Winter Film Festival Review

    Tunis, Marrakech, Cairo, and Dubai

    Bab'Aziz, 2005

    Carthage Film Festival
    November 11–18, 2006

    Tunis’s biannual Carthage Film Festival, in its fortieth year, turned the spotlight on directors from the Maghreb and Arab world. Three Tunisian films compe­ted in the festival’s Tanit Awards for directors from Africa and the Middle East: Nacer Khemir’s stunningly shot, elegiac fable Bab’ Aziz (2005); Jilani Saadi’s violent melodrama Tender Is the Wolf (2006), about a gang-raped prostitute who finds love; and Nouri Bouzid’s Making Of (2006).

    A leading director in the 1980s and early 1990s, Bouzid won the Golden Tanit for a second time, twenty years after his previous success with The Man of Ashes (1986). In Making Of, Bahta, a young break dancer who lives in a Tunis suburb and is constantly hassled by the police, gradually turns toward religious fundamentalism, eventually deciding to become a suicide bomber. In between chapters in the story, Bouzid turns the camera on himself, discussing the themes of the film — religion, violence, and his doubts and fears concerning his work — with lead actor Lotfi Abdelli and arguing that he’s against violence, not Islam. It was an original format but overly didactic at times; it would appear that Making Of won its Golden Tanit mainly for its political sentiments.

    Aside from the Tunisian films, Carthage’s competition, though of high quality, was prone to déjà vu, featuring films that had already done the rounds at international festivals. Jocelyn Saab’s Dunia caused quite a scandal in Egypt in 2005, in part due to its stance against female circumcision. Rashid Masharawi’s bittersweet Waiting, in which a director explores the lives of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria while casting actors for a future Palestinian National Theatre, also dates from 2005. More recent films by Algerian directors Djamila Sahraoui and Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche analyzed the Algerian civil war (Barakat!) and its aftermath (Bled Number One). In contrast, the program of films shot on video offered a few discoveries, including Fitouri Belhiba’s Sacred Bottles, Hala Alabdalla and Ammar Al Beik’s I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave, the diary of Alabdalla’s return to Syria after years in exile, and Hichem Ben Ammar’s And I Saw Stars, an intense map of the history of boxing in Tunisia.

    The rather tired selection of films in com­petition, as well as Carthage’s habitual organizational and administrative problems, is symptomatic of the difficulties the state-­run festival has encountered over the past few years. The first in a packed winter schedule of Arab festivals, and with some African directors holding back their films for Ougadou­gou’s Pan-African festival in February, Carthage needs to fight to live up to its status as the oldest festival in the region. At the awards ceremony, the jury president, eminent Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, spoke his mind, boldly demanding political freedom, democracy, and the end of censorship — and also that the festival be organized independently.

    —Sarah Mersch

    Marrakech International Film Festival
    December 1–9, 2006

    The sixth edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival left no one wanting in terms of choice. One hundred and twenty films were shown on seven screens scattered in cinemas and squares throughout the old and new quarters of the city. Besides the international competition and panoramas, there were tributes to Italian cinema (fifty films in all, overseen by Martin Scorsese); Bollywood; American actress Susan Sarandon; Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke; Indian acting duo Ajay and Kajol Devgan; Moroccan actor Mohamed Majd; and Egyptian cineaste Tawfiq Saleh. The jury, presided over by Roman Polanski, awarded the Etoile d’Or to Dominik Graf’s German drama The Red Cockatoo, a love story set in 1961 Dresden.

    Attempting to carve a niche for itself between Carthage and Dubai, and clashing with Cairo, Marrakech is resolutely international in its outlook. The fact that two films from Morocco — Faouzi Bensaidi’s WWW: What a Wonderful World and Narjiss Nejjar’s Wake Up Morocco — were selected for the competition this year was considered something of a coup.

    Not that the two directors have much in common. What a Wonderful World is a stylish thriller set in contemporary Casablanca, expertly choreographed and gorgeous to behold. A contract killer falls in love with a disembodied voice he hears on his mobile phone. He tries to find her, only to realize — too late, of course — that she’s been there all along. There are a few too many nagging similarities between Bensaidi’s aesthetic and that of Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman; but at least Bensaidi is building a language of images and sounds that cohere into a palatable film.

