Of politics and outer space in 2nd Sharm El-Sheikh Film Festival

Hani Mustafa , Saturday 17 Mar 2018

Mahmoud Kamel and Iyad Hajjaj’s Dreams I Never Had, Mohamed Al-Darradji's The Journey and Olga Darfy's I Am Gagarin were among films screened during the Sharm El-Sheikh Film Festival (3-9 March)

Dreams I Never Had
Mahmoud Kamel and Iyad Hajjaj’s Dreams I Never Had (Photo: still from the film Dreams I Never Had)

Of the obstacles that stand in the way of a successful film festival, financial issues are undoubtedly the most important. But sometimes it is a side issue blown out of proportion by the press.

At the second Sharm El-Sheikh Film Festival which took place between 3 and 9 March, Mahmoud Kamel and Iyad Hajjaj’s Dreams I Never Had became the focus of an issue surrounding the latter director’s previous collaboration with a Hollywood-based Israeli horror producer, Shlomo May-Zur, on the 2013 dinosaur film Raptor Ranch, which prompted accusations of normalisation with Israel directed not only at Hajjaj but at the festival as a whole.

According to a statement made by the festival administration (presided over by journalist Gamal Zaida) in response, Hajjaj, who made the present film with the Egyptian Kamel, is a Palestinian, not an Israeli citizen who now holds American nationality as well; and he immigrated from Gaza to the US 20 years ago, having been arrested and tortured by the Israelis in 1988, 1989 and 1992.

Surprisingly, Dreams I Never Had deals in a humane way with the issue of illegal immigration to the US, focusing on an immigrant family whose origins are never specified. The family is made up of a well-to-do man named Sam Sahal (Hajjaj), his wife Suzanne (Golsa Sarabi), their son and daughter as well as a 12-year-old maid, Laila (Fidelia Grace) who has been brought illegally into the US.

The mysterious relationship between the woman and this girl — she claims the girl is a niece of hers, but treats her harshly — is not resolved until it becomes clear the woman practically bought the girl from her indigent family in the poor Middle Eastern country whence she too hails in order to use her as a maid back in the US.

The film deals with Laila’s trials and tribulations from the age of 12 to 16, when Sam and Suzanne are tried for human trafficking. The end result is somewhat melodramatic, with scenes of Suzanne torturing and her son raping Laila and much moralising rhetoric in the course of the trial as well as Layla’s romantic interest — the Mexican gardener’s son — being arrested and deported.

The rhythm is slow, the characters stereotypical, the message in-your-face and the story derivative (an ineffective variation on Cinderella), but it is as a medium- as opposed to low-budget independent production that the film stands out.

According to Hajjaj, with whom I spoke in Sharm El-Sheikh, Malcom McDowel (playing the judge) agreed to become a production partner in lieu of being paid, and in this and other ways the film could be made with virtually no support. Hajjaj wants to make an action film next, and knowing that this requires a much higher budget he is planning in a different way.

The Journey
Mohamed Al-Darradji's The Journey (Photo: still from film The Journey)

Perhaps Iraq’s most important young, Mohamed Al-Darradji has made films that won or were nominated for numerous awards at major festivals. His second long fiction film, Son of Babylon, won 13 awards including best script at the 2010 Cairo International Film Festival.

Al-Darradji participated in the Sharm El-Sheikh official competition with The Journey, which won the Silver Djed Pillar (Special Jury Award). The Journey opens with a girl named Sarah (Zahraa Ghandour) walking towards the train station with a bag on her back.

The day is 30 December 2006, the first day of Eid Al-Adha, three years after the American invasion. The opening scenes of the film are suspenseful while Al-Darradji trails the girl with a handheld camera past the station and into the checkpoint, where she places her hand on the shoulder of a schoolgirl to give the impression that she is the girl’s teacher or caregiver so that the policeman in charge of searching the passengers doesn’t pay attention to her.

Despite its reliance on coincidence, this beginning benefits from Al-Darradji’s skill in cutting his shots, making it a plausibly suspenseful and meaningful scene while communicating the fact that the girl is a suicide attacker wearing an explosive belt.

