There was fierce competition for prizes at Ismailia's annual film festival earlier this month, with 62 films from 48 countries battling for a spot on the podium. The result was a list of winners that more than deserved their prizes, tackling a range of fascinating topics – from the Greek crisis to modern-day domestic slavery.
Such was the quality of the line-up, however, that many directors went home empty handed, despite their films deserving formal recognition. Certainly, they would have been awarded a prize if there had been more to hand out.
The 20th edition of the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts, took place between 11 and 17 April, presided over by critic Essam Zakaria. Awards were given in four categories: short documentaries, long documentaries, animation, and short fiction. There was also a section for students, with awards of their own.
The screening committee, selected by Khaled Abdel Jelil, head of the Egyptian Film Center, made sure that the films chosen for the festival were of high quality, including strong camera techniques and original music, while tackling interesting issues and daring subjects.
This year's winners
The Best Film prize in the Long Documentary competition went to Sharp Tools by Nujoom Al-Ghanem (UAE). The film tells of Hassan Sherif, founder of the conceptual art movement in the Emirates, who explains the reasons behind his creations, which appeared in an era that wasn’t ready for an art revolution.
The Jury Prize for Long Documentary went to A Woman Captured by Bernadett Tuza-Ritter (Hungary, 2017). The subject is Marish, a 52-year-old woman who was trapped in service to a family for a decade, working 20 hours a day without pay. Her criminal oppressors took her ID documents and prevented her from leaving the house without permission.
Best Film in the Short Documentary competition went to the Serbian film The Same (2017) by Dejan Petrovic. The story explores how society has ensnared humans and transformed them into cogs in a machine, with a resulting loss in identity. The film employs the example of the prisoners and their jailers, who are similar in many respects.
The Jury Prize in the Short Documentary category went to Arabic Secret by Julia Groszek (Poland). The story follows an Iraqi folk singer born and raised in Poland. He has never met his father and decides to go in search of him, a decision that does not lead to a warm reconciliation.
The Short Fiction Competition Award went to The Ticket by Haris Stathopoulos (Greece). It records the Greek crisis through a public transport ticket that passes from hand to hand. Each person carrying the ticket has his own story and social problems.
Facing Mecca by Jan-Eric Mack from Switzerland received the Jury Prize for Short Fiction. It tells the story of a Muslim woman who dies in Switzerland and the problems her husband faces in burying her according to shariaa law.
Movies worthy of praise
Among the non-winners, however, there were some sparkling contributions, which might well have taken home a prize on any other day.
Those deserving an award include the Tunisian short-fiction film Confession, about a Muslim man working in a church where he overhears the confession of a woman who has sinned. The film points to the world of hypocrisy of those sinners who do not confess but carry on with their lives feeling no guilt.
The Confession should have been praised for opening the discussion on relations between the followers of different religions, and whether they can learn from each other and even adopt some practices from one another, in order to live a more fruitful, happier life.
Another strong film was the Palestinian short-fiction work The Crossing, which depicts the suffering of two brothers and a sister trying to cross the apartheid wall built by the Israeli occupation forces to visit their sick grandfather who – as we soon discover – has already passed away.
The element of death adds to the general misery, making the heartbreak even deeper. The Crossing deserved an award for shedding light on the day-to-day problems that the Palestinians endure, capturing the story in a subtle and very artistic way, while avoiding the pitfalls of blunt propaganda.
Tackling tough topics
The festival raised a wide range of issues that are rarely tackled with any depth by the mainstream media. Among them were the financial struggles of ordinary people and the harsh realities of their lives. One theme tackled in various ways was modern-day slavery, with people working for free or on low wages, often with little or no freedom to leave.
Short films were shown to provide an important window on the condition of voiceless people and their concerns.
The Spanish short documentary Gold Fever focuses on the miserable condition of miners, while the Italian short fiction film Day Labor highlights the death of a lady working for 2 Euros a day, a death that led to a change in labor laws.
The Hatch (Austria, 2012) touches on the problem of abandoned children. Directed by Christoph Kuschnig, the film follows a couple who abandon their child due to dire economic conditions, with a gay couple taking the newborn while it is still in the hospital.
The Virgin, the Copts and Me (La Vierge, les Coptes et moi..., 2011) from Egypt discusses religion and the myths surrounding it, while the Palestinian film A World Not Ours (Alam laysa lana, 2012) tells of the living conditions and misery of refugees.
The impact of the Syrian war on civilians and the struggle to survive under bombardment is detailed in One Day in Aleppo (2017), directed and co-written by Ali Alibrahim.
The Greek long documentary StringLESS (2013) by Angelos Kovotsos tells of several people who overcome poverty by creating art and music. Five ladies form an acapella vocal group in Thessaloniki, using music to survive in the midst of the Greek crisis.
The Slovenian-Danish long documentary The Family tells the story of a young man called Matej whose parents are mentally disabled. Despite this ongoing obstacle, he resolves to start a family of his own, a project fraught with problems. The film won a special mention in the long documentary competition.
The wide range of tough topics covered in the festival bear testimony to the nature of our modern world, providing viewers with a potent wake-up call.
This is probably the key benefit to be gained from short films and documentaries, which provide a great platform for concise messages that reach the point in an artistic and often very direct way.
Honouring the past, building the future
But the festival was not just about new films, tough topics and winning awards. Running in parallel with the competitions was the Golden-Program, consisting of a program of movies that won awards at the festival in previous years, screened in the presence of the directors.
The festival also paid tribute to renowned figures in the movie industry. These included the late critic Ali Abu Shadi for his long-lasting role in the film industry in Egypt, his studies and books on film criticism.
There was also the Swiss-Iraqi director Samir Jamal Eldin, honoured for his many movies (around 50 over four decades), such as Forget Baghdad and Iraqi Odyssey. Jamal Eldin’s movies have won several awards at festivals in Switzerland and around the world.
The festival would not have been complete without a team of volunteers from Ismailia who attended the guests' needs and organized transportation. They also organised the screenings and associated question-and-answer sessions, ensuring that each event occured according to schedule.
The role of the volunteers, though often overlooked by the audiences, was the festival’s most important asset. The event provided training for young people who will become the corner-stone of a professional organization, handling future festivals both locally and internationally.
In brief, this year’s edition of the Ismailia International Film Festival was a celebration of creativity, art and the undeniable influence of film on society in general.
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