Whether as a dramatic focus or the background to a human story, political conflicts have made impressive film topics since the invention of cinema. Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984), Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987), Maroun Bagdadi’s Out of Life (1991), Marc Forster’s The Kite Runner (2007), Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond (2007), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) are but a handful of examples.
The third El Gouna Film Festival too features some such films, with the Middle East providing the lion’s share of them.
One is titled 1982, the long narrative debut of Lebanese filmmaker and producer Oulid Mouaness, which won the NETPAC Award (The Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) and will be screened in El Gouna’s feature narrative competition. As the title indicates, the film is set in Beirut during the Israeli invasion – one of the most talked about episodes of the Lebanese Civil War.
The filmmaker, who is also the scriptwriter, tells the story of Wassim, a boy in the fifth grade of elementary school who is experiencing the first crush of his life. The opening scene shows him entering the school searching for the locker of his colleague Joana to put a piece of paper inside it. In a dialogue between Wassim and his friend Majid he explains that she lives in west Beirut, and Majid asks if she is Muslim. But Wassim is not interested in this issue.
The light-hearted story and the age of Wassim might recall Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut (1998), but there is also the relationship between Yasmine (Nadine Labaki, who is the director of Capernaum), Wassim’s school teacher, and her colleague Joseph. The director only hints at the ideological differences between Joseph and Yasmine’s brother George, which affect their relationship. And so Wassim is trying to express his feelings to Joana while Yasmine strives to stop her brother, who joins a militia. The film doesn’t stress which side he’s on, though at the start it is clear he will be fighting the Palestinians.
The action develops at one location during one day near the end of the school year while exams are being held in June 1982. The camera follows Wassim on his unstoppable exploits, with the dialogue between Wassim and Majid on one hand, and Joana and her friend Abeer on the other, beautifully and convincingly written. It is only at the very end that the big bang of the Israeli invasion occurs, and Wassim has made a drawing of a superhero which he slips into Joana’s locker, suggesting that he can save Beirut.
The Sudanese documentary Talking About Trees directed by Suhaib Gasmelbari discusses the dreadful situation of Sudenese cinema since the 1989 coup d’etat. It seems that the issue of Sudanese cinema and its history is the main focus of Gasmelbari, who made a short TV documentary about Sudanese cinema called Sudan’s Forgotten Films in 2017. During the past 30 years, it was the Islamic fundamentalism of the regime that shut don every last one of Sudan’s movie theatres, thus suppressing one of the most important channels of freedom of expression, and not simply a deteriorating economy.
Talking About Trees is Gasmelbari’s debut long film, which won the best documentary award and the Panorama Audience Award at the 2019 Berlinale, and is competing in El Gouna Film Festival Feature Documentary Competition, is about the Sudan Film Group (SFG), an association formed by four Sudanese senior filmmakers Ibrahim Shaddad, Al-Tayeb Mahdi, Suleiman Ibrahim and Manar Al Hilo in 1989. It shows their attempt to start their community activities of film screenings.
The opening scene shows Al Hilo sitting in the dark, probably at the SFG headquarter, on the phone having an absurd conversation about power cuts with a government employee. The scene ends with Shaddad saying that this situation was caused by the submissiveness of the people. “You don’t know how happy I am. Because of this film, we are going to do another film, and another film, and another film. Yes, this is my life.” Thus Shaddad soon after.
The director completes the first scene with a game played by the four senior filmmakers to overcome the situation in which they have created this imaginary set with Shaddad wearing a veil to represent a female addressing the camera in English in an exaggerated theatrical way about the greatness of cinema. Except there is no camera – only Ibrahim closing the palm of his hand to insinuate one, while the others play at being director and lighting man. It’s as if cinema becomes a mode of survival.
Talking about Trees
“The death of cinema was not natural at all,” Shaddad said during an interview with both him and Mahdi on a Sudanese radio channel. “It died suddenly. The sudden death of a hero is the work of a traitor. So if you want to know how it happens, search for the traitor.” This scene asserts the bitterness of those who used to work in the film industry when it was thriving in the 1970s and 1980s. The filmmaker shows some works of by four filmmakers, and he also focuses on their friendship. Later he accompanies them while they plan to continue their activities, without any direct intervention on his part.
Perhaps the director chose this very simple issue of entertaining the neighborhood by restoring their old movie theatre and starting its activities, as one of the basic needs of society. They felt that if they made one screening as a start with Tarantino’s Django, Unchained this would draw in most people in the neighborhood and it would be a great kick-off for their ambitious project. But when the government refuses to give them permission to start the project, it is Al-Bashir’s regime is the enemy. It is worth mentioning that this film was made a few months before the the Sudanese revolution against Al-Bashir broke out.
Kabul, City in the Wind
“The president told the people to pray for rain, but what about the suicide blasts.” That was a statement made by one of the Afghani men in a scene of the documentary Kabul, City in The Wind
directed by Aboozar Amini.
The man was talking with his friends about one of the deadliest attacks by a Taliban suicide bomber in Deh Mazang Square in Afghani capital, killing more than 60 people and injuring dozens, in July 2016. Amini’s first long documentary, which won the First Appearance Award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival and is participating in the Feature Documentary Competition, opens with Abbas, a bus driver who has used up all his money to buy a rickety bus to work through Kabul’s outskirts, singing in response to a friend’s request.
The lyrics are strange: “This is our beloved country, this is Afghanistan. This is the fatherland of thieves and conscienceless people”. Then the camera follows him while doing his job, driving through the narrow streets of Kabul’s poorest neighborhood.
The second dramatic line of the film follows Afshin, a young boy who has two younger brothers – Benjamin and Hussien – as he goes about his life in a poor neighborhood that counts among the hells of Kabul. Each line has a tragic core: Abbas, who is seen trying to repair the bus’s engine, loses the bus because he fails to pay its installments; and Asfin becomes responsible for his family when his father, a former soldier, leaves Afghanistan to settle in Iran.
The film shows the three boys as the watering the trees in the house as per their father’s rules, with Asfin giving instructions to his younger brothers to assert himself as the new patriarch. The filmmaker follows each story without any direct intervention, only using direct narration in a tight close shots of Abbas and Asfin to illustrate their struggle and suffering. On a much deeper level, Amini sometimes uses songs to penetrate to the core of the story. A song chanted by Benjamin to his little brother Hussien says, “Yellow Kitty stay home, don’t go to war, you may die”.
Afghanistan has been devastated since the Soviet invasion of the 1970s, followed by civil war and the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, which can be seen in such details as children playing inside a military tank. Amini covers the stories of his two protagonists with an atmosphere of dust and wind to show the hardships of life, while always aware of the terror and disruption caused by the attacks of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.