The screenplay goes on revealing details of life at the train station, each beautifully suggesting a side story behind it, which indirectly enables the viewer to predict aspects of the main storyline whereby the girl bearing a murderous hatred for society will come to sympathise with her prospective victims, poor people whose desires and dreams are not so different from hers. Through another coincidence, indeed, she connects with a swindler posing as a salesman — and so on until she is prevented from blowing herself up.

The film is full of impressive aesthetic elements, from impressive acting by the main character who makes use of her severe facial features and harsh expressions but nonetheless manages to reveal delicacy and sensitivity and the humorous, lively little girl who sells flowers at the station to excellent use of groups of actors and amazingly effective editing especially during the first quarter of the film.

The dramatic structure wobbles somewhat as the film progresses, and the dialogue is occasionally beset by rhetoric, but the weakest point is the continual reliance on coincidence to push the story forward time after time.

I Am Gagarin
Olga Darfy's I Am Gagarin (Photo: fragment from film I Am Gagarin's poster)

Political transformation will only happen as a result of an accumulation of opposition breaking rules and shackles.

That must’ve been what the Russian filmmaker Olga Darfy was thinking of when she made her documentary I Am Gagarin, which was screened in the official competition at Sharm El-Sheikh and in which Darfy recollects the atmosphere of loud, large-scale concerts called Gagarin Gigs after the venue of the first of them: the Space Gallery in Moscow.

They are concerts in which she participated as a young woman only months prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the connection between them and political transformation is an idea she keeps reiterating all through the film, as if they were an expression of this period in which the spirit of revolt against the Soviets’ sacred cows was born.

The film shows footage of the concerts but depends on the memories of the director’s friends who attended them with her. Darfy adds a dramatic element by including a question about another friend of theirs, the DJ Vanya, who has fallen out of their radar even though he was among the founders of the Gagarin Gigs and a very active force in spreading the new culture surrounding them; the implication is that he died during or after the revolution.

The director uses numerous artistic tools that enrich the film, including Mikhail Gorbachev’s last address, in which he announces his resignation as party secretary on 26 December 1991. Nostalgia looms large with archival video and still photography of 1990s Russian techno demonstrating the beginnings of American influence on young Russians and a Woodstock-like sense of rebellion, flower power and the anti-Vietnam war peace movement recalling Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Richie Havens’s iconic Freedom, which moved 400,000 people over three days on 15-17 August 1969.

Some material is contrasted with present-day concert footage. But the more important archival side of the film remains the low-quality footage of the Gagarin Gigs themselves, which accompanies many of the interviews and provides relevant information and demonstrates the American influence to the full, with Pop Art-like clothes and accessories verging on the Surrealist.

No doubt the setting itself is full of surreal meanings: “feeling that we’re jumping into space”, as one of Darfy’s friends puts it, for one thing Soviet policies, though they had managed to send Gagarin into outer space some 20 years earlier, could never allow. Such contradictions are a principal element of the film.

Sharm El Sheikh
The closing ceremony of the 2nd Sharm El Sheikh International Film Festival (Photo: Al Ahram)

In addition to its various screening programmes, the Sharm El-Sheikh Festival included many popular seminars — notably the ones honouring actors Hassan Hosni and Laila Taher and director Ali Badrakhan — in which such landmark films as Badrakhan’s Karnak (1975) and Niazi Mustafa’s Abu Hadid (1958), starring Laila Taher and produced by Ramsis Naguib, who changed the actress’s name from Sherwet Mustafa Fahmi to Laila Taher, were thoroughly discussed. Hosni discussed his numerous comic roles at length, recalling amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

One seminar marking 10 years since the death of Youssef Chahine was attended by the actor Seif Abdel-Rahman who spoke of his work and friendship with Chahine, which started from Dawn of a New Day (1964) and continued for over 40 years. Another celebrated International Women’s Day.

A third event was a masterclass on making an independent film with the American filmmaker Izzy Chan, who explained the means to funding an independent film relying on her experience making the documentary The Big Flip (2016), which discusses role reversal in some American families in which the wife earns the money while the husband looks after the house; it was also screened in the festival. Organised in collaboration with the American Embassy in Egypt, this was but one event in a programme celebrating America as the festival’s guest of honour this year.

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly 

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