Cairo Cinema Days: An Arab medley

Nahed Nasr , Monday 20 May 2024

This year in its seventh round Zawya Cinema’s Cairo Cinema Days has a new format, with the programme extending over three months from May to July as opposed to being screened intensively over several days.

Cairo Cinema Days


This year the programme, which specialises in the latest productions of Arab cinema, celebrates films and filmmakers from Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan.

According to Nawara Shukri, head of the programming department at Zawya Cinema, the new format aims to make films available for a longer period and to a wider audience. “In the new format movies are shown either daily for a whole week, or three times throughout the month. We are experimenting with different approaches to scheduling the film programme, trying to respond to audience feedback and requirements. We aspire to be as accessible as possible, which is the primary goal of our activities.”

This year’s line-up includes three Tunisian films: Four Daughters by Kaouther Ben Hania, Machtat by Sonia Ben Slama, and Behind the Mountains by Mohamed Ben Attia. There are also Q by Jude Chehab, and Diaries from Lebanon by Myriam El-Hajj from Lebanon, Animalia by Moroccan-French director Sofia Alaoui and two films from Morocco: Deserts by Faouzi Bensaïdi and Hounds by Kamal Lazraq.

The programme also includes Inshallah a Boy by Jordanian director Amjad Al- Rasheed, From Abdul to Leila by Iraqi-French director Leila Al-Bayaty, The Teacher by Palestinian-British director Farah Nabulsi, Heroic Bodies by Sudanese director Sarah Suleiman, Mandoob by Saudi director Ali Kalthami, and Hajjan, a Saudi-Egyptian film directed by Abu Bakr Shawky. From Egypt the programme includes The Tedious Tour of M by Hend Bakr, The Memoirs of M A Draz by Maggie Morgan, and Back to Alexandria by Egyptian-Swiss filmmaker Tamer Ruggli.

This seventh Cairo Cinema Days also celebrates the newly restored version of Yousry Nasrallah’s 2004 Bab Al-Shams (Gate of the Sun), which was chosen by the Swiss Locarno Film Festival in June 2023 to be restored as part of its Heritage Online programme. The new 4K version of the film was presented as part of the official selection of the 76th Locarno Film Festival, which took place last August.

According to Nawara Shukri, the management of Cairo Film Days saw a good opportunity to show the film as part of a programme full of distinguished films from various Arab countries, and in the presence of the director, who will meet the audience to discuss his film.

Shukri added that the Cairo Cinema Days this year includes a film by a Sudanese director, noting that Zawya Cinema had previously shown two important Sudanese films: You Will Die at Twenty by Amjad Abu Al-Ala, which participated in the previous Cairo Cinema Days, and Goodbye Julia by Mohamed Kordofani, which ran at Zawya Cinema for several weeks during the past year and received great response from the audience. “In addition to being distinctive films, Sudanese films have a great appeal for the increasing Sudanese community in Cairo, who have over time become an audience for Zawya Cinema’s programmes and film screenings.”

This year, for the first time, the programme also includes two Saudi productions, one directed by an Egyptian filmmaker. “The participation of Saudi films for the first time in the Cairo Cinema Days programme says something about Saudi cinema and its development,” Nawara Shukri says, “that is, it cannot be ignored in an event concerned with highlighting the latest Arab productions.” She notes that the programme management seeks to host participating film directors and film crews from various parts of the Arab world to meet the audience.

The Cairo Cinema Days programme kicked off this May with the announcement of the screening of six documentary and feature films from Tunisia, Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The screenings started with Four Daughters by Kaouther Ben Hania, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Golden Eye Award. The film was also nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar Award.

The film is about Olfa, a Tunisian woman and the mother of four daughters, oscillating between light and shadow. One day, her two eldest daughters disappear. To fill their absence, director Kaouther Ben Hania brings in professional actors and sets up an extraordinary film mechanism to unveil the story. It is an intimate journey full of hope, rebellion, violence, intergenerational contact and sisterhood, which will question the very foundation of our societies.

