THE REEL ESTATE: Egyptians shine in first Women's Film Festival

Joseph Fahim
8 Min Read

The first Women’s Film Festival (March 8th – 16th), organized by the audio-visual development foundation Cadre, took place at the Artistic Creativity Center of the Cairo Opera House and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

For a first-time event, it was a remarkable success in terms of attendance and the quality of participating films.

The festival kicked off on a strong note with Sherif El-Bindary s Sabah El-fol (Rise and Shine), a sweet nine-minute monologue vividly delivered by actress Hind Sabry.

Next up was the equally ambitious Eshk Akhar (Another Passion), by Heba Yousry who directed the controversial El Mehna Emra a (Profession: Woman), about a young woman from a reserved family with a passion for cinema.

Osama, the first film produced after the fall of Taliban, was one of the very few foreign films that saw a large audience turnout. It is the harrowing true story of a 12-year-old girl who is forced to disguise herself as a boy during Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in order to support her widowed mother.

Veteran Egyptian documentary filmmakers made their presence felt with a tribute to documentary pioneer Ateyyat El Abnoudy showcasing her short films The Sandwich (1975) and Permissible Dreams (1982).

Tahani Rached, the eminent filmmaker of Those Girls, closed the festival with Four Women of Egypt, an account of the friendship between four women who chronicle Egypt’s history during the past 50 years.

Agnès Varda and Jane Campion, two of the world s premier female filmmakers, were represented by The Vagabond by the former and a trilogy of short films by the latter.

Passionless moments, a collection of fragile, everyday moments of ordinary people that fades quickly as soon as they begin, was Campion s most original and memorable among the three; while A Girl s Own Story, an account of three emotionally detached girls from dysfunctional families circa The Beatles era, foreshadowed the main themes she would use later on in her famous movies Sweetie and The Piano.

The short -participant films of the 2006 Cannes film festival were the undiscovered gems of the festival.. The Norwegian Golden Palm winner Sniffer – the surreal story of a group of people whose feet are strapped to some heavy boots to prevent them from fleeing, and the one man who decides to destroy the shackles and break away – was one of the prominent films.

The film and its message are simple, yet Sniffer s director Bobbie Peers style and the way he visualizes his concept is captivating. The resulting emotional impact of his first film is powerful and cathartic.

Graceland, a lyrical, hypnotizing tale of a homosexual man who falls in love with a mysterious young woman, was one of several highlights of the students film competition in Cannes.

Mother, the American story of a good-looking slapdash mother past her prime who hires a complete stranger to be in charge of her little baby daughter while she woos a man she s recently met, was one of the rare lighter moments of the festival despite its broad commentary about broken American suburban life.

The main difference between independent Egyptian films and the international films is that the latter emphasizes an idea or a philosophy while the former are more concerned with social issues.

Most Egyptian independent shorts and documentaries were astounding and no one can undermine their ambition or scope, a clear departure from mainstream commercial cinema. Some would argue that these films are among the very best releases in recent years. But what makes the foreign films more accessible, relevant and ultimately superior is their timeless universal subjects that are not confined to a specific society.

Most of the Arabic offerings didn t leave any impression, tackling the same tired issues about the sorry state of Arab women. One cannot belittle these pressing problems, but their cinematic treated unfortunately lacks originality.

Iraqi feature films and documentaries didn t fare well either, with on exception: Baghdad Days, a touching look at the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq from the point of view of an art student.

Days steered clear from indulging in the sentimentality of films like The Snow Can t Erase the Memory , concentrating instead on taking an honest, realistic approach that accentuates the human suffering caused by the loss of friends or family and by unemployment.

One of the main goals of the festival was to highlight the tribulations that ordinary Egyptian women continue to endure. Viola Shafiq s Planting of Girls impartially presented the issue of female genital mutilation in a way that will be certainly keeping it off terrestrial Egyptian TV.

Hala Galal s Thorns, a 38-minute documentary about the widespread spousal violence against women, was the most shocking film. Audiences gasped for breath after watching the numerous anecdotes of real women belonging to different social classes and backgrounds describing the details of the humiliation, agony and helplessness to which they have been subjected.

The festival was also a platform for the well-received works of first-time independent Egyptian directors, most notably Maggie Morgan s highly lauded Inside Out, an intimate collection of short stories about ordinary Egyptian women.

A section named Taboos attracted the largest number of viewers. Each of the screened films signaled new exciting, albeit raw, Egyptian talents.

Profession: Woman by Heba Yousry was highly noted. Her short documentary about Egyptian prostitutes is an incredibly honest film that s both agonizing and heartfelt. Yousry never aims to justify these women s actions or force the viewer to judge them; she simply shows them as they are with a touch of compassion we rarely find in the real world.

Despite the fact that the majority of these films was very impressive, the first Women’s Film Festival is one of the grimmest cinematic events this reviewer has ever attended.

Most of these films present women as victims of diverse social and cultural realities that trap them in a certain mould. But it would have been refreshing to include films that celebrate the spirit of being a woman like the Nicole Holofcener films Walking and Talking, and Lovely and Amazing or Pedro Almodóvar s quirky comedies and more recently his superb dramas.

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