Covid-19 posed major challenges for El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) this year, with fewer films produced in 2020 the world over and the need for health precautions in the organisation of the event itself. Indeed some guests refused the invitation to the festivals while others fell ill having accepted it.
GFF director Intishal Al Timimi and artistic director Amir Ramsis have managed to overcome both challenges, however, with an impressive programme featuring Tunisian director Kawther Bin Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin as the opening film.
The Man Who Sold His Skin premiered at the Venice Film Festival in Orizzonti (Horizons) section, winning the Edipo Re Award (for best production design) and the best actor award (Yahya Mahayni). Loosely inspired by the legend of Faust, the script revolves around the love story of a Syrian couple, Sam Ali (Mahayni) and girlfriend Abeer (Dea Liane).
In an old-fashioned romantic scene on the tram, Sam loudly declares his love in the time of revolution – for which he is arrested and tortured – driving him to make a bargain with the devil, Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), an avant garde Belgian artist who wants to tattoo a giant Schengen visa on Sam’s back, exhibiting him all over the world, and whose agent Sorya (played by Monica Belloci), is another manifestation.
Providing him with a way out of Syria – with Abeer marrying a diplomat in Belgium – the project nonetheless alienates Sam, who feels he is being treated as an art object rather than a human being. At one point he scares collectors at an auction by pretending to be a suicide bomber.
Another film about the displaced in the narrative competition is Portuguese filmmaker Anna Rocha’s debut Listen. Zeroing in on the daily difficulties faced by one working-class Portuguese family in London, Rocha broadens her perspective to questions of the welfare state and family integrity. An unemployed painter and his part-time domestic worker wife, the couple have trouble providing for their children – one of whom is deaf – so much so that at one point the mother is seen shoplifting. When the girl’s hearing device is broken they cannot afford a new one...
Rocha doesn’t give in to old-school realism, and she doesn’t pay too much attention to such plot-line questions as why the family immigrated in the first place. Rather, focusing on the horror of the two children being taken away from their parents by the state, she dedicates herself to acting and cinematography, with incredible emotion in the scenes between mother and daughter.
“Listen” is a reference both to the girl’s condition and, on a much deeper level, the social service officials who are equally unable to hear the family’s pleas to be allowed to stay together. The film won the prestigious Lion of the Future at the Venice International Film Festival, which last year went to the Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala for his narrative debut You Will Die At Twenty, which was also screened at El Gouna Film Festival.
Listen also won the special jury prize in the Horizons competition and two more prestigious awards at Venice. It has a good chance of winning the El Gouna Golden Star too.
One of the most expensive foods in the world is the white truffle, a rare fungus found deep in the forests of northern Italy. One kilogramme of white truffle sells for over Euro 5000. The Italian documentary The Truffle Hunters directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw describes some of the details around the process of obtaining it.
It opens with the villagers entering the area where the truffles might be found, scouring the forest with their dogs. And from the first few shots it is clear that the exquisite cinematography is of prime importance, something especially evident while the villagers dig through the unpaved roads of the woods. In two scenes the camera is attached to the head of a dog, adding to the visual power of the film.
But there is plenty of drama too, and it derives from the actions and interactions of characters who will never taste their prized product, one of whom – Carlo – is 87 years old. The camera follows the details of his life with his wife as they eat their meals and make their own wine at home, showing how careful of and anxious about Carlo’s health his wife has been since he was injured while hunting for truffles.
Another sequence focuses on the relationship between another elderly villager and his dog Briba, whom he regards as a kind of daughter. At one point the man tells a friend that he is afraid to die and abandon her... Without turning the film into a study of social class, the filmmakers do show buyers sniffing the truffles at an auction and a rich man eating eggs with truffle on top.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly