Alexandria event focuses on documentaries

Joseph Fahim
9 Min Read

Summer film festival defies myth that culture has no place in the sun

CAIRO: Less than four months since the last one, the Fourth Caravan of the Euro-Arab Cinema opened last week in Alexandria and ended on Tuesday with a surprisingly successful round. The festival gave film lovers an uncommon opportunity, since most cultural activities have been suspended until September due to the fact that a majority of both Egyptians and foreigners are vacationing.

The launch of its second film festival in Egypt represented a considerable risk on the part of independent film company SEMAT (the principal organizer of the event), coming at a time when the majority of the Egyptian public are mainly drawn to big commercial summer flicks. However, despite the usual low-key publicity for the event, the Caravan succeeded in packing the French Cultural Center and the Creativity Center in Alexandria with large audiences thirsty for alternative entertainment.

Unlike the last festival, the Caravan did not include any new major European fiction films and opted instead to showcase the latest blockbuster world documentaries along with some Lebanese selections. The real highlight of the festival, though, was the tribute to the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski and the screening of 13 of his films. These films were shown on six consecutive days in the crammed theater of the Creativity Center to a predominately Polish audience that included other members of different foreign communities.

Apart from the Kieslowski films, the selected fiction movies were less impressive than the documentaries. The most high-profile film of this selection is Brides, the most expensive Greek film ever made, that tells the story of one of the 700 European mail order brides on board the steamship King Alexander in 1922 who falls in love with an American photographer appointed to photograph every single bride. The real events of that voyage are the backdrop for the melodramatic love story between the helpless Greek girl and the heartbroken young American. The love story is touching, yet trite, and the subject matter of the film appears dated despite the overlooked relevance to various contemporary issues.

The most disappointing film of those shown is James Marsh s The King, a nihilistic clichéd prodigal son story starring Gael García Bernal and William Hurt. Bernal plays Elvis, a young man discharged from the Navy who travels to a little town in Texas and claims to be the illegitimate son of the town s born-again Christian pastor (Hurt). Later on, Elvis seduces the preacher s daughter, who may or may not be his sister, and smoothly infiltrates the small quiet community. Elvis viciousness is unjustified and the script never delves deep inside the complex nature of this young man. The King aspires to be an allegory about sin, religious bankruptcy and dozens of other undeveloped formless ideas but ends up being nothing more than an exercise in cruelty and flawed filmmaking.

On the other hand, the three major documentaries featured in the Caravan represented the newfound buoyancy and beauty of recent European documentaries. March of the Penguins, winner of this year s Academy Award for best documentary, was the most successful film of the Caravan in terms of attendance. The French documentary, shot in the stark natural beauty of Antarctica, chronicles the mating rituals of the emperor penguins and the arduous measures they go through in order to breed their infants and obtain food. The film was marketed in some parts of the world as an account of familial love and monogamy. The truth of the matter is penguins, like most animals, hardly show any emotions and the mating cycle is mechanical. What March of the Penguins in essence presents is a beautiful, amazing story about survival and perseverance and an outstanding look at an incredible different world.

Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul is the latest documentary from the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin who was propelled to international stardom after winning the Golden Bear two years ago for his controversial film Head-On. Crossing The Bridge takes a look at the exceedingly diverse and rich musical scene of one of the most vibrant cities in the world and the increasing cultural conflicts that accompany the music. Alexander Hacke, a German avant-garde musician, guides us through a city torn by the traditions of the East and the contradicting modern values of Europe and the West. Hacke introduces us to various artists including rappers, Kurdish folk singers, street musicians and Muslim chanters. Each musician embodies a particular aspect of Turkish culture to form a truly beautiful love letter to a city and a people searching for a unified and coherent identity.

The best documentary of the festival is arguably the sweeping The Story of the Weeping Camel. The film takes place in the Gobi Desert in South Mongolia and starts with a family of nomadic herders trying to help one of their camels going through an awfully tough labor. The camel gives birth to a rare white calf and its mother refuses to feed him. After several failed attempts, the family sends their two young boys to town in order to fetch a musician who, with his music, might persuade the mother camel to accept her son and save the baby.

The role of camels in this documentary isn t central and the film is definitely not another natural documentary about a cute animal; these camels are plainly tools for the family’s continued survival. Weeping Camel is a story of a family living an almost utopian life. The nomadic family adopts an ancient and bare style of life; their only concern is one another and the desire to continue surviving in such a basic manner. All the family members fully realize that they can easily avoid leading such a rough existence by moving to the city. However, after years of experience and immense wisdom, the family has come to learn that modernity rarely leads to happiness and emotional fulfillment.

It s hard not to think about one s own life after seeing this film. The joy and innocence of this family seems to be out of this world and can be too overwhelming for the viewer, at some point, to completely grasp. Civilization and technology are supposed to make humans happier by providing them with a more comfortable, luxurious life; but after seeing this film, it s hard not to think that this might have been a mistake after all.

The success of the Fourth Caravan of the Euro-Arab Cinema paved the way for the Caravan to expand to Cairo. Unfortunately, the European documentaries screened in Alexandria will not take part in the Cairo program. The Krzysztof Kieslowski films will be reviewed next week along with the Lebanese documentaries. For more information about the Cairo Caravan, check The Daily Star Egypt Web site or call the Cairo Creativity Center at 02 736 3446.

Share This Article
Leave a comment