Though few of them have been able to tackle that dramatic period with the depth it deserves, the Arab Spring has been an inspiration to many artists and filmmakers. This year at El Gouna Film Festival, there seemed to be a resurgence in cinema dealing with the region from the standpoint of recent political turmoil, with various powers fighting for control after people power toppled the thrones of long-standing rulers, dislodging a number of them.
In Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki’s and El Gouna’s Silver Star-winning documentary Of Fathers and Sons (2018) — after Return to Homs (2013), the second by Derki to win the Sundance Festival grand jury prize — you can see the descent of the Syrian revolution into a civil war involving various regional and international military powers as well as armed Islamist organisations.
The film opens with shots of the road to a village near Idlib, the Nusra Front centre. By pretending to be a Salafi jihadi, as the narration explains, Derki managed to depict the daily life of a family whose head is a leader in the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Living with the family for over two years, Derki shows the life of the children — named after Mulla Omar, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahri — studying and playing, only occasionally alluding to the values being inculcated in them.
In one scene, for example, a child is holding a sparrow, grooming it tenderly, but once the scene shifts you see the same sparrow slaughtered and plucked. Asked about the sparrow, the child says that Osama slaughtered it because slaughtering it was halal. In the subtlest and most effective way the director shows how violence is transmitted to children as they grow up.
He also shows the father sniping and defusing landmines. At one point the Nusra Front capture and take prisoner a number of Assad-affiliated young men, and here again Derki effortlessly captures these young men’s terror knowing they will be killed. The viewer grows used to scenes of the father fighting while the children play among the rocks or in the snow when, one day, the father is shown returning from hospital having lost a foot, his body full of shrapnel — landmine exploded.
The film ends with Osama and Ayman, now old enough, joining the Nusra youth corps, where you can see how many children are skilled in the arts of war. Derki humanises this family of radical fundamentalists, showing every aspect of their life, the hilarity and the tragedy, while hinting at how the seeds of violence are planted in the young. The ending is particularly powerful because it shows this radical organisation will live on, with one generation handing over to the next.
(Photo: still from the film Of Fathers and Sons)
Likewise, Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan’s Venice Film Festival Lion of the Future/Luigi de Laurentis-winner The Day I Lost My Shadow, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival before taking part in El Gouna’s Narrative Feature competition, uses a simple story to demonstrate the fracturing of Syrian society at the start of the conflict. It opens with the daily life of a young woman, Sanaa, who lives with her son, a little boy named Khalil in a small flat.
Mundane rituals like washing, cooking and the like are set off against power cuts as the principal allusion to war. By prompting the family to use candles that draw shadows on the walls, power cuts also occasion the title. But the action does not begin until Sanaa discovers that the cylinder with which she operates the cooker has run out of gas and so decides to set off to the depot to replace it.
In a scene that recalls another presented some 20 years ago by Ziad Doueiri in West Beirut (1998), armed men arrive at the depot demanding all available cylinders (just as armed men demanded all the bread at the bakery in Doueiri’s film). But from then on Kaadan’s feature turns into a road movie in which Sanaa with two others, Jalal and his sister, travel to a village near Damascus that is not under Syrian army control. The filmmaker is not interested in the complications of the actual conflict and its various parties, she is focused rather on the question of existence, absurdity and the possibility of meaning in the human condition.
The three travallers represent three types: Jalal is a quiet revolutionary who has experienced political detention; his sister is an impetuous rebel who can hardly see beyond the immediate moment; while Sanaa, though neither a revolutionary nor an intellectual, has the inner power and resilience to return home to her son despite the fatal obstacles in her way. They face death a number of times.
The film’s integrity is undermined somewhat by a heavy dose of symbolism that makes it seem like a mid-20th-century production. Since coming out of prison, Jalal, for example, hasn’t had a shadow, the symbol of hope or existence. No matter what the lighting, he no longer casts any shadow. He tells Sanaa the story that after the atom bomb exploded in Hiroshima, people used to spot numerous shadows of people who no longer existed. In Syria, by contrast, the people survive but their shadows are gone. At home finally Sanaa realises that she two has lost her shadow.
(Photo: still from the film The Day I Lost My Shadow)
In El Gouna’s official Out of Competition selection, the Egyptian filmmaker Karim Al-Shennawi’s debut Iyar Nari (Gunshot), Haitham Dabour’s second script after Photocopy by Tamer Ashri, was a grave disappointment.
The film was not in the competition because it was funded by festival founder Naguib Sawiris, and its one screening at the 1,000-seat Marina Theatre was a full house. Viewers may disagree about various technical and aesthetic aspects of the film, but there was a near consensus that the film takes deals with the January Revolution as a rival and, questioning the validity of the narrative that the martyrs were killed by police, reiterates the police’s claims that they had no snipers and never killed protesters even though it is a widely known fact that, in the relevant court case, evidence was withheld to protect the police generals in charge. The one character who is harmed by the revolution, a corrupt minister (Ahmed Kamal), turns out to be guilty of nothing.
In the case of a young man (Ahmed Malek) who was shot dead during the revolution, a forensic scientist (Ahmed Al-Fishawi) realises the gunshot that killed him was shot point-blank, eliminating the possibility that it was by a sniper. The film gradually uncovers the mystery, but unlike an effective thriller the fact that this was a point-blank shot is simply repeated, without a complex enough structure or accurate details to build up even the semblance of a whodunnit.
Ruby plays the journalist who might contribute to solving the mystery, but the character proves superfluous since it is through conversations with the victim’s mother (Arfa Abdel-Rasoul) and brother (Mohamed Mamdouh, a strong actor whose enunciation nonetheless remains unclear, obliging viewers to read the subtitles) that the truth is revealed.
The elder brother ends up killing his younger brother in a fight, and manages to transport the body to the location of the demonstration. This is done not only to avoid arrest and trial, but also to collect a martyr’s compensation from the government, including a flat and a cigarette kiosk. For, to intensify the appallingly naive melodrama even further, the elder brother is marrying the younger brother’s fiancée (Asmaa Abul-Yazid), who turns out to be pregnant. The mother and everyone in the neighbourhood know about and agree to this.
(Photo: still from the film Gunshot)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Shadow spring
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