As for Sonia Ben Slama’s documentary Machtat, it was screened three times from 9 to 13 May. Nominated for the Grand Prix at Visions du Réel, the recipient of the Best Arab Documentary Film Award at El Gouna Film Festival, the film follows Fatma and her daughters, Najeh and Waffeh, who work as machtat, traditional musicians who play at wedding ceremonies. Their music evokes love and its promises, but the reality is much more complex and painful. Between illusions and disillusionment, Machtat is a powerful and liberating portrait of three women asserting their voices.

Sonia Ben Slama is a French-Tunisian filmmaker who grew up in Paris, studying art and cinema at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University. Machtat is her second feature documentary. In her debut feature documentary Everything Is Written (2015), she explored similar themes from a different angle by telling the story of her grandmother’s wedding 70 years ago in a small town, compared to her cousin’s wedding today in the same place.

Cairo Cinema Days May screenings also include The Teacher by Palestinian-British director Farah Nabulsi. Starring Saleh Bakri, Muhammad Abed Elrahman, Nabil Al Raee, and Mahmood Bakri, the film follows Palestinian schoolteacher Basem (Saleh Bakri) who experiences personal devastation following a tragic incident involving his son. Amidst this turmoil, he forms a profound connection with one of his students, Adam, and an unexpected bond with British social worker Lisa. Meanwhile, tensions rise as an American attorney and his wife demand the return of their son, an Israeli soldier held by a Palestinian resistance group.

The group’s demand for a prisoner exchange escalates tensions with authorities, drawing Basem and his neighbourhood into turmoil. Director Farah Nabulsi skillfully intertwines these diverse yet interconnected narratives, creating a gripping drama marked by empathy, unexpected twists, and unceasing provocations, anchored in Saleh Bakri’s power-house performance. The film premiered at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, and won several awards from other film festivals including the Red Sea International Film Festival’s Best Actor Award.

Farah Nabulsi is an Oscar-nominated and BAFTA award-winning filmmaker born, raised and educated in the UK. The Present (2020), her directorial debut, which she also co-wrote and produced, stars renowned actor Saleh Bakri. It premiered at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Best Film. It went on to win over 40 international film festival jury and audience awards, a BAFTA for Best British Short Film and an Academy Award Oscar Nomination for Best Live Action Short.

Jude Chehab’s feature documentary debut Q is also in the May screening schedule. In this film Jude, the  Lebanese-American film director, returns to Lebanon and seeks to understand her mother Hiba’s devout commitment to a clandestine all-female religious order. Despite her mother’s strict adherence to the order’s teachings, Jude questions its influence on their family dynamics, ultimately leading to emotional discord. The film won five awards including the Sheffield DocFest Award for Best First Feature. It had its Middle East Premiere at El Gouna Film Festival.

In Animalia Moroccan-French director Sofia Alaoui’s feature debut, happily and heavily pregnant Itto is looking forward to a relaxing day as her husband Amine and forbiddingly wealthy in-laws leave for a business meeting. Then come the warning phenomena: phones go down, a mysterious fog descends, and both animals and people start behaving strangely. As Morocco is thrown into a state of national emergency, Itto tries to reach Amine but is stranded midway in an eerily silent village, where the remaining inhabitants speak as if in a trance. It is a journey into an ethereal unknown that will call into question everything Itto believes about the world and her own privileged way of life. The film stars Oumaima Barid, Mehdi Dehbi, and Fouad Oughaou. It won four awards including the Creative Vision Special Jury Award of Sundance Film Festival.

Mandoob by Saudi director Ali Kalthami is set in the  heart of Riyadh, where desperation and opportunity collide. It is the gripping tale of Fahad Algadaani, a mentally fragile man racing to save his ailing father. The film, which stars Mohamad Aldokhei, Mohamed Altawyan, and Hajar Alshammari, had its world premiere at the Torino Film Festival. Among other film festivals, it participated in the  international competition of the Red Sea International Film Festival.

Cairo Cinema Days screenings are ongoing till July at Zawya Cinema, where the schedule of screenings is announced at the start of each month.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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