The fourth Cairo Cinema Days kicked off on 11 March with Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die At Twenty. The annual event, run by Zawya arthouse cinema since 2017, is dedicated to showcasing the latest award-winning and critically-acclaimed films from the Arab world. This year there are fewer films on the programme and they are all being screened at Zawya’s main venue, Karim Cinema, with no screenings at the Zamalek Cinema as in previous years. There are also no special sections for classic Arab films or retrospectives.
On a more positive note, the new round maintains the tradition of a quality programme including 15 narrative and documentary films – many of them award-winning – from Sudan, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. These include two Sudanese debuts that won dozens of prestigious regional and international awards in 2019.
Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die At Twenty won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award from Venice, the best screenplay award from Carthage and the best narrative film award from El Gouna, among many others. It follows the internal journey of Muzamel, a young man who is cursed by the prophecy of a dervish when he is born now approaching the age at which he was told he would die.
Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees premiered at the Berlinale where it won the Berlinale Glashütte Original Documentary Award, the festival’s top award for a documentary, and the Panorama Audience Award in the documentary category, as well as the best documentary award at El Gouna, among many others. It documents the attempts of three of Sudan’s pioneering filmmakers to revive an old cinema under a repressive Islamist regime where glimpses of the history and the future of the Sudanese film industry can be seen.
Another interesting debut is 1982 by the Lebanese filmmaker Oualid Mouaness, a narrative feature dealing with the filmmaker childhood and his thoughts about the 1982 Israeli invasion. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won its NETPAC Award. It also won the FIPRESCI (International Critics Prize) from El Gouna Film Festival in 2019, among many other awards.
All This Victory, Lebanese filmmaker Ahmed Ghossein’s debut, is another film about war, though set at a different time: during a 24-hour ceasefire in July 2006. It explores the deepest inner conflicts of a group of people trapped in a village house. It won the Audience Award of the Critics’ Week at Venice and was in the Official Competition selection of Cairo International Film Festival in 2019.
The programme also includes two films widely acclaimed as among the best ever dealing with women’s issues. Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani’s debut Adam, a narrative film, was in the official selection of Cannes’s Un Certain Regard and won many awards including El Gouna’s bronze star. It was also Morocco’s official selection for the Academy Awards, although it did not make the short list. Through following the intersecting destinies of two mothers who belong to different social classes, the film discusses the social and cultural burdens carried by Arab women regardless of their position on the social ladder.
Tunisian filmmaker Hinde Boujemaa’s debut Noura’s Dream focuses on a wife and mother torn between social boundaries and emotional desires in a conservative and judgmental context. It won the IPRESCI Prize from the Torino Film Festival and its star, the celebrated Tunisian actress Hend Sabry, won best actress awards at Carthage and El Gouna.
Though made by a man, the Algerian filmmaker Hassen Ferhani’s documentary 143 Sahara Street is a beautiful piece of art that depicts the past, present and future dreams of Malika, a woman who lives and works in isolation in the middle of the Sahara serving tea to truck drivers who pass her small kiosk. Through long conversations with these random customers, her life story is revealed. It is a sad story, but she lives up to its challenge. The film won the Best Emerging Director (Filmmakers of the Present) at Locarno, the Prize of the City of Torino for Best International Documentary at Torino, and the silver star for best documentary at El Gouna.
Another interesting selection from Tunisia is A Son by Mehdi Barsaoui, which won the Salah Abu Seif Award for Best Artistic Contribution at Cairo and the Venice Horizons Award for Best Actor at Venice. The narrative film explores the challenges faced by Tunisian families regarding the organ transplant laws and the danger of the expansion of the organ traffickers in the region, tackling cultural and social issues of honour, social image, and fatherhood at the same time.
The Cairo Cinema Days programme also includes a gem by the renowned Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, It Must Be Heaven, which marks his return to the scene after 10 years of absence. Screened out of competition at the Cairo International Film Festival, the film won the FIPRESCI Award and a Special Mention at Cannes. It is another episode in Suleiman’s series of biographical films, in which he plays the lead. In a journey from Palestine to Paris and onto New York, he humorously explores his disillusion with escaping an occupied country as he grapples with identity, nationality and belonging. Can anywhere be called home?
For Sama, the Emmy Award-winning Syrian filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s debut feature documentary is another highlight. significant selection on the list of The Cairo Cinema Days this year. It won the BAFTA’s best documentary award and was the Documentary Feature Nomination for the Academy Awards. Through an epic journey in 96 minutes the film explores the female experience of war focusing on the challenges faced by the filmmaker and lead as she attempts to secure the future of her daughter Sama against the backdrop of escalating unrest in Aleppo.
Two other films in the programme are notable for their unconventional narrative style. The Algerian filmmaker Amin Sidi-Boumedine’s Abou Leila, an alternative account of the 1990s civil war, poses the question of reality and illusion, forcing the audience to question all that they take for granted. Abou Leila was the official selection of the Critics Week at both Cannes and Cairo International Film Festival, and won the Best Actor Award at Carthage.
Likewise Tunisian filmmaker Alaa Eddine Slim’s Tlamess, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes, is a nonlinear journey from reality into fantasy on a quest for the origin of evil. A young solider in the middle of the desert sick of his life pattern decides to take a week’s leave and go home, but instead he begins to explore nowhere.
In Mansourah, You Separated Us is a documentary film by Dorothée Myriam Kellou which is also about Algeria yet in a different era, during the French occupation. In the village of Mansourah, Dorothée Myriam, the director, with her father Malek meets to collect the historical memory of a certain day when 2,350,000 people were forced to leave their homes and gather in camps. Saying the unsaid is one of the strongest qualities of the film, which was in the Official Selection of the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam.
The Unknown Saint by Moroccan filmmaker Ala Eddine Aljem is a crime comedy in which, before his arrest, a thief buries his booty, disguising it as a modest tomb – only to realise it has become a shrine for the so called Unknown Saint on his release.
Saudi filmmaker Abdulmohsen Aldahbaan’s Last Visit depicts the conflict between generations in a conservative village where the relationship between son, father and grandfather is explored during a journey to seek a cure for the father’s illness. It was the in the East of West Competition at Karlovy Vary and won the Marrakech Jury Prize.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly