The 41st edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (20-29 November) saw much fascinating activity alongside the screening of 150 films from 63 countries, including the second Cairo Industry Days, CIFF’s industry platform.
The Cairo Industry days provided an important space for discussion and networking as well as workshops, master classes and partnership opportunities between Arab talent and key regional and international industry professionals. With a total of $200,000, the 6th Cairo Film Connection offered the highest cash awards in its history.
For the audience, films like the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, which one the Silver Lion for best director in Venice Film Festival last September — screened out of competition — were rather more important, however. Among the world’s most important filmmakers, Andersson has won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and the Venice the Golden Lion for his film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).
In his new film he Andersson employs the same style of using a fixed camera, turning each scene into a still shot at the end. About Endlessness opens with an image of a couple flying over a city through grey clouds, a kind of recreation of Marc Chagall’s famous 1918 painting Over the Town.
In this way, here as elsewhere in the film Andersson animates existing paintings, with the actors looking pale, moving little and talking less. In one sketch, an old man complains to the camera before running into a former schoolmate who, still holding a grudge decades later, refuses to return his greeting.
Some scenes connect with each other but on the whole Andersson doesn’t pay attention to sequence. A kind of theatrical approach shows the beginnings of stories, not necessarily their end.
The longest story in About Endlessness involves a priest who is seeing a psychiatrist about losing his faith. He features in other stories, dreaming of being crucified but in the modern world and drunk on wine while delivering the eucharist. The narration in the film is a female voice describing the scenes-stories in a poetic style, always starting with “I saw”.
CIFF saw the premiere of Palestinian filmmaker Najwa Najjar’s Between Heaven and Earth in the International Competition, where it won the Naguib Mahfouz Award for best script. The film is about a young married couple, Tamer and Salma. He is from the West Bank and she is from Nazareth. After five years’ marriage he gets the long awaited permission to enter Israel, but they are using to get divorced.
The filmmaker uses this storyline to reveal political and social issues and how difficult life is made for Palestinians. The camera follows the couple past the checkpoint where they enter Israel to go to the official local authority for the divorce regulations.
There they find that Tamer’s father, a well-known Palestinian activist who was assassinated in Beirut, was married to a Jewish woman called Hajar Gilead by which he had a son named Tamir, not Tamer. A counterpoint to the couple’s lukewarm relationship, this shocking piece of news makes the film very gripping.
It turns out that Tamer’s father used to be a militant communist in a group that included Jews, and Hajar — an Iraqi Jew who had immigrated to Palestine — was a fellow member. Najjar refers to the Mossad’s assassinations of Palestinian intellectuals in Beirut — Kamal Adwan, Kamal Nasser, Ghassan Kanafani — making Tamer’s father one of them. After visiting Gilead in hospital, Tamer meets Tamir, who as it turns out is a Zionist extremist and tells Tamer they will never be brothers.
Between Heaven and Earth is a road trip not only through Palestinian villages in Israel but also through the history of the Palestinian over the last seven decades, rediscovering characters who have been marginalised even though their role was paramount.
Another interesting film screened in the International Competition was the Lithuanian film Nova Lituania by Karolis Kaupinis. The film, which is in black and white, premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in June and won the Golden Athena Award at the Athens International Film Festival in September.
The film focuses on a very unstable period in the history of Lithuania right before the outbreak of WWII. The drama of the film develops through the main character Feliksas, a geography professor at the university who believes Lithuania is the target of its neighbours due to its small size and population (2.8 million).
Feeling the eradication of his country is imminent, he conceives a radical solution of which he tries to convince the prime minister: obtaining a plot of land where essential members of the population (doctors and architects, for example) can be transported to build a “New Lithuania”. But the prime minister has a heart condition and is tired of his job, while the president — a careless man only interested in his speeches — has nothing to offer.
Another plot line follows the collapse of Feliksas’s home life as his theory of “every gap in the country being filled by someone from outside it” is applied to his wife when, assuming he will depart by himself, his mother in law moves in and introduces her to a family friend who might be interested in replacing her husband.
The filmmaker uses this story to test such philosophical theories as pragmatism. In time Germany invades Poland, to which the president has donated a piece of Lithuanian land, and it is clear he will not fight against either Russians or Germans if they invade. The prime minister tries to convince the chief of staff to stage a coup d’etat, but by the time the film ends that chief of staff is seen walking side by side with the president.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.