The new round of the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF, 26 March-1 April) was held under the slogan “Ten years of imagination”.
During the past nine rounds, the opening ceremony featured a celebratory performance, be it music, ballet or folk dance, but this year the festival cancelled that feature out of respect for the lives of those who died in the Sohag train collision this week. The ceremony included only speeches.
The 10th LAFF saw the screening of several important films in its four competitions (the long narrative, the long documentary, the short narrative and the Diaspora competitions) as well as other sections of the programme. The opening film, which also participated in the long narrative competition was the Lesotho filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s masterpiece, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. It won a special jury award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, among others around the world.
Mosese adopts an avant garde style of narrative. The film opens with a man playing a musical instrument called the lesiba, a wooden tube with a string attached to it, which vibrates to produce a unique sound when the player blows in a particular way. This narrator plays this music and his deep voice gives a mysterious poetic flavour to the drama as the film’s events progress. The cinematography and the lighting add to the introductory scene. This may give the audience a glimpse of the filmmaker’s artistic intentions.
The Fishermans Diary
The film is about a woman in her 80s called Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), who has lost most of her family. She is devastated to find out her son, a miner, has lost his life, and the first hour of the film is almost wholly filled with her grief, dreams and sometimes hallucinations as she loses the taste for life. She decides to buy a grave for herself although this is not acceptable in the culture. At this time the village chief promotes the government plan of displacing the village population to make way for a dam being built which will result in flooding. He makes a speech about development and the future. At first, Mantoa doesn’t bother with what is being said, but when she finds out the flooding will destroy the graves of the villagers she becomes active against the planned evacuation until she becomes an inspiration to the resistance. In the last scene, while villagers carry their belongings out of the village, she takes off all of her clothes and walks naked towards the government officials in an act of angry defiance.
The importance of this film isn’t in the story as such but rather in how it is told. Besides the deliberate, slow rhythm of the editing, which makes the dramatic escalation very smooth, the filmmaker and the DOC make use of Lesotho’s magnificent landscape and stress the protagonist’s spiritual journey. South African actress Mhlongo died soon after the film was shot in 2019, and so did not witness the global appreciation for her dazzling performance.
Another remarkable film in the long narrative competition is the Cameroonian filmmaker Enah Johnscott’s The Fisherman’s Dairy. Inspired by Malala Yousafzaiand’s fight for educating young women in her country, it deals with a social problem that is widespread not only in Cameroon but in many societies. Set in a very poor fishermens’ village in Cameroon, the film centres on a 12-year-old girl, Ekah who helps her father with his work as a fisherman and is everything to him as her mother suffers from a terminal illness (the script doesn’t specify). The first few minutes of the film illustrate Ekah’s activities as she takes her father’s daily catch to sell it in the market, cooks his food and cleans his clothes.
The filmmaker shows how much the father loves his daughter as he calls her “my little mother”. The trigger incident occurs when Ekah finds a poster of Malala with a famous quotation of hers: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” She goes to the school teacher and asks her about the words that are written. she grows determined to be educated, and it is then that a couple of scenes show how in the village both men and women believe that female education can create stubborn women who do not obey their men. The script tries to justify why Ekah’s father too rejects Ekah’s education, by inserting a couple of flashback scenes. First, there is the romantic love story between father and mother, then she is seen mocking the way he speaks after she becomes an educated woman, and ends up leaving him. But the script does not complete this part of the “diary” and so we never know where she went or how she came back.
Another line of drama deals with the issue of child marriage. As the tension between Ekah and her father grows, her uncle convinces his that the best way to solve the problem is to marry her off to a wealthy merchant. His motivation is to pay off his debt to that merchant, but the father is duped by him.
Stressing human rights in this way is admirable, but it doesn’t result in good filmmaking. The cinematography is not so bad, but the script is discontinuous and the acting sometimes lacks sincerity.
It has become obvious in the course of a decade of LAFF that the short film competition is an important yearly event. Most short films are young filmmakers’ projects. Through them they express ideas about life while practicing the art of storytelling.
One of the more significant films in this year’s competition is the Moroccan filmmaker Yazid Al-Kadiri’s The Ultimate Ink, about a very old calligrapher called Ibrahim (Azzelarab Kaghat, who is one of the six honoured African celebrities in this round). He has a workshop for building the tombstones, a Sufi-flavoured topic the filmmaker treats in a mysterious way mixing the supernatural with reality. The main event in the film is when a young man who works as an assistant to the old calligrapher, after opening the workshop and starting work, opens the door to a strange man in black. The man, who seems homeless, enters the workshop and without a word hands the young man a piece of paper which might indicate an order for a new tombstone, but on that paper is written Ibrahim’s full name, the date of his birth and his death – three weeks from the present. The film follows the old man’s feelings as he continues his daily routine of working on a few lines of poetry awaiting for his destiny.
Another short film in the competition that has great potential is the Egyptian filmmaker Karim Shaaban’s Night Shift. It tells the story of a young man, Zien (Essam Omar) who works on the night shift of a communication company’s calling centre. The introductory scene shows that man’s very ordinary routine until he is alone with his work. He falls asleep as the shift starts to bore him, then he receives a call at 2 AM from an older client called Akram (Ahmed Kamal) whose problem is that he lost.
The importance of the film lies in the dialogue between the two characters, especially the old client who seems very angry at first with the company, but then with the main character, whom he begins to insult. The film’s strong point is Ahmed Kamal’s performance. He manages to generate a range of emotions with his voice alone, hinting at fatherly discipline. The film ends when the internet service returns to the client and the camera shows Zien’s hidden anger and devastation while Akram is seen in his living room returning to what he was doing which is playing an online video game. It is a concise and effective statement on young people’s frustration and old people’s loneliness.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Southern comforts