In collaboration with the Swedish Film Institute, the Swedish Institute and the Swedish Embassy in Cairo, and in the presence of Ambassador Jan Thesleff, El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 20-28 September) celebrated Ingmar Bergman with a photo exhibition and two screenings: Wild Strawberries (1957) and Persona (1966).
“Ingmar Bergman is one of the giants of 20th-century film and theatre,” Thesleff said, “having influenced artists worldwide, including in Egypt. I am very proud that Sweden can be part of this important milestone event, especially since Bergman is being honoured together with two of his peers, Youssef Chahine and Federico Fellini. I appreciate the serious approach of the festival.”
According to Thesleff, film festivals are vital to intercultural exchange. They are meeting points, melting pots but also important marketplaces for film. Highlighting three different directors from three different countries allows the audience to compare and contrast works and visions. Films allow viewers to see the world from the perspective of the artist, whose cultural background obviously has an influence, he went on. “This means that festivals which celebrate the works of artists from around the world really promote more tolerance and empathy, which is much needed in our world today.”
In this context, Thesleff stresses the role of the Malmö Arab Film Festival in Sweden, the next round of which is coming up (5-9 Oct 2018). “It is the biggest Arab film festival outside the Arab world. I was proud to hold a launch event for the Malmö Arab Film Festival in Cairo few weeks ago.”
But Thesleff feels it is also important to see Bergman in the Swedish context, since he had an enormous influence there before his work spread out to the rest of the world: “Personally speaking, I grew up with the films of Bergman. Our most famous actors and actresses worked with him. Bergman’s influence cannot be overestimated.” Though he belongs firmly in the last century’s classical cinema, his influence is tangible to this day.
It was inevitable he would prove influential across the world since he brought a new language to the screen: “There is a distinctive Bergman signature to all he created. From camera angles and movements, to psychological plots and even to fashion.”
But the way in which his legacy has continued to be celebrated is a model for how to preserve and promote remarkable artists, whose work will withstand changing trends. There is, for example, the annual Bergman Week on Fårö Island, where the director lived and worked: “It’s a unique celebration because it’s not a red-carpet event. Instead, it allows guests to celebrate Bergman through his life, by seeing his home and the places where he filmed a lot of his most famous films. The Embassy was happy to send the Egyptian film critic Tarek El Shinnawy to experience it for himself.”
The ambassador commended the Swedish Film Institute and the Swedish Institute’s efforts in making Bergman’s greatest films available for the worldwide centenary celebrations. But he believes that cooperation should go beyond exchanging movies to coproduction between Egypt and Sweden. “It is my hope that our joint passion for films will take us there”
As for the exhibition, one half of a display that also includes Chahine, Thesleff explained that the exhibition shows not only Bergman paraphernalia but also references to the trends inspired by his work, especially in music. Bergman himself felt cinema and music were very close to each other. “They both speak not to the intellect but directly to the senses. The sequence of pictures on the cinema screen goes directly to your soul and that’s why cinema and music are so related. This connection describes the films of Bergman, as well as Chahine.”
According to the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, which is dedicated to administering, preserving and distributing Bergman’s works, “Of all Bergman’s works, Wild Strawberries is one of the most widely imitated and referred to. It is also one of only a few films in which Bergman’s own sources of inspiration and creative borrowings are most clearly discernible.” The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1960, and won the Golden Globe for the Best Foreign Film and the Pasinetti Award from the Venice Film Festival 1958. It was also nominated for the BAFTA Film Award.
Persona, which the American writer Susan Sontag saw as his masterpiece, is equally central. It was nominated for the BAFTA Film Award in 1968 and was Sweden’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film that year. But
Thesleff’s says he prefers Wild Strawberries. His favourite Egyptian film, on the other hand, has been Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building (2006). In this context, he expressed the hope that Cairo’s many classic movie theatres would be restored and preserved. “They are really part of Egypt’s modern cultural heritage.”
These interests are not haphazard: “I must admit, when I was younger I nurtured a dream of leading an artistic career.” But by becoming a diplomat, he believes that he has a great opportunity to promote art and artists from his country, even if he is not part of the art scene as such. “Art and diplomacy belong together. Through art we make ourselves, our societies, our culture and values visible. Culture builds bridges, just like diplomacy.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Bergman Connection
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