There is a guaranteed charm about films that explore the arts. Whether it is an art piece, a music composition or a dance performance, watching these types of films feels like a double treat; one being the subject at hand, the other being the film itself.
The line-up of this year’s Cairo International Film Festival included a number of pictures that explored the arts, representing the many sections of the festival.
Each work presented itself differently. In attempt to explore the fortes and challenges of making a movie that explores an art form, below is a look at how they varied in terms of theme, structure and cinematography.
Dancing with Maria – Italy, 2014
At 92, Maria Fux, the heroine of Dancing with Maria and the compelling dancer in her own rite, is still mentoring dozens of students from all walks of life. Her Buenos Aires-based studio welcomes dancers with physical and mental disabilities, lending her approach to dance a therapeutic dimension. Director Ivan Gergolet attempts to shed light on the challenge Fux endures as she is confronted with her ailing body.
However, the structure adopted in presenting Dancing with Maria builds a narrative that is primarily focused on her students and their personal development through dance. Through them, we see the hope instilled after dancing with Maria.
Little attention is given to Maria's own struggles with movement, except for one scene where we see her weakened knees bending in a series of imperfect pliés. We almost only meet Maria in class, smiling freely as she instructs her students to “search for the rhythm,” rendering the journey through which she realises her body is changing impalpable.
Her studio is always full. Scenes are shot from a narrow angle, resulting in awkwardly framed close-ups of Maria’s dancers who are often too many to fit comfortably in one room. The subsequent images are cluttered, and the technique carries a non-therapeutic feel that emerges oddly against the essence of Maria’s approach to dance.
One of the fortes of the film, however, is that it poses dance as a non-glamorous form of art, devoid of synchrony and the refinements of performance. In its rawness, the film evokes moments of deep emotion.
Red, Blue, Yellow – UAE, 2013
Red, Blue, Yellow by Nujoom Al Ghanem is documentary that tells the story of pioneering Emirati painter Najat Makki. Viewers are invited into her home, which also houses her studio, a room filled with canvases that reach up to the ceiling.
Makki is one of few female Emirati painters, the first in her field to receive a doctorate degree. Both her career and lifestyle choices stand out in her present day home country, notions that are discussed throughout the documentary by family members as well as colleagues, albeit through straitjacketed scenes pulled out from interviews.
We meet two of her sisters, a niece and a nephew. In individual interviews, they are asked about Makki’s past and present. While she sometimes appeared sitting next to the subject interviewed, their responses seem like they are telling telling on her, revealing to the interviewer and to the audience Makki’s most personal secrets.
The camera shifts between classic face-to-camera interviews and longer, observational shots; both of which seemed a little staged.
When she’s not talking to the camera, Makki’s hands are captured in close-up shots touching bags full of spices, colourful galabeyas (traditional garments) and long queues of bricks that make up the walls of either Dubai or Paris, two places the film is shot in and Makki's sources of inspiration.
The artist's story is presented through bright, steady shots that are both intimate and colourful. As a painter, she opts for fiery colours, which the filmmaker has aptly displayed throughout the movie.
Los Hongos – Colombia, 2014
Los Hongos, Spanish for The Mushrooms, falls short in conveying one central theme. The story wanders off in several directions, and so does the viewer. In his attempt to weave together several plotlines, Oscar Ruiz Navia paved the way for an aimless picture that failed to capitalise on the wealth of notions surrounding graffiti as a form of expression, and on the potential posed by the dynamic duo that star in his sophomore feature.
What was missing is colour. Watching a movie about graffiti is bound to get you hyped about paint splashing on abandoned walls, met by violent reactions from the authorities. While there are several shots of the latter, unsubtly shedding light on the heavy-handed Colombian police, the cinematography failed to find inspiration from the spontaneity and colour provided by street art.
In one scene, a group of graffiti artists meet in what seems like an abandoned field in Cali, Colombia. The camera zooms onto the faces of the artists as they each propose an idea for painting a grand mural. Instead of tantalising our appetite for what may come next, the camera only captures the dry words.
In Navia’s Los Hongos, an endearing scene is of Calvin, a graffiti artist, painting his grandmother’s crumpled lips with pink lipstick, and another when he massages her old, itchy head. There are a number of heart-warming shots throughout the film, but Navia shifts jerkily from one to the next, with no apparent sequence to his choices.
Magic Arena – Italy, 2014
Magic Arena’s charm lies in two particulars: the film is set in Arena Di Verona, a large open air opera stage, and the production documents the crossroad of Verdi's 200th birthday and the Arena Festival's 100th iteration.
The filmmakers, Andrea Prandstraller and Niccolo Bruno, instantly immerse us in what is taking place backstage, an enormous ground that swells with 180 singers, 120 orchestra musicians, 40 children, 30 dancers and dozens of extras, technicians and support team. Their cameras rarely leave the set, and neither does our attention.
The off-stage chaos we encounter gives off a sense of realism of the infinite amount of organisation that goes into producing a performance as important as Aida.
Undoubtedly buoyed by the rareness of its central location, Magic Arena’s cinematography is a visual treat. The film alternates between morning and evening shots of the Arena di Verona. It incorporates a series of gorgeous scenes of the sun-lit theatre as well as a gloomy scene of rainfall, which hit the theatre on the night before the show, delaying the opening night.
The nature of the plotline made it easier for the filmmakers to focus on one space for shooting, and the consistency in location keep the viewer engaged. Verona appears sporadically, but the-not-so-long shots of the picturesque city assure that the arena remains the hero.
The filmmakers adopted a linear style, transporting the viewers from the prologue all the way to the final scene, and against all odds, the result isn’t boring. The documentary is divided into five segments, the prologue followed by four acts, a style that eases the viewers into the story.
The filmmakers intertwine two plotlines: in each of the five sections, the viewers get a glimpse of rehearsal for that particular part in the opera paralleled by the off-stage preparation race.
This style serves as a strong build to the final performances, of which we do not see much, in way of emphasising that the film is meant to portray the journey.
Of the four films, Magic Arena stands out as the strongest contestant, with a tight plotline and enchanting cinematography. Elements of chaos and color become essential ingredients, and while the structure may change, ultimately, a film exploring the arts should be nothing short of a magical reality.