Over the course of two evenings, a selection of the best films screened at the last Ismailia International Film Festival of documentary and short films were screened at the Goethe Institute last Tuesday.
The festival, which turned 11 this year, has built a solid reputation of offering some of the finest short documentaries and narratives in the world while presenting a collection of the latest blockbuster documentaries.
Because it is held in Ismailia, however, many Cairene film buffs are unable to enjoy an art form rarely available in Cairo’s culture outlets. Goethe’s decision to screen the winning movies, along with a collection of the films that created the biggest buzz last September, was welcomed by film fans who flocked in droves last Tuesday.
Little did they know that the first evening would be ruined by the comments and behavior of college students who were apparently forced to attend the screening as an assignment.
The first night kicked off with the German winner of the best short narrative “Fair Trade. The film tells the story of a German woman traveling to Morocco to buy a baby taken from a young, poor Moroccan woman against her will.
The film is shot with a gritty lens that reflects the somber situation while the performances are restrained and appropriately inert. Yet the plot is too familiar to leave a lasting impression, borrowing the tone and narrative framework of the Dardenne Brothers’ “L’enfant.
Familiarity was, in fact, the prevailing sentiment. Algeria’s “The Door, for example, is another dreary picture about repressed women in the Arab world. After watching dozens of Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and other Arabic films tackling the same issue over the years, I wondered if filmmakers were capable of addressing anything remotely new.
“Hay El Seryan, (Seryan Neighborhood) focuses on the never-ending consequences of the Lebanese war. Although the documentary offers no fresh insight, director Joe Saad manages to showcase some confessional moments by three characters inhabiting a small Christian neighborhood. The three were suffered severe physical and psychological traumas due to the war.
The Best Narrative Picture award went to Palestinian director Cherien Dabis’ “Make a Wish. The film revolves around a young Palestinian girl attempting to collect extra cash to buy the best chocolate cake from her neighborhood bakery.
“Wish initially seems like an apolitical story about a girl striving for a little piece of happiness represented in the cake, until the last scene, when the bigger, more piercing context is unveiled. The film is both heartfelt and entertaining. It plays like a thriller without the stifling emotionalism synonymous with films carrying similar themes.
England provided a couple of stellar films, both impressive in treatment and inventive execution.
The first is Ian Mackinnon’s “Adjustment, winner of the Best Experimental Film award. The film charts a man’s obsession with recording and drawing every detail of his relationship with his girlfriend. As his overwhelming fixation starts to damage their relationship, it becomes obvious that the man is, in fact, more fascinated with the idea of being in love than truly experiencing it.
“Adjustment is the most visually striking film of the bunch. Its original plot is supplemented with Mackinnon’s knack for making every frame dazzle the audience and conveying his conception of modern love with subtlety.
The Best Animated Film award went to “Dreams and Desires: Family Ties – equally ingenious, but more daring and quirky. The center character of the film is a middle-aged obese spinster who has one foot in the real world and the other in a dream.
The film has its fair share of the frank British humor and amusing cynicism, but it also has a heart hiding behind the rough sketches and several hilariously outrageous images.
The artistic triumph of the British flicks was not enough to wipe out the nasty aftertaste of the students’ behavior that marred the first part of the screenings.
The attending college kids continued to throw in jokes during and after each film. At the screening of Mexico’s “If Eyes Can’t See, several young men cheered hysterically during the nude scenes. Others simply left, refusing to the give the film a chance.
In response, the screening was discontinued.
After roving around culture centers in Cairo for more than 10 years, this kind of behavior was the first this reviewer has ever witnessed.