Since 2012 the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF) has been carving a niche among the most important film events on the continent.
In the seventh round — headed by screenwriter Sayed Fouad and director Azza Al-Husseini, the president and the director, respectively — the festival team managed to double their efforts and introduce numerous fringe events including photography exhibitions, seminars and a filmmaking symposium. Yet the workshops — in which some 250 young people took part this year — remain the festival’s most important and vital element.
They include the independent filmmaking workshop for young Africans founded by the Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, who gave it for five years; this year it was given by the Egyptian veteran Khairi Bishara. They also include a film direction workshop by Khaled Al-Hagar and — newly added this year — an acting workshop by Gamal Thabet, as well as workshops in mobile filmmaking, animation and photography. And they turn what remains a hub for directors from all over Africa to connect with each other into a forum for local residents of Luxor and the surrounding villages to quench their thirst for culture and creativity.
None of which is to downplay the programme, which brought together 110 films in the festival’s various sections. The long fiction feature official competition included the Tunisian filmmaker Sarra Abidi’s debut Benzine, which received the Radwan Al-Kashef prize (awarded by the Foundation of Independent Young Artists) as well as the bronze award as best artistic contribution.
Set in a remote provincial area in southern Tunisia, the film opens with a 50-year-old petrol and paraffin seller named Salem (Ali Yahyaoui) on his way home where he lives with his somewhat younger wife Halima (Sondos Belhassen). The couple have not heard from their only son Ahmad for nine months, since he left the village to attempt illegal immigration to Europe, and the action centres on their predicament. What it lacks in storyline the film makes up for in cinematic detail, however, with Salem’s buying fuel in bulk to sell to passing vehicles on the highway, a profession Salem says he was forced into after the rainfall dropped making agriculture less viable.
There is an oblique connection here with illegal immigration, since illegal immigrants are evocatively known across the Maghreb as harraqa (or harraga), meaning “burners” — a reference to the fact that they burn their identity papers and passports the better to succeed on their quest. “Benzine” is Salem’s lifeblood, but it’s how Salem’s son burns Salem: a powerful metaphor for what poverty does to Africans.
Sorrow and despair come through in Salem and Halima’s interactions from the first moment, with Belhassen managing to imbue a range of expressions including smiles with deep grief for her son, registering sadness and anger, while Yahyaoui expertly adds a sense of perplexity: the confusion of a man who wants to support his wife but doesn’t know how. The film begins and ends in this static space, with no dramatic resolution and no catharsis to speak of but with a skilful lyricism including beautiful photography, notably wide-angle views of the forbidding landscape, which emphasises the sense of loneliness and loss.
Also in competition was the Tanzanian film T-Junction by Amil Shivji, which opens with the funeral of the heroine’s father. Fatima (Hawa Ali) and her mother are waiting on neighbours and friends who have come to pay their respects, and their relationship seems dry and strained. When Fatima develops a fever and visits the hospital, a trip during which she will also pick up her father’s death certificate from the adjoining coroner’s, she meets Maria (Magdalena Chersopher), who sells tea and snacks to pedlars with her own mother at T-Junction, and has come to the hospital with injuries on her forehead and arm. Thus the T-junction of the title: in flashbacks with narration, Maria tells Fatima her enthralling story; and at the end of the film Fatima decides to go to T-Junction to find out if Maria was telling the truth.
The Ghanian film Keteke, Peter Sedufia’s cinematic debut, which won the silver, special jury prize, is set in 1980 when an irregular railway service was the only means of transport in Ghana. It is the story of a couple, Boi (Adjetey Anang) and Atwei (Lydia Forson), with Atwei in the last days of her pregnancy. As they attempt to make the journey to Atwei’s mother’s where the young mother and her child will be better looked after, the train is delayed and Boi decides they should walk to the next station — perhaps the only weak link in the drama — and so the comedy begins.
With marital tensions reflecting Atwei’s pregnancy-induced irritability, husband and wife are lost in the green wilderness — an opportunity to present much natural beauty. When they decide to leave the rail track to look for food, a fantastical element is added as they walk into an abandoned village where no one lives apart from an old sorcerer and his assistant. The sorcerer hosts and feeds them in return for taking their child — the only way to break the spell that has confined him and his assistant to this village. The couple manages to escape eventually, and the film ends with the hilarious scene of a group of mechanics — passengers of the only rail coach that shows up, forced to halt by Boi jumping into the tracks — trying to deliver the baby.
The short film competition saw strong rivalry between 21 films. The best film prize went to a joint Benin-French production named Pantheon, the work of Ange-Regis Hounkaptin. Set in France, the film deals with a young car driver who inherits a voodoo costume from his father which was abandoned by the family after they converted to Christianity. Enthralled by it, surprised and reverential by turns, the young man begins to mend this symbol of his father in order to hand it into a museum of traditional African costumes, making up for his sense of loss and rediscovering his identity through it.
The film ends with him joining in the dancing at his friend’s garage, moving in a way distinctly reminiscent of voodoo. In the seminar held after the screening the director explained he was driven by two things he noticed on his visits to Paris: how second-generation African immigrants lack any connection with their heritage; and how contemporary dancing often resembles voodoo worship back in Benin.
The theme of loss and connections with the dead informs the Algerian director El-Kheyer Zidani’s documentary Nice, Very Nice, which won the special jury prize in the short film competition. The film is the story of an octogenarian named Dido with a house in one of the popular neighbourhoods of Algiers where he installed the intricate mosaic himself. He created a beautiful house because his beloved wife, who passed away more than 10 years before, wanted to live in a traditional Algerian house full of ceramics and ornaments. And so he decided to realise her dream after her death.
