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Arab films at Ismailia International Film Festival: Travels in time

Al-Ahram Weekly analyses the Arab films at the Ismailia International Film Festival of Documentaries and Shorts

Nahed Nasr , Thursday 1 Jul 2021

Somewhere in Time is a short fiction film about loneliness, age and isolation. An old man is alone in his room, in a flat, in a huge building surrounded by other giant concrete giants. Lonely towards the end of his life, he recalls his sweetest memories as a means to resist physical and psychological pain. You can hardly see where he is or what is the cause of his suffering. But the image of a lonely, dying man in the middle of a concrete jungle has something to do with the harsh effect of place and time on the individual.

Somewhere in Time by the Emirati filmmaker Nawaf Al-Janahi participated in the short fiction competition of the 22nd Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (IIFFDS). It was not the only Arab film on the programme about place and time.

The Fifth Story
The Fifth Story

A City and a Woman by the Lebanese Nicolas Khoury is another visually compelling piece dealing with a person in the city, in this case Beirut after the Port explosion of August 2020. In this poetic short documentary, a beautiful lady walks through the ruined streets of the deserted city exploring the beauty hidden in destruction. In the background we hear extracts from a letter the Syrian-American poet Etel Adnan wrote almost three decades earlier, in 1992, after the end of the Lebanese Civil War. “What has changed in Beirut in three decades?” is Khoury’s question.

The Egyptian director Amr Bayoumi’s only refuge during the pandemic last Ramadan was to follow the growth of a small tree out of his balcony in the neighbourhood of Al-Daher, a process that resulted in A Transparent Cement Barrier. “I started to film the tree every day. As the days went by, it became the protagonist of my film,” he says. Around the tree, Bayoumi rediscovers his neighbours and their daily life and digging into his own past.

In her debut feature documentary A Home of One’s Own – which premiered at the Carthage Film Festival and participated in the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival before joining the long documentary competition of IIFFDS – the Lebanese Ruba Atiyeh is seen searching for a home in Beirut, Amman and London, and in her childhood memories, only to end up reconciled with her own brand of homelessness. “My family left Beirut for Amman during the Civil War. First we moved from one home to another in Beirut, then to Amman, then I returned to Beirut 10 years ago in an attempt to put an end to my exile and feelings of alienation – but in vain,” Atiyeh explains. Going on an inner journey to her childhood by questioning the past in long conversations with her mother, she concludes that home is so much a place but a time. “My film is not a journey in geography but in an era. I grew up at a time when my family and their generation’s enthusiasm and hope to change the world was fading. My own generation could not bring these ideas back to life. There is a gap between us and that time. Those memories, this era is my home.”

The Palestinian Firas Khoury takes us back in time to the 1990s to show his home country through childhood’s eyes. In his short fiction film Maradona’s Legs, two kids are roaming around different parts of Palestine before the separation wall was built, searching for the last sticker they need in order to complete their 1990 World Cup album and win an Atari console. In the background the grown-ups are following the news of the first Intifada. Khoury travels back in time to present the place as he experienced it three decades ago. The film won 13 awards before participating in the short fiction competition of IIFFDS, where it won the jury special mention.

One More Jump
One More Jump

In One More Jump, the Italian filmmaker Emanuele Gerosa explores how a place can turn into a prison for dreams.  His feature documentary shows the pain and frustration of young Palestinians in the Gaza Strip through the prism of a parkour team. In his film the biggest dream for all team members is to have the freedom of movement to represent their country abroad. When one of the captains is able to move to Italy, he loses his ability to walk in an accident during exercise while his fellow player in Gaza gives up hope in obtaining a visa to leave.

But the prison of occupation is not the only barrier in the way of dreams coming true. In her film Al Sit, the Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani sheds light on the prison of social traditions and constraints besetting those who live away from the capital. In her film an arranged marriage in a cotton-farming village in Sudan confronts 15-year-old Nafisa with a heavy challenge. Al Sit won six international awards including the Jury Prize at Busan International Short Film Festival, and the Canal+ award at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, before winning the best short fiction film at IIFFDS.

Although in Fiancées, the opening film of IIFFDS, the three couples belong to the Egyptian capital, their journey to marriage is not less harsh and complex. The feature documentary debut by Swiss director Julia Bunter follows three women on the path to marriage in Cairo’s modern society where the today’s generation must face the pressure of unshakable traditions and their desire for greater freedom. The film follows three couples. Batool and Bassam are aspiring actors struggling to maintain balance in their relationship while the wait for an apartment in which to live and pressure from their familie spoils harmony. Marize and Ramy are Christians from a privileged background who dream of a perfect marriage and want to use contraceptives prohibited by the religion in which they believe. Randa and Abdelrahman have a traditional Muslim background and hope for more freedom in their daily lives. Randa’s claims about gender equality clash with the beliefs of Egyptian society.

“I moved to Cairo to make this film in 2015. I fell in love with this country and its capital city, its social structure which has a fascinating complexity and contradictions that can be as charming as irritating. Instead of presenting marriage as the union of two beings for eternity, Fiancées use marriage as a pretext to talk about men and women, and the social pressures young couples face every day,” says Julia Bunter. “Marriage-related social pressure also exists in Switzerland. It is simply more striking in Egypt, and more importantly it takes a different form. The film explores this alterity without judging it, nor condemning it, but asserting my point of view on certain questions. In presenting the paradoxes and contradictions of my characters, I hope that their humanity will stand out, beyond the differences. I wanted a film that is dense, intense, and light at the same time, just like Cairo and my characters.”

In Aicha, the Moroccan filmmaker Zakaria Nouri’s debut short, 26-year-old Aicha lives a poor and isolated life on the city’s margins. Leading a monotonous lifestyle, during the day she does household chores and cares for her elderly, bedridden mother while in the evening, she leaves the house and waits in the hope of crossing paths with a lorry driver.

Sometimes hell is those others who exist in the same place. That is what the Kuwaiti Maysaa Almumin wanted to show in her short fiction film Bint Wardan. A woman with depression struggles to connect with her chirpy and driven office colleagues when an encounter with a dying cockroach in the office toilet develops into an absurd friendship. 

Sugar Cage
Sugar Cage

The Fifth Story, Iraqi filmmaker Ahmed Abd’s feature documentary debut, spans four decades of war in Iraq through a long emotional journey narrated by the director himself. The film is partly about Ahmed and his father, each of whom suffers his own war trauma, the father having been a soldier in the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and Ahmed never having woken up from the nightmare of the 2003 American invasion. Within the inner journey of each character, the film moves through settings and stories of war, making use of archival material. The Fifth Story is the first long Arab documentary to win the FIPRESCI Prize at the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam (IDFA). It also won a special mention at IIFFDS.

Syrian filmmaker Zeina Al Qahwaji’s Sugar Cage, the winner of the grand prize of best feature documentary at IIFFDS, is an attempt to record time at a standstill, examining her intimate life with her aging parents over the course of eight years since the beginning of war in Syria.

“This film started as a series of spontaneous recordings of my family’s daily life since 2012, where we lived relatively far from the capital. Life was becoming harder day after day. I felt imprisoned with my family in one place spending hours at home where power cuts were constant and there was almost no activity,” the director has said in an interview. “I kept recording daily events without a clear target. It was not before 2019 when I left Syria and found myself away from my family, my country, and Damascus that these material started to feel valuable enough for me to want to share it with the world in the form of a film.” Sugar Cage premiered at the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (Dok Leipzig). It also participated in the 2nd Annual Toronto Arab Film Festival.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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