The 24th Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (IIFFDS, 14-20 of March) included four Egyptian films in their respective competitions: The Life of Shadia and Her Sister Sahar by Ahmed Fawzi Saleh, a feature-length documentary; Drowning Fish by Amir El-Shenawy, a short documentary; Crocodile Tears by Khaled Moeit, a short fiction film; and Kenopsia by Mohamed Omar, an animation film. in the Animation Films Competition. There were also 15 shorts by Egyptian film students in the Students Films Competition. A single thread ties all four films, which have emerged out of the independent film scene: in a range of themes and styles, they deal with contemporary social issues in Egypt, asking questions about past and future.
Saleh’s award-winning debut, the short documentary film Living Skin (2010), was followed by his long fiction film Poisonous Roses (2018), which made the rounds of the festival circuit and won many prestigious awards. He is currently working on his second long fiction project, Hamlet of the Slums. In The Life of Shadia and Her Sister Sahar, which had its world premiere at the IIFFDS, he returns to documentary with a charming, multi-layered and deceptively simple piece. Saleh relied on a team of three woman cinematographers: Sahar Al-Arabi, Azza Kalfat, and Mona Al-Shishini, who is also the film’s editor and co-director. Through them, the camera penetrates the very private world of a suburban family consisting of two divorced sisters, Shadia and Sahar, and their five daughters. It plums the depths of their lives in detail, the difficult living circumstances resulting form their ex-husbands’ negligence of the daughters’ needs, and the dream of Shadia’s only daughter Arwa to become an actress – impossible to realise despite her diabetic mother’s support because of their lack of means.
The film does not rely on voiceover or direct interviews with the characters. The events flow smoothly within the surroundings of both sisters’ apartments, and we find out about their lives through moments of tension, joy and various interactions, live or phone conversations together. We also find out about their neighbours and friends, and a man-less world emerges – with the exception of an exploitative lawyer or sympathetic hairdresser, the male characters almost never appear – in which the women bear the consequences of irresponsible male behaviour. The characters seem comfortable in the imperceptible presence of the camera, which reflects a huge temporal investment in merging with the characters and shooting, making the dominant voice the natural flow of life. Making a coherent narrative out of what was no doubt a huge amount of material must’ve been a challenge, one that Mona Al-Shishini meets with skill and courage, producing a smooth, vital rhythm that convincingly and coherently evokes the characters’ lives. Likewise the soundtrack, which features music only at pivotal moments: it is a note on the trumpet inspired by Egyptian folklore.
Kenopsia is the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet – a school hallway in the evening, an office unit on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds – an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.
This is the text that appears on screen at the end of Mohamed Omar’s animated short film Kenopsia – not so much a definition of the word but a summary of the film’s content. According to the film synopsis, it is made to explore the dangers of uncontrolled overpopulation, pollution and climate change. It depicts an old man driving back to the now abandoned city of Cairo in search of his barely remembered childhood home. Through his eyes and the scars of the old city we piece together what happened to Cairo and why he had to leave it.
Omar is an architecture and urban design student who, in his own words, has always believed that architecture is an art form that goes beyond just buildings and engineering. After earning his bachelors at the Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona in Spain, part of the German University in Cairo program, he started to explore more projects to satisfy this passion. This led him to 3D art and design, visualisation and filmmaking to explore the effect of different spaces on users in different scenarios. “I have always had an intense love and admiration for the city of Cairo, and dreamt about how much potential this city would have if proper design and architecture focused on it.” Kenopsia is an example of his worst fears.
In this film, we see features of Cairo as we know it, but with an eye that predicts a frightening future. A ghost town made up of huge concrete buildings devoid of life. It was deserted by its inhabitants due to the threat of pollution that wiped out everything including plants, crops and food. The only person who dares to return in search of his old home walks its paths in a gas mask. Tahrir Square is full of abandoned camps that were used to shelter refugees from Alexandria after it was flooded. The director, who also did the cinematography, excels in building an entire world that resembles Cairo with its recognisable landmarks but is enveloped in suffocating grey from every direction. Accompanying the man on his journey, we see various banners indicating the city’s fate, including banners that say “Save Cairo” and “Where did civilisation go?” There is no dialogue in a movie about a lone man behind a gas mask. But an old television set broadcasts a tourist program about the landmarks of Cairo, and we understand that it belongs to the past, which is our present. Brief musical interludes are employed with economy and intelligence to produce a sense of alarm. Finally here is an apocalyptic film that is truly and wholly homegrown.
Drowning Fish by Amir El-Shenaw is another apocalyptic film though it talks about present, not the future. A documentary, it depicts an old fisherman in Lake Qarun lamenting the death of the lake’s fish years ago. Not only is he grieving over the loss of his profession, which he has practised for decades, he also feels that his small town has lost its lifeline. We do not know the reasons behind the mass suicide of the lake’s fish, but through the impressive images of hundreds of dead fish, which contrast with the charming images of boats, and the wrinkles on the face of the fisherman, we realise that this poetic film is a warning signal to save wildlife.
Since his first two short fiction films, Major Tom (2017) and My Father Couldn’t Save the Kite (2018), followed by his short documentary One Frame Per Raid Siren (2019), Khaled Moeit has not made two films alike. Constantly experimenting with style and subject matter, the only thing in common between his three films is that they are all in some sense autobiographical. His new short Crocodile Tears, however, it is harder to see how the director’s real life figures. During a road trip, an implicit power struggle emerges between two men in a taxi. The driver is accompanied by his cousin, who is heading to another city to deliver a sum of money, which becomes a subject of masculine conflict. On the road we also witness violent physical conflicts between male characters. On this short journey no women appear while the roads are deserted and the buildings demolished. The film does not rely on a story in the usual sense, but rather on the weight that results from this intense masculinity.
IIFFDS is an annual event run by the Egyptian Film Centre, this year headed by Manar Hosny, with the film critic Essam Zakaria as the president of the festival’s 24th round and the film critic Rami El Metwaly as its artistic director.
123 films from 50 countries participated in the Ismailia Film Festival this year, including 16 feature-length documentaries, 14 short documentaries, 20 short fiction films, 18 animation films, and 17 student films. This is in addition to five films in the “Hybrid Films” program, 17 films in the Very Short Films program, four films in the “Portraits Films” Program, two films out of competition, and four tribute films by the Egyptian cinematographer Mahmoud Abdel Samie, the late Egyptian director Samih Mansi, and the Irish-Scottish director and writer Mark Cousins. This year, the festival celebrated the German cinema, as the guest of honour by screening six German films.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly