In its second year, once again headed by Sherif Al-Shazli, the Cairo Cinema Days (23-30 April), another initiative of Zawya, features screenings at three venues: the Zamalek Cinema, Cinema Karim and the Cinematheque Alternative Film Centre.
The festival, which screens Arab films that proved successful at major world festivals, proved very popular in its first year, filling a gap in indie screenings at this time of year and providing viewers with the opportunity to indulge their love of non-commercial Arab cinema.
The opening film was the young Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s widely debated Beauty and the Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit), which was screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section last year. Ben Hania is well-known to those interested in serious Arab cinema; her feature-length documentary Zaineb Hates the Snow, in which the director followed the life of a Tunisian girl over six whole years, was screened at the Luxor Film Festival last year.
Starting when the girl was nine years old, with exemplary simplicity and delicacy and realism Ben Hania shows how Zaineb makes sense of life after she loses her father in a car accident and her mother decides to marry another and emigrate with him to Canada.
It seems her interest in real women’s lives is paramount, what is more, because the present film too is based on a real story and works as a document of corruption and violence in the security system in Tunisia. Indeed the violence of the police and their readiness to humiliate Tunisian citizens was the principal catalyst of the Jasmine Revolution; it was a policewoman humiliating him that drove Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in December 2010, triggering the protests that were to force President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on 14 January 2011.
The screenplay is made up of nine scenes, each narrating an aspect of the tragic experience of the heroine Mariam (Mariam Al-Ferjani), lasting about ten minutes and filmed in a single shot.
The opening scene sets out the story. It takes place at a party in a hotel with the camera trailing Mariam as she comes out of the bathroom, where she puts on an evening gown she borrowed from her friend, and notices a good-looking young man. The single-shot technique, perhaps first used in Hitchcock’s The Rope (1948), is distinctive and difficult: every detail in the entire scene (and not just within the first few frames) needs to be taken care of. This scene ends with Mariam leaving with the young man, Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), to whom her friend has introduced her.
Ben Hania intentionally disrupts the viewer beginning the second scene with Mariam in a state of shock and horror running away while Youssef follows. The viewer’s mind automatically tries to fill the temporal void between the two scenes to explain the shift form a joyful encounter to this state, and Ben Hania provides a hint. As the police patrol car passes, both young people are visibly scared of it, indicating that the police were involved in what happened.
The second scene prepares the viewer for and draws them into what the dialogue soon explains: Mariam was raped by the police patrol, and Youssef (whom the dialogue tells us was among the Jasmine Revolution protesters) accompanied her to a private hospital to obtain medical proof of what happened to her, seemingly encouraging her to report the two policemen who violated her. But when the hospital administration require her ID Mariam realises she left it in the patrol car where the rape took place.
Thus the action moves from one location and complication to another. In another scene, for example, Youssef and Mariam have to go to a police station to file an official report so that they can be transferred to the forensic department of a public hospital. Youssef and one of the officers remember each other from the protests, however, and following a verbal fight Youssef and Mariam escape from this station to another. This particular repetition, which does not push the drama forward, weakens the structure of the film.
In each scene the director introduces a character who sympathises with Mariam and tries to help her: one nurse speeds up her seeing the doctor; the policewoman who obviously believes and supports her despite her coworkers’ objections... But each time, in spite of this, the girl ends up completely alone. In the final scene she stands alone facing a huge policeman with a scary face using every means at his disposal to pressure her to withdraw the file.
She is completely alone now that Youssef has been arrested, with no one and nothing to lean on. But Mariam has nothing to lose now that she’s been terrorised and subjected to all kinds of oppression and violence; she insists on following through her call for justice. She has a sudden change of heart here which, though unexpected, is justified. What weakens the scene, rather, is the way in which her conversation with the policeman turns into naive and in-your-face rhetoric. Asking her to rest content with the internal investigation and punishment to which he promises her the culprits will be subjected, for example, the policeman tells her that by insisting on prosecuting her rapists she is soiling the image of the one institution that protected the state against collapse after it was aala kaf ifrit (literally, “on the palm of a genie”, meaning in very grave danger).
Another problem with the film is the weakness of Al-Ferjani’s performance in some scenes. No doubt the part is extremely difficult, but Al-Ferjani overacts and falls out of sync with the action a little too often – perhaps as a result of the filmmaker being too busy mastering the long shots to pay sustained attention to actor management. Having said that, Beauty and the Dogs is a truly remarkable film, valuable as much for subject as treatment, and further credit to Ben Hania’s talent.
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
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