Every week Dido visits his wife’s grave to talk to her as if she were there. Zidani explained how long it took to introduce himself to and befriend the man before filming, so that he would be accustomed enough to the camera to behave spontaneously while the film was being made. Likewise the Egyptian Ahmed Nader’s Wanas (Friendly Company), the winner of the Bronze Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival, which received a certificate of appreciation from the jury, deals with a couple in their 1980s. Starring two household names, Ragaa Hussein and Abdel-Rahman Abu Zahra, the film is a lyrical testimony to the power of love.
Creative Diversity in African Documentary Cinema is one of the publications of the seventh LAFF. Written by the Senegalese director-producer Delphe Kifouani and the French writer-director Francois Fronty, it reflects the special status accorded documentaries by the festival, which not only opens with a documentary film — a rare thing indeed, at least for Egypt — but also includes a wide variety of such films.
Co-directed by Anjali Nayar and Hawa Essuman, the opening film, Silas, deals with the life of Liberian activist Silas Siakor. Over 20 documentaries take part in four official competitions — long documentary, short film, freedom film and student film — in addition to a seven-film programme, African Documentary Cinema, out of competition. Even the student film competition, taking place for the first time this year, includes two award-winning documentaries: Taken by Mouth by Ibrahim Omar Saleh, which won the jury prize; and Jumer by Ibrahim Farag Ali, which won the best artistic achievement prize.
More substantial highlights include Liyana, co-directed by Aron Kopp and Amanda Kopp, which won the Nile Grand Award for best long documentary in the Freedom Films competition. The story of five orphaned Swazi children who use their past traumas as creative fuel for a collective fairytale, it combines live action with animation, thus shifting from the classroom to the fairy world and back again.
Not in My Neighbourhood by the South African director Kurt Orderson had its world premiere in the LAFF documentary competition. The film explores the tactics used by authorities from Cape Town to Johannesburg to New York and Sao Paulo to evacuate vulnerable inhabitants from urban environments and the strategies of resistance. Through the eyes of four central characters we see the history of architectural apartheid, its contemporary re-enactments and the effects of neoliberal urban transformation on individuals and communities.
One of film’s strong points is its focus on the characters’ strategies of resistance. Another successful technique is using archival video recordings to connect the past to the present. Although the film does not have voiceover or narration, through his own story as a resident of Cape Town the filmmaker’s presence is tangible.
The Tunisian film Sisters Courage, codirected by Latifa Doghri and Salem Trabelsi, won a special mention in the long documentary competition. In this film two Tunisian sisters bound by a passion for boxing go their separate ways. One of them makes it illegally into France to become a world champion. The other takes off her boxing gloves due to social pressure. In Sisters Courage the camera flexibly tracks the life of the sister who stays in Tunisia, giving up her dream.
We go into her house and watch her life in detail. The directors narrate the dramatic changes using interviews and action. They also use some material shot in 2011 and record the touching conversations between the two sisters after they are separated. They let their protagonist’s actions decide the end of the story which takes the audience by surprise and conveys a message of hope.
Punishment Island by the Italian filmmaker Laura Cini, which won the Nile Grand Award for best long documentary, is about Akampene, a tiny island in Uganda where pregnant girls who break the premarital sex taboo are abandoned to death by hunger or drowning. The luckiest of them have a second chance when poor men who cannot afford bride money come to the island to take them for a wife.
The film tells the story in the survivors’ own voices. The narrator, however, is the voice of the island itself, which has its own story. Natural imagery is juxtaposed with painting to beautiful effect, but Punishment Island remains a powerful work of social realism, describing the problem as it is in reality. The camera is able to reflect the community’s life by roaming around their poor houses capturing tiny details and little expressions on their faces and in their body language, demonstrating the desperate lives they lead.
Kenyan poet, photographer and filmmaker Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann’s New Moon is the winner of the best artistic achievement prize. A journey of self-discovery that took the filmmaker to Lamu on Kenya’s northeastern coastline, where Ndisi-Herrmann (who was born in Bonne to a German father and a Kenyan mother) attaches herself to a Muslim boy and his mother and by following their understanding and practice of Islam manages to understand herself as a Sufi and devotee of Rumi.
Two stories are thus intertwined, one of them wholly autobiographical. Ndisi-Herrmann’s voice in the background links her filmmaking journey with her life’s, but it is her masterful use of visual poetry and richly textured imagery together with Quranic invocations that convey both journeys most powerfully.
Dieudo Hamadi’s Mama Colonel, which won the Nile Grand Award for best long documentary, is the story of Colonel Honorine Munyole: a 44-year-old widow in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) devastated by many years of war. Munyole leads a police unit dedicated to combating violence against women and children. The film’s strength resides in the way the director lets people’s actions speak for themselves. With no narration the camera follows Munyole’s everyday life, trailing her from one place to the next and capturing how she deals with the inhabitants.
The filmmaker manages to be at once in the middle of the action and distant enough to have a balanced view of what is going on. The film has no effects and no music. It is an unadorned record of the harsh truth about the Congo, though it is through the subject’s eyes that we see it: the respect Mama Colonel commands, her determination and sympathy transform that terrible reality into a sympathetic vision of human life.
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture