Call of the phoenix

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 2 Jan 2024

Hani Mustafa takes stock of the sixth El Gouna Film Festival

Anatomy of A Fall
Anatomy of A Fall


The sixth El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) was initially planned for 13 October-6 November but, due to the war on Gaza, took place in 14-21 December without the customary red carpet or other festive features. The IOF’s killing of civilians in Palestines had resulted in Culture Ministry and other events being cancelled, by and large. But since the 2022 round of GFF had not taken place, the festival administration did not feel that cancelling this year was an option, and so — after it was postponed for two weeks, then suspended until further notice — the festival was held the week before Christmas. Preparations were more difficult than usual, too, but with the support of filmmakers, critics, and cinephiles, this year’s round demonstrated that film festivals are not just glamorous celebrations but vital platforms for expression and exchange. A program of ten films was dedicated to films about the Palestinian tragedy, and a charity dinner raised funds for humanitarian aid in collaboration with the Egyptian Red Crescent.

Among this year’s highlights was the 2023 Palme d’Or winner, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall in the Feature Narrative Competition. The film can be easily classified as a legal thriller, however, the filmmaker who co-wrote the script with Arthur Harari manages to delve not only into the judicial system of France but also the core of the relationship between a married couple and their insecurities, cultural differences and psychological concerns.

The film opens with Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a successful German novelist, being interviewed by a female student in a chalet in the French Alps that she shares with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who suffers from very weak eyesight. During the interview, the novelist and the student seem to have a casual interest in each other. At the same time the husband plays the 50 Cent song P.I.M.P very loud in his attic, making the interview very difficult. When the interviewer leaves, Daniel steps out to walk his dog. On his return he finds his father dead in front of the house, his blood on the snow around his head.

The story revolves around the investigation of the incident, until it reaches the court, as Sandra’s lawyer and friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud) tries to prevent her from doing anything that would undermine her position since, though initially shocked by his questions, she will almost definitely be accused of murder.

At the same time the film jumps from one time and position to another, generating different perceptions from different points of view, and leaving the audience confused till the very end of the film. The film shows that the relationship between the married couple was not going well as the husband felt jealous of the success of the wife in addition to knowing that she had an affair with a female friend before while their relationship was at a breaking point. At the start of the film, a few important details add colour and depth to the drama. The protagonist is German while her husband is French, for example, resulting in cultural differences that come through when they were arguing in a flashback scene when she suggests that they speak English as a compromise. In court, too, even though she speaks French fluently at first, she decides to switch to English just to feel more comfortable while expressing deeper feelings. The son’s visual impairment is another way to create disturbance and confusion.

The word “fall” in the title carries multiple connotations that add depth to the story. Although it describes the tragic incident, it also symbolises various forms of descent or collapse: the deteriorating relationship between the couple which indicates that love and marriage may turn into something morbid. On the other hand the word describes the complications of the French judicial system, too.

The film benefits from outstanding performances in all the major roles: Sandra, Vincent (the lawyer), Daniel, Samuel (the husband); even the dog is marvellously expressive in some scenes. This definitely indicates an exceptional effort on the part of the filmmaker. The cinematographer also did a very good job which added to the realistic approach. The sound track on the other hand deserves special mention, especially the score which was chosen beautifully using the music of the 50 Cent song (the scene was shown more than once) in the first sequence. Additionally, including a solo piano of Isaac Albéniz’s Suite Española added emotional depth.

French filmmaker and screenwriter Luc Besson is widely acclaimed for his remarkable works, including Léon: The Professional in 1994, The Fifth Element in 1997, and Lucy in 2014. He also wrote many action films including martial arts films starring Jet Lee, like Kiss of a Dragon directed by ​​Chris Nahon in 2001 and Unleashed directed by Louis Leterrier in 2005, as well as the trilogy Taken directed by Pierre Morel in 2008, Olivier Megaton in 2012 and 2014. Whether his focus is science fiction or action, Besson always manages to weave a serious critique of the world into his work.

His new film, Dogman, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was screened in GFF’s Feature Narrative Competition. It opens with a gripping scene in which a police patrol apprehends a battered and injured crossdresser named Douglas (played by Caleb Landry Jones), who drives a van filled with various breeds of dogs. This peculiar scene sets the tone for an intriguing pop art-inspired film with a 1980s feel.

Through an interrogation conducted by police psychiatrist Evelyn (portrayed by Jojo T. Gibbs), the filmmaker delves into the protagonist’s childhood traumas that shaped his character. Douglas, also known as Doug, grew up in a harsh environment with a cruel Christian extremist father and older brother. His mother, a helpless housewife, completes the picture of a typical lower-class American family. While his father is involved in dogfight gambling, Douglas develops a deep empathy for the dogs and forms a strong connection with them. The first significant incident occurs when his father locks him up with the dogs for an extended period, and the ensuing drama unfolds after his escape.

To avoid falling into the cliché of a queer protagonist struggling with their identity, the filmmaker introduces a normal crush Douglas develops on a girl at school who teaches him about costumes, makeup, and theatrical acting. However, she only sees him as a friend, pitying him somewhat. This storyline serves as a foundation for exploring how Douglas eventually becomes a crossdresser, working in a famous nightclub where he imitates the renowned French singer Édith Piaf. In this artistic and action-packed film, Besson aims to expose and critique various layers of American society. Through his dogs, on the other hand, he also highlights how Douglas establishes a mafia-like authority within his neighbourhood.

In recent years, the international film community has witnessed the emergence of significant new productions in Sudanese cinema, such as Amjad Abu Alala’s feature narrative You Will Die at Twenty and Suhaib Gasmelbari’s feature documentary Talking About Trees. These films garnered recognition and awards at various film festivals worldwide and regionally premiered at the El Gouna Film Festival in 2019.

After 1989, when Omar El-Bashir led a military coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi, Sudanese cultural life deteriorated under a regime that adopted a fundamentalist Islamist doctrine. This situation persisted until the eruption of the popular revolution in 2019, which led to the ousting of El-Bashir and his regime. It was in this context that the Sudanese filmmakers Suliman Elnour, Eltayeb Mahdi, and Ibrahim Shaddad established the Sudanese Film Group (SFG) to preserve cinematic heritage.

One notable achievement of theirs came in 2019 when SFG collaborated with the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art to restore eight Sudanese short and medium-length films produced between 1964 and 1989. These eight gems were screened in the sixth round of GFF, which gave the GFF audience an important insight into the standard of development that Sudanese cinema achieved especially when dealing with experimental narratives.

The films are: Hunting Party directed by Ibrahim Shadda in 1964 (41 min.); Al-Dhareeh (The Tomb) directed by Eltayeb Mahdi in 1977 (16 min.); Wa Laken Agardh Tadour (It Still Rotates) directed by Suliman Elnour in 1978 (18 min.); Africa, The Jungle, Drums and Revolution directed by Elnour in 1979 (12 min.); Arba’a Marat Lil Atfal (Four Times For Children) directed by Mahdi in 1979 (20 min.); Jamal (A Camel) directed by Shaddad in 1981 (13 min.); Al-Habil (The Rope) directed by Shaddad in 1985 (31 min.); Al-Mahatta (The Station) directed by Mahdi in 1989 (15 min.)

It is evident that these three filmmakers have managed to create films that explore broader aspects of life, not only focusing on Sudanese stories but also addressing universal human interest topics. This can be seen in Mahdi’s The Tomb, where he portrays the deception of a person who exploits the ordinary people’s religious sentiments towards religion to gain money and power. Shaddad’s films, such as The Rope and A Camel demonstrate a minimalist aesthetic, exploring philosophical perspectives on ordinary ideas or practices common in many countries. The Rope depicts two blind men tied together with a donkey, struggling to find their way in the desert. The filmmaker captures their movements as they stumble and fall, ultimately ending up back where they started. Similarly, A Camel portrays a blindfolded camel tied to a water wheel, driven in circles by its owner. Through beautiful cinematography and editing techniques, the filmmaker intertwines the destiny of the man and the camel, highlighting their shared experience of moving in endless circles with only fleeting moments of rest before resuming their endless journey.

Elnour’s work in It Still Rotates takes a slightly different approach, depicting young Yemeni students in their schools, particularly in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was known as a socialist country. In his film Africa: The Jungle, Drums and Revolution, Elnour delves into the common perceptions of ordinary Russian people about Africa, its culture, and its people. He weaves these images into archival footage from the early days of African leaders’ efforts to resist colonialism, featuring speeches by figures such as Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba. An important aspect worth mentioning is the filmmakers’ adept use of soundtracks as a crucial tool to complement their work. The incorporation of sound effects, Sudanese traditional music, and even African drums has a profound impact on the overall effect of their films.




* A version of this frontpage article of the 2023 Al-Ahram Weekly Yearender appears in print in the 4 January 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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