Fitful though it has been since then, Egyptian cinema’s participation in major international film festivals started during the first half of the 20th century. In the fourth Venice Film Festival in 1936, Egypt competed for awards with Studio Misr’s inaugural production Wedad directed by Fritz Kramp and starring Um Kolthoum, first Arab film to be screened at an international festival.
In 1946, Egypt was an integral part of the very first Cannes Film Festival when the iconic film and theatre actor Youssef Wahbi became a jury member while Dunia directed by Mohamed Karim was in the competition. Mohamed Karim’s Zainab also took part in the second round of the Berlin Film Festival in 1952 before a younger generation of directors — Salah Abu Seif, Kamal Al-Sheikh, Henry Barakat and, perhaps most notably, Youssef Chahine — took their films there.
Abu Seif’s The Adventures of Antar and Abla (1949), The Monster (1954) and A Woman’s Youth (1956), Al-Sheikh’s Life or Death (1955) and Last Night (1964), Barakat’s The Sin (1965), and Chahine’s Son of the Nile (1952), Struggle in the Valley (1954), The Land (1970), Adieu Bonaparte (1985) and Destiny (1997) all took part in Cannes, where Chahine won the 50th Anniversary Award in 1997.
Abu Seif’s The Tough (1957), Al-Sheikh’s Chased by the Dogs (1963), Barakat’s Hassan and Naaima (1959) and The Nightingale’s Prayer (1965), Chahine’s Bab Al-Hadid (1958), Alexandria… Why? (1979) all took part in the Berlinale, where Alexandria… Why? won the Silver Bear. Chahine’s An Egyptian Story (1982), his last film Chaos (2007), co-directed by Khaled Youssef, and his segment of 11’09’’01 — September 11 (2002) participated in the Venice Film Festival, where Shadi Abdel-Salam’s landmark The Night of Counting the Years (1969) was also screened.
Like Chahine, Yousri Nasrallah has made his mark on the festival circuit. His After the Battle (2012) was in the Cannes competition and his Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (2009) was in the official out-of-competition selection at Venice. Mercedes (1993), The City (1999) and Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (2016) all took part in the Locarno festival, where The City won the four prizes including the Youth Jury Award. Younger directors whose work was featured in international festivals include Ahmed Maher, Ibrahim Al-Batout, Atef Hetata and Kamla Abu Zikri.
This year a remarkable number of Egyptian filmmakers have carried on the tradition. Abu Bakr Shawky’s long narrative debut Youmeddine took part in Cannes’s official competition. A road movie, it is the story of a middle-aged Copt named Beshay who — long since cured and now accompanied by a Nubian child friend named Obama — heads out of the leprosy colony where he has spent most of his life and goes in search of his family in Upper Egypt.
Shawky’s first long film, The Colony (2009), was a documentary on a leprosy colony. In Youmeddine he uses two devices to avoid falling into the trap of victimisation and tragedy. He gives his main character the gift of humour, with which he confronts society’s negative response to his illness.
He also fills the journey with subplots. Directing his mostly first-time actors very carefully, Shawky makes use of simple but clever cinematography that brings out the beauty in such locations as the rubbish dump where Beshay works. Youmeddine was well received by both audience and critics, and frequently put forward for the Camera d’Or, which is given to filmmakers presenting a first or second feature film.
Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke’s Dream Away — screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic — focuses on a group of young hotel workers in the Sinai resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh, where tourism has been in recession: a girl in the animation team, another in house-keeping, a swimming pool DJ, a chauffeur and a street performer. Following the 2011 Revolution and especially the Russian plane crash of 2015, Sharm El-Sheikh became a ghost city, making it impossible for these people — who face not only idleness but salary cuts — to maintain enthusiasm for their work but releasing their imagination.
A huge monkey doll on a lorry occasionally serves as the characters’ confessor, but remains a powerful metaphorical image throughout. Using non-professional actors, Dream Away blurs the line between documentary and fiction, offering a powerful mix of fantasy and social-economic commentary in the same breath.
Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Ward Masmoum (Poisonous Roses), screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, is set in the tanneries of Old Cairo, drawing on Saleh’s experience making a documentary in the area, Living Skin, seven years ago. Based on Ahmed Zaghloul Al-Shiti’s novel Poisonous Roses for Saqr, the film prioritises the image, with both the obvious and the hidden aspects of the story told in a more or less purely visual language.
Saleh conveys day-to-day details so convincingly that the viewer ends up conjuring up the smell of the leather and the chemicals used to produce it. Yet he also manages to use the picture to generate his own aesthetics within this harsh reality. The camera follows a young woman in hijab, Taheya, down the narrow, winding alleyways into the Tanneries until she reaches her brother Saqr, whom she’s bringing lunch.
This journey is repeated in more than one scene, suggesting that this display of devotion defines her relationship with her brother. The filmmaker draws on Sufi ritual in such repetition and in the way he employs the sounds of the tanning machinery in the soundtrack, recalling the rhythms of dhikr.
The Egyptian-Lebanese documentary Al-Gameiya (What Comes Around), directed by Reem Saleh — screened in the Panorama section of the 69th edition of the Berlinale — is a 79-minute documentary shot in Rod Al-Farag, one of Cairo’s poorer residential areas, where the hardships of daily life are the focus. Saleh delves into the inhabitants’ economic struggles, and their use of the widespread middle- and working-class practice of al-gameiya (or “the assembly”).
Ten people, say, will each contribute LE100 every month for 10 months, so that each month one of them can receive LE1,000. It took Saleh seven years to make her film, in which she avoids any reference to the turmoil of 2011. Rather than rallying sympathy, she simply tells people’s stories, including as much laughter as pain.
These filmmakers share an interest in the dispossessed and no-linear narrative, which may be how they found their way to the red carpet.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.
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