    Nejjar, on the other hand, peddles in sheer propaganda. Her film deals with the dreams and disappointments of residents living on an island off Casablanca, an all-too-obvious microcosm for the nation. While beautifully shot, Wake Up Morocco requires viewers to suspend their disbelief to the extent that they must buy into the likelihood of the Moroccan national football team winning the World Cup, beating mighty Brazil and Germany in the process. This rather unsteady sports narrative twines around a reductive folktale, in which the forces of modernity come up against the big, bad undercurrent of militant fundamentalism. So grossly oversimplified, so pat, and so canned, it is a painful 110 minutes to endure.

    Outside the competition, Marrakech’s real treasures were to be found buried among the vintage films selected for various tributes. Film buffs will always salivate at the opportunity to watch Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura on the big screen. But the chance to see such a sizable chunk of Egyptian master Tawfiq Saleh’s output was nearly unprecedented.

    Besides Saleh’s 1955 debut Fool’s Alley, based on a story by Naguib Mahfouz, the retrospective included Diary of a Country Prosecutor (made in 1968 and based on a novel by Tawfiq Hakim), The Rebels (1966), and his 1972 masterpiece, The Dupes.

    Based on Ghassan Kanafani’s first novella, Men in the Sun, The Dupes is the only one of Saleh’s films to be picked up regularly by international festivals. Seeing it in the context of his oeuvre, however, it emerges less as a one-off than as the crowning achievement of a remarkable career.

    —Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

    Cairo International Film Festival
    November 28–December 8, 2006

    The Cairo International Film Festival had a new confidence in its thirtieth year. New president, chisel-faced actor Ezzat Abu Auf, and honorary president, local legend Omar Sharif, played a part in bringing on board new sponsors; the local industry was buoyant after a healthy year at the box office; and, for the first time, CIFF’s international competition included three Egyptian films — Hala Khalil’s Cut and Paste, Emad el Bahat’s Hide and Seek, and Khaled El Hagar’s musical None But That!.

    The festival began amid controversy, with Belgian first-­time director Marc Ellegard’s feature Burning Light, which addresses the concept of terrorism through the eyes of two disillusioned young European men, “uninvited” a month before the festival. After having been formally invited in October, Ellegard received a note from the festival president in November, following the film’s screening for censors. “The sentence ‘God is dead’ is repeated four times in your film Burning Light,” it said. “Of course, the idea that God is dead is refused and forbidden in all religions.” Ellegard explained that the film promoted dialogue — “The lines explain the character’s feelings, but don’t reflect the philosophy of the film” — but to no avail.

    The new section aimed at promoting emerging talent awarded the $10,000 first prize to Italian director Carlo Luglio’s Sotto la Stessa Luna (Beneath the Same Moon). As expected, the international competition’s Golden Pyramid went to Zhang Jiarui’s The Road, an epic covering fifty years of Chinese political history.

    Over time, say local cinephiles, the CIFF has become more sedate — or maybe just mo­re punctual. This year saw the launch of the Cairo Independent Film Festival, a popular street event that could provide a healthy alternative in the future.

    With the exception of Hala Khalil’s Cut and Paste, which shared the Best Arab Film prize with Djamila Sahraoui’s Barakat!, the new local films were disappointing romantic melodramas. The Egyptian dream factory is flourishing, with most films featuring introspective young media-types living the good life, and only Khalil’s film raised the specter of unemployment and emigration. Khalil wisely cast the magnetic Hanan Turk — in her last role before she adopted hijab and converted to TV — as a feisty city girl, saving up to move to New Zealand. She ends up scheming with new friend Youssef (Sherif Mounir) to get the necessary points for the emigration visa. Cut and Paste certainly has its clichés, and could do with a more severe edit, but there are moments that render it an important film. While mostly oblique, the film occasionally slips into a more succinct political critique — with particular success when Youssef and friend Samy (Fathi Abdel Wahab) debate their futures alone on the metro late at night, returning from visiting a friend in one of Cairo’s bleak new suburbs.

    CIFF faces tough competition from chic Marrakech, patronized by French and US stars, and big-budget Dubai, which, as the region’s distribution base, is increasingly able to lure key foreign films to its festival. CIFF sets itself the impossible task of programming world and international premieres in competition, without the reputation, budget, and ingenuity to find real hidden gems. Still, the festival boasts the only commercially viable local industry in the Arab world, complete with homegrown stars and a keen press pack set on debating the films with a ferocity never before seen in Dubai.

