The Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) is the oldest international film festival in the Arab World and the African continent. It was founded by the late journalist, writer and Egyptologist Kamal Al-Malakh in 1976. CIFF is accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF) as one of 15 international competitive film festivals around the world in the category “A”, like Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Moscow and others. Since its inaugural round, CIFF was stopped only twice, in 2011 during the January Revolution and in 2013 after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. This round is dedicated to the festival’s late artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, who passed away on 12 July.
This year in the official selection out of competition, Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life was almost fully booked during its two screenings. Cinephiles undoubtedly know of Malick’s penchant for deep philosophical drama and his dozens of awards, including best director from Cannes for Days of Heaven (1979), the Berlinale’s Golden Bear for Thin Red Line (1999) and a Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life (2011).
Inspired by a true story, A Hidden Life depicts the life of an Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, who lives with his wife Fani, their three young daughters, his mother and sister-in-law. The first few scenes illustrate the emotions of the couple accompanied by narration from the wife describing her life with Franz in a poetic way. Malick makes a point of identifying the setting with footage of Hitler. This is late 1939, early 1940. Belying the horror is the wide-angle frame showing the beauty of the Alps, and Malick is keen to show the farmer’s lives: tending the land, shearing sheep, and dissolving into the seasons. The changing colours – yellow at harvest time, white in winter – make for beautiful imagery, which combine with soft music and motion to induce a sense of calm.
Soon enough Jägerstätter is asked to join the military training camp, however, in case he is needed in the Nazi Army, but Malick doesn’t speed up the pace of the action as the drama escalates. On his return Jägerstätter complains to the village’s church father, the whole family feels that the war is evil and Hitler is the Antichrist, but the priest doesn’t seem sympathetic. Jägerstätter later has the same conversation with the Archbishop of Austria himself, but even he gives vague answers. Before too long Jägerstätter becomes something of a local nuisance since, unlike the others, he speaks out against Hitler and refuses to perform the Roman salute or say “Heil Hitler”. When he refuses to salute Hitler on rejoining the army, Jägerstätter is convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
This is a classic drama inspired by Catholic hagiographies, but it is a masterpiece that features Nazism without violence or reference to the Holocaust. It is a film about tyranny without resistance discourse, about religion without preaching, and about the meaning of life without overt philosophy.
In the International Competition, the highlights include Anthony Chen’s Wet Season, the story of Ling, a teacher of Mandarin at a high school in Singapore. The film follows her daily routine: waking up, caring for the old paralytic who lives with her (she calls him Papa), and submitting to abdominal injections that later turn out to be attempts at artificial insemination. Gradually and slowly it is revealed that she is married to a businessman who is away most of the time and that the paralytic man is her father in law.
In the first scene of the film the radio announces heavy rain, dictating the atmosphere of the whole film. Ling’s conflict is that she wants a baby even though her husband seems to have lost interest in her (it is later revealed taht he is having an affair with his colleague) while Weilun, one of her students, falls in love with her and starts taking photos of her without telling her.
Ling’s mother, as it turns out, is in Malaysia – that is where she’s from – and so as the film gains momentum it becomes clear that she is holding onto a family structure that is collapsing on every side. Even her job as a teacher is no longer very important as students now prefer to concentrate on English. As she gives in to Weilun, her father-in-law dies and her husband divorces her. Then she breaks it off with her student, hugging him one last time while he cries and telling him he should get used to it.
In the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition, A Son by Tunisian filmmaker Mehdi Barsaoui – which won the Hamburg Film Festival Young Talent Award, and the Venice Horizons Award for best acting (Sami Bouajila) – deals with the classic theme of marital infidelity and breakdown. It opens with a small upper-middle class family on a trip in the desert near the Libyan border. The filmmaker stresses the positive relations between the father Fares Ben Youssef (Sami Bouajila), the mother Meriem and their son Aziz, who are having a good time with other families. Conflict erupts suddenly on their way back when a group of terrorists start shooting randomly towards the desert road. Their car is hit and they later discover that Aziz is badly injured.
The film functions by becoming progressively more complicated as the viewer moves further into it: Aziz’s liver is hit by a bullet and he needs a liver transplant, and as they are being tested for blood transfusions Meriem finds out Aziz is not Fares’s son. In the dialogue it becomes clear that she had taken revenge for an affair he had confessed to her in past. The director questions the firmness of the nuclear family structure and the ability to forgive in times of turmoil. (Barsaoui may have slipped a little too far into the issue of illegal organ trafficking and migration.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.