With no budget to attend the Berlin Film Festival, I decided to do what I thought would be the second best thing: cover the Fifth Sawy Festival for Independent Short Narratives. But after watching more than 50 movies for three consecutive days, I realized that my ill-fated decision should have been my third option. The second, less agonizing one being to stay home and watch reruns of The Simpsons!
Over the past few years, the Sawy festival has emerged as the Egyptian version of Sundance, sans the celebrities, distribution deals or – judging by the latest edition – good movies.
The numerous independent film festivals crowding Egypt’s film calendar have produced real gems during the last three year. Unfortunately, hardly any of the works featured at the Sawy festival are on par with Maggie Morgan’s “Menhom Fehoom (Among Them), Heba Yousri’s “Eshkon Akher (Another Love) or Sherif El-Bendary’s “Sabah El-Fol (Good Morning, Sunshine).
Besides lacking maturity and a singular vision, the 60+ films display an undeniable sense of haughtiness and condescendence that taint the works of some filmmakers who think they know it all.
Hany Mahmoud, for example, thinks he possesses a simple answer to the question of God’s existence, which he presents via a naïve, preachy argument in a story about a devil seeking redemption.
This educational tone prevailed over a considerable number of works. The most appalling was Ahmed Kasem’s production “Endama Talmes El Khaial (When You Touch Fantasy), an Adl Group travelogue about Marsa Matrouh. Kasem adopts the tasteless, bland style of 80s Egyptian documentaries, adding in laughable characters who, at one point, mimic Laila Mourad and Hussein Sedky’s famous scene in “Shate’ El Gharam (Love Beach).
Mohamed Mohamed’s “Planeta is essentially a short, dumb attempt at infotainment. The story is about a young man who bumps into an alien in an online chat room, and the encounter is used as a pretext for presenting the same old lesson about the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the Roswell incident.
The overwhelming majority of the participating movies were quite grim and hopeless. Characters of these stories lead a bleak existence, struggling with forces they seem unwilling to challenge.
A humongous number of these characters indulge themselves in weed smoking and whining about their sorry existence. Society and the authoritarian government are the obvious adversaries, while the diminishing of individualistic moral codes, dysfunctional families and repression are the main themes. None of these particular stories provide fresh insight or attempt to look at the current social reality from a different perspective.
“Tanhida (A Sigh) is a clear illustration of the filmmakers’ lack of depth.
Director Mahmoud Saber follows an old man who roams the streets of Cairo’s bustling downtown, complaining about low wages and inflation. At the core of Saber’s work is the same senile mentality that suggests that the government is distracting Egypt’s disgruntled men with skanky models in music videos and provocative lingerie displayed in the capital’s clothing stores.
Even the most audacious of these movies, Mohanad Diab’s “Sodom about homosexuality in Egypt, eventually emerges as a public service announcement, trying to come up with tangible solution to this “disease. “15 Minutes and “February 29 were among the most original presentations of the festival, failing only due to lack of focus and an inability to escape conventions.
The first sees a taxi driver meeting the angel of death, who informs him that his life will end in 15 minutes. As the driver races to the nearest mosque, all his little crimes flash before his eyes, including an extramarital affair, a hit and run accident and smoking weed.
The second tells the story of a man born on February 29 who can’t celebrate his birthday. The quirky story unfolds into a direct attack on the current political regime, highlighted with the last scene of the film.
Nevertheless, director Amr Zaghloul doesn’t clarify the connection between the two main aspects of the enigmatic story.
The saving grace of the festival was Aytin Amin’s “Ana Aref Heya Meen (I Know Who She Is) and independent film company Semat’s latest series of releases.
Amin’s film is a gentle chronicle of an old husband preparing to temporarily leave his Alzheimer-stricken wife for a trip to the US. Amin weaves a simple love story about a man who can’t bring himself to leave his wife, who doesn’t recognize him any longer. The sadness, doubt and longing of the man are reflected through a series of soft images that quietly whisper the ultimate message of the film.
Semat’s “Talk to Strangers, “Beethoven Echo and “A Different Point of View are all quite impressive in terms of execution and vision. Nagui Ismail’s “Beethoven, in particular, was arguably the most stunning film of the festival despite its flaws.
The film revolves around a middle-aged man trapped in a dream world. Ismail conjures a series of highly poetic, lush images that brilliantly use sunset rays and a seaside setting to create the protagonist s tranquil dream world. The film is hardly original and lacks an emotional punch, yet the young filmmaker’s sensual frames and sweeping mood taps into the desires embedded in the minds of many Cairo residents.