolen” by cowards while the long-awaited freedom merely brings newfound chaos and oppression. It is a film without a capital M message, and this is one of its major strengths: the director basically describes events that took place more than half a century ago, but the viewer (come what may) unavoidably has in mind the recent events of the Arab Spring, five years ago – through the lens of a young boy thinking of lost hopes and a victory which wasn’t actually long for triumph.
Predicated upon a similar premise, but made from a completely different perspective, The Other Land follows the story of a group of young Egyptians who leave Egypt’s underprivileged rural villages with the clear desire to immigrate to Europe and escape overwhelming poverty. Without having any official documents, they travel illegally on an old, treacherous ship. When they finally reach their desired destination (Italy’s coastline) it seems that their hopes for a better life are balanced on the horizon, until shipwreck puts an end to all their dreams. The final shot of the movie presents us with the ultimate tragedy: there are no survivors. Only dead bodies lying on sandy beaches, as the camera slowly shows the roofs of houses in a small Italian costal village. Idrees is an experienced director who knows how to generate dramatic tension, but when well-balanced rhythm and visual composition, as well as subtle dialogue is required, he does not make the grade. Instead, he turns to dynamic editing and short cuts, sometimes overloaded with pathos and theatrics. Even if this film is, in a sense, the “Egyptian Titanic”, as some critics stated after the screening, nevertheless, it must be mentioned that Idrees’s movie is a valuable and important work because he presents us with a completely different point of view. We are flooded with European films (especially documentaries) about refugees from Africa and this is one of the rare occasions we are able to see and experience the other side of the story, or, to paraphrase the movie’s title, The Other Land. That said, the movie still achieves a symbolic timelessness and, although there is a noteworthy social and political context, the director skilfully avoids slipping into cheap metaphor. Let us therefore conclude that Cairo film festival is by some means like the city itself – it lacks some charm and doesn’t astonish its visitors at first glance but, on a second glance one recognises that it is well worth while to look beneath the surface, because only then will precious movies and sights begin to sparkle.
Edited by Tara Judah
© FIPRESCI 2016