    —Antonia Carver

    Dubai International Film Festival
    December 10–17, 2006

    Why do people love to hate the Dubai Film Festival? After flying in its guests in business class and putting them up in luxury hotels, the three-year-old festival then had the audacity to screen more than one hundred films in plush theaters and award Arab filmmakers $325,000 in prize money! And still, film industry members and local enthusiasts grumbled as they flitted from the festival center in a luxury resort to cinemas in the world’s fourth biggest mall.

    The Muhr Awards judges appropriately eschewed the likes of Rachid Bouchareb’s brilliant French-made and ­financed Indigenes for smaller films: Djamila Sahraoui’s Barakat! unexpectedly won the $50,000 Golden Muhr, delivered by Oliver Stone, no less. Audience favorite Falafel, the understated, one-night-in-Beirut drama by Michel Kammoun, came in second, followed by Hakim Belabbes’s Why O’Sea, a drama that cast Moroccan fishermen as themselves.

    In a strong year for documentaries, there were several standout films, including Tunisian director Nejib Belkadhi’s VHS—Kahloucha, which won the Golden Muhr, followed by Khadija Al­Salami’s brave but flawed por­trait of Amina, a prisoner on death row in Yemen. Hala Alabdalla and Ammar Al Beik’s I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave was awarded third prize, Alabdalla thanking the jury for recognizing her highly personal odyssey, which traces the lives of her family and Syrian women of her generation, both in the country and exiled abroad.

    Waleed Al Shehhi deservedly took the prize for “most promising UAE filmmaker” — his meditative series of shorts focusing on desert life in Ras Al Khaimah go some way toward developing a distinctive language in UAE filmmaking. A group of shorts from Pa­lestine and Tunisia, led by Cherien Debis’s award-winner Make a Wish, also offers high hopes for the future.

    Audience events ranged from a moving screening (and discussion) of honoree Syrian auteur Nabil Maleh’s seminal 1993 film The Extras, to a platitudinous discussion on the festival’s mantra (“building bridges, meeting minds”), with a panel that included Stone, Richard Gere, and director Mohammed Khan, among others. In irony-free Dubai, Stone even got away with attempting to assert that Arabs were no more stereotyped as villains in Hollywood films than any other ethnic group and citing cartoon images of Ali Baba as “a positive portrayal of Arabs.”

    This year saw the launch of an industry office that took care of 350 international players, many invited to take part in pitching forums for Emirati and Lebanese filmmakers. The smattering of industry events exposed the dire need for “a pool of creative producers in the region,” say the organizers, who are aiming to launch a small project market at next year’s festival. If DIFF can draw in Arab financiers, absent this year, then Dubai has a chance at really making an impact on the regional industry.

    Local audiences embraced the comprehensive program of international films, and the festival now dominates the region in terms of Arab programming, screening more than fifty features, shorts, and documentaries from the region, in and out of competition.

    Of course, as with any festival, the DIFF had its glitches. The complex ticketing system meant that some “sold out” films were half­ empty. A combination of exclusive sponsor-dominated invite lists, zealous security, and enforced dress codes contributed to many directors and press being unwilling or unable to attend gala screenings and parties.

    More seriously, a short docudrama on the plight of South Asian laborers in the UAE was withdrawn from the Arab shorts competition at the last moment, for “technical reasons.”

    Much of the sniping can be put down to the nature of Dubai itself, and the way the PR-driven town raises wild expectations. According to one film­-world insider, the DIFF spends more on advertising than any other festival worldwide. Proficient festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma has done much to smooth relations in the region and play down the hyperbole of previous years. (All that talk of $10 million budgets and comparisons with Cannes and Toronto did no one any favors.)

    It was significant and emotional to see young Arab filmmakers acknowledged pro­perly for the first time, albeit at a closing ceremony that was jaw-droppingly resplendent in Arabian kitsch —complete with galloping horses, a dance troupe affecting a mix of ballet and belly dancing, and flying carpets carrying turbaned Ali Babas, suspended above the stage, which floated on a manmade lake in the desert.

    DIFF is now the world’s most comprehensive platform for new Arab films, even if the theatrical distribution of art house and Arab films locally remains nonexistent. Meanwhile, the first phase of Dubai Studio City, aimed at attracting foreign film crews to the emirate, is set to launch in March. In three years, DIFF has become fundamental to the regional industry and known on the world stage. It just needs to find its soul.

    —Antonia Carver