During the second half of the 20th century, Egypt played a major role in African political life, extending great solidarity to national liberation struggles and the fight against colonialism. Perhaps one of the most important and significant roles, at that time, was when Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah established the African Unity Organisation (AUO) in 1963. Pan-Africanism at that time meant not only solidarity between the African nations in the field of politics but also playing a similar role in the field of education and culture. Nowadays, Egypt is trying to restore that role by developing its ties with many African countries.
For ten years now the Luxor African Film Festival has played a part in this process, focusing on the field of culture, by hosting an annual cultural event providing an opportunity for both Egyptian and African film professionals and cinefiles to meet and exchange recent productions in Luxor, an ancient cradle of history. The festival has also provided Egyptian intellectuals with access to a full picture of the current difficulties from which some African communities suffer. The main ordeal of most Africans is modern capitalism exploiting the unique locations of some African cities or their natural resources.
In this year’s Long Documentary Competition, many filmmakers aimed their lenses at the agony of some marginalised people in films such as Morning Star (Aza Kivy) directed by Nantenaina Lova from Madagascar, which delves into the hardships of fishermen in a poor coastal village in southwestern Madagascar. These fishermen use very primitive tools and canoes to catch fish in a village whose economy lies in the activity of fishing. Their life deteriorated after the government had allowed a Chinese company to fish in Madagascar’s waters. The film starts with a wonderful local song whose lyrics express the nature of Madagascar and the fishermen’s ancestors. The song is performed by a singer with a powerful voice on a local stringed instrument in an introductory scene that gives the audience a spiritual atmosphere in preparation for what follows.
The dramatic conflict in the story takes place when a young fisherman and his colleagues find out that the government gave permission to a multinational mining company to work near their village, which will probably completely destroy their work. The filmmaker shows the main character, who becomes an activist against this recent project. On a personal level, his canoe is totally damaged and needs to be replaced with a new one. The filmmaker follows him through his struggle with both issues, but the film ends when he manages to make a new canoe, naming it Aza Kivy (which means “let’s not give up” in his mother tongue).
The important thing about this film is that the filmmaker portrays the conflict and the struggle in very few scenes without showing any kind of violence, only the details of the case and how the fishermen are dealing with it. The film gives a very powerful message about the suffering of the locals when they face new development plans that have new colonial intentions.
Perhaps the same issue is the subject of the Malian documentary Gold or Money directed by Eric Revo and Jérôme Poisson, also screened also in the Long Documentary Competition. Its subject is the workers of a poor village named Baboto whose profession is digging and panning gold in the traditional way.
The film opens with a young man finding his way into a very deep hole in the ground, to the sound of heavy breathing. This gives the audience a glimpse of the main character’s profession and the conflict in his life. His name is Osmane, known among his friends as DJ, because his hobby is to play music and sing in the village pub. But his main work is panning the gold from the holes outside Baboto in the East of Mali. The filmmakers follow DJ as an example of those workers whose production too low cover their basic needs. When the government gives permission to a multinational mining company to work in Baboto, extracting gold in a much more modern way, along with other local workers, DJ hopes to have a job in the new company, which might secure the basic needs of his family, but recruitment is halted by the village chief. DJ is seen singing and dancing as a defence mechanism following his disappointment. The film ends with a long shot from the sky that shows the holes of the local people and in front of them the company’s mining site, which means that the locals continue with their digging in spite of the intrusion of modern industry.
Another documentary screened in the same competition, which deals directly with a crucial social problem in Moroccan society, is Suspended Wives directed by Merieme Addou. The camera follows three lower middle class women, Ghita, Karima and Latifa, as they struggle to obtain a divorce after many years of being abandoned by their husbands.
The filmmaker spent months studying many such cases before choosing these three women to represent this particular issue. One of the strong points in the film is that Addou worked hard on her subjects to familiarise them with the camera so that they would be able to deal with their daily routine spontaneously and freely. This was also done with most of the secondary characters seen in the film: the legal writer who helped them to formulate their legal complaints. He was a key character in all three cases. The other characters who only had a few scenes spoke very freely in the presence of the camera like the family members who seemed reluctant to help them.
The filmmaker managed to assert her support for the cause of these women when she showed one of them working at a traditional Moroccan horse festival as a chef in the kitchen tent while the men were chit-chatting in the other tent about masculinity and multi-marriages. When the filmmaker was asked about this particular scene she said it wasn’t prepared, she was just lucky. She had asked the cameraman to be in the men’s tent and shoot whatever happens there.
In fact this documentary seems to be in the spirit of fictional films with real people, real places and real events. Perhaps the filmmaker, who was a law graduate before she studied filmmaking, was especially aware of the legal complexity surrounding the right of the Moroccan woman to divorce herself. The film seems to be a spotlight on this important issue that might save the future of hundreds or more of women whose lives are in suspension.
Two Egyptian films participated in the Long Documentary Competition, both connected with the arts in a broad sense. Old Lions directed by Ibrahim Abbas was very intriguing in its peculiarity. The filmmaker, who is also a dedicated researcher, spent over 20 years trying to find new common types of music in the poorest distant villages in Upper Egypt. He said that the research began years before, but the shooting didn’t take off until 2001 – a date given by the film itself – when he travelled with the musician and singer Mohamed Bashir to villages near Aswan.
At that time, according to Abbas, he was interested in finding the roots of ordinary southern songs that are a little different from similar songs that are known on a much larger scale. His intention was to document those who play and sing types of music called Kaff and Waow, but he found other types of music like Lagham and Namim. And unfortunately most of those singers of the other two are over 80-year old and there is no younger generation who understand the technicalities of the singing to be able to continue performing the music.
The film opens with an African proverb: “If the lion does not tell his story, the hunter will.” This means that he wanted the singers to express their feelings and passion for this type of music by themselves. The film recounts some memories and stories of those who are devoted to this type of music only to please themselves not for any commercial reasons. What makes this film very important is that Lagham was never documented before. The film gives the audience a feeling of sorrow not only because of the nature of these types of music but also from mentioning, at the end of the film, those who passed away after they appeared on the screen years ago.
The other Egyptian documentary was Characters of Our Nether World directed by Haytham Sherif. It is about Ayman Farghaly, a stone sculpture artisan who is paralysed. The filmmaker portrays an exceptional artist who had many dreams and talents despite his disability. Haytham didn’t want to stress either Farghaly’s medical condition or his art, according to him he wanted to dig into his feelings and ideas about life in general as a human being.
Perhaps that is why in the first couple of shots the camera doesn’t show Farghaly’s wheelchair. The film opens with a shot of him in silhouette performing some sort of a dance to the sound of heavy breathing. The filmmaker wanted to give the audience a few seconds of Farghaly’s dreams and feelings. The heavy breathing refers to the burden he carries, while his movement is a formation of his desired mobility. The filmmaker delves into the personality and the world surrounding Farghaly by intermingling four main lines, the first being his use of a hammer and chisel to undertake his day to day job at Shaq Al-Teiban stone workshops.
Secondly, the film shows the very young spirit of the protagonist by shooting him with his neighbourhood children in Al-Basatin flying kites, demonstrating his deep wish for freedom. The film also shows Farghaly taking modern dance classes. The last scene is a continuation of the first shot for a few minutes that cast the last dance of Farghaly and his last dream according to the filmmaker who said that he passed away a few days after watching the first cut.
One of the most artistic films screened in this competition was the Ethiopian documentary Faya Dayi. Jessica Beshir, in her long documentary debut, shoots in black and white, producing marvellous cinematography among landscapes, interiors and even portraits, a mixture of abstract stories in the highlands of Hara, Ethiopia, a place where lots of Muslim Sufis live. She mixes poetry and religious stories, with the highlights of various tragedies, and she combines all of that with details of the different stages of planting and harvesting khat, the leafy stimulant that makes for a very profitable crop. There is the story of the young man who travelled to Egypt as a step towards illegally immigrating to Europe but ends up back in his village because he cannot stand to leave his mother unsupported. There is the story of the little boy who is worried about the bad temper of his father who seemed to be addicted to khat. There is also an apparently unfinished love story between the boy who left for a while and the girl he was attached to, who seems still to have feelings for him when he returns.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.