El Gouna Film Festival: Helmets and ribbons

Hani Mustafa , Wednesday 4 Nov 2020

This year viewers left El Gouna Film Festival satisfied with a selection of strong and important films from all over the world

Quo Vadis, Aida
Quo Vadis, Aida

As in the last three rounds, and despite the exceptional challenges of Covid, this year viewers left El Gouna Film Festival satisfied with a selection of strong and important films from all over the world. Yet, more than in previews rounds, perhaps, in this year’s programme politics predominated.

Quo Vadis, Aida? which won the El Gouna Golden Star  and the best actress award (for Jasna Duricic) was about the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, when units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska under the command of Ratko Mladić killed 8000 mostly male citizens. Written and directed by filmmaker and activist Jasmila Zbanic, the film is set in a UN shelter two days before the massacre.

The filmmaker digs deep into the political circumstances surrounding the central event, opening with a meeting of the Dutch UN peacekeeping commander (the Blue Helmets) and the mayor of Srebrenica, who asks them to protect civilians from the Bosnian Serb Army marching towards the city. The commander says Mladić’s forces are in no position to harm Srebrenica’s citizens since UN airstrikes can easily target their camps and units. Yet Mladić’s forces do enter the city, arrest and kill its male residents (including the mayor), while some 30 thousand flee to the UN shelter...

The film tells the story from the viewpoint of the UN translator, Aida, whose husband and son are trying to enter the shelter (her other son is already inside). The tension rises when the Bosnian Serb Army commander insists on meeting a delegation of citizens accompanied by the UN colonel to negotiate evacuating the city in buses provided by the Serbs. Aida’s agony becomes apparent as she finds out that Mladić’s units are transporting the females but taking the males (including children) for interrogation.

One master scene takes place when Aida and her husband plead with the deputy commander of the Blue Helmets to put them down as UN employees – first all four of them, then just the sons, then only one son – while he says no. Years later Aida is scene walking around a mass grave searching for the body of her son, whose bones she eventually identifies by his shoe. Duricic’s acting performance is incredible throughout.

The film seems to close with a symbolic statement when Aida returns to her former job as a schoolteacher. A school show is being performed by students, and the audience is made up of parents from both sides of the civil war. At one point in the dance the performers cover and uncover their faces with their hands, suggesting the question of whether to show or hide what happened. The film manages to present a terrible episode of history as a human experience, reaching remarkable empathetic heights

As usual, forgetting that a subjective element is unavoidable in any competition, some audience members contested the award of Silver Star to Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo’s Bad Tales. In this film, the Italian brothers adopt a slow buildup reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning White Ribbon (2009), which also won 60 additional awards. Like Haneke’s film, Bad Tales – which won Berlin’s Silver Bear for best screenplay, among 13 other awards – traces society’s ills to the wayward urges of children and adults.

Under The Stars Of Paris
Under The Stars Of Paris

Set on the outskirts of Rome, the film focuses on several middle-class families and the relations between them and, especially, their children, who are around 12 years old. In one scene, three families are having dinner. A father asks his daughter and son to read out the results of the school exam, and the two children grow pale even though they both got full marks for all subjects (except for one subject in which the sister got nine out of 10). Quirks and humour ameliorate the oppressive sense of foreboding that permeates the film. The plot revolves around the families realising that, with knowledge gleaned at school, their children have killed themselves – with the beautifully edited climactic sequence making for especially harrowing viewing.

Among many films tacking the theme of forced displacement, Kawther Bin Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin won the best Arabic film Award. Claus Drexel’s Under the Stars of Paris too tells the story of an immigrant child, with the title misleadingly evoking the glamour of La Ville Lumière, but at the same time it addresses the theme of homelessness. To Drexel, who cowrote the film with Olivier Brunhes, origin and identity – race, nationality, status – matters less than the suffering all human beings share.

Bad Tales
Bad Tales

With a somewhat predictable script, the film is the encounter, under one old bridge over the Seine, of a homeless woman who appears to be from a well-off background, Christine – as the film rather redundantly tells us, a scientist who lost her loved ones and eventually also her home – and an eight-year-old African boy named Suli who was separated from his mother when the police stormed the illegal immigrant shelter where they were staying. When Suli shows up at Christine’s hiding place one rainy night, she gives him a dry pullover but asks him to leave. The story develops as they end up sticking together, however, as Christine is kicked out and they start looking for Suli’s mother.

Having made a documentary about the homeless in Paris in 2013, On the Edge of the World, the filmmaker navigates the underworld with ease. He manages to convey an urgent sense of tragedy with very little dialogue.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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