In a modestly-sized screening room under 26th of July Bridge, a small crowd attended the Sawy Culture Wheel fourth annual Documentary Films Festival from July 12 to 14. Ostensibly, the genre of documentary films in Egypt fails as yet to mobilize fans en masse.
The affair was no Cannes Film Festival but Mohamed El-Sawy, Sakia founder, hopes that it will encourage local documentary makers by giving them an opportunity to showcase their talents. He proudly affirms that “there has been a significant improvement, over the past four years, in both the quantity and the quality of the films submitted.
The competition is open to professionals as well as amateurs, independent or externally funded. Chief organizer Mohamed Rashad said that the films are selected strictly on the basis of technical quality and appropriateness. “We have had problems in the past with films which were offensive and artistically irrelevant, or which simply did not meet certain technical standards, he explains. This filtering process yielded 33 films that were screened this year.
The films themselves were an odd assortment, and although they were classified into court-metrage and long-metrage, the festival might have benefited from further categorization. Some films were purely informational, newsy documentaries on such original topics as the “Tarboush, (the Egyptian fez) or the Samaritan religious sect in Nablus, in the Palestinian West Bank.
Others attempted to get the audience emotionally engaged with social issues, yielding mixed results. The subject of homeless children was massacred in two movies that made one cringe rather than cry.
“Menena Feena (Within Us), a witty exploration of the dog-eat-dog world of Cairene public transportation, won second prize for the short features competition. A longer documentary on the disabled in Egypt, “Daaoona Noaabir (Let’s Express) was awarded second prize in its category, although its merit was clearly moral rather than artistic.
A better documentary on the less controversial topic of makeshift jobs that are considered forms of beggary under Egyptian law, received no such recognition, although it was exceptionally engaging, cohesive, technically sound, and most importantly, unpretentious.
Several films were, indeed, plagued by pretension and lack of substance.
“Living Room, a very self-conscious existential piece on the experience of loneliness – or rather depression – featured a handful of adolescents wallowing in self-pity and delivering spurious monologues to a camera in near-darkness. A four-minute-long piece about an anti-social ironing man titled “The Crack left the audience in utter mystification over its unfathomable purpose.
A considerably longer film, “The Body , featuring Egyptian dancers writhing about to ominous music was provocative in regards of its subject, though not thought-provoking in terms of depth and overall content.
In the artsy department, the court-metrage on the living inhabitants of Cairo’s City of the Dead titled “Agaby, dazzled the judges, winning first prize. The film was skillfully shot and put together, juxtaposing carefully chosen images and music making for a strong thematic clarity, which had definitely been lacking in other films. Yet for all its merits, “Agaby, like other winners, was not quite the expected from the best product of Egyptian documentary filmmaking over an entire year.
It appears, therefore, that the genre in Egypt has a long way to go, and Mohamed El-Sawy seems quite intent to clear the path for it. He announced the opening of a permanent corner for the screening of documentary films in Sakia in the coming week. Film submissions by anyone are welcome, and viewing of selected films is accessible to the general public for free. “I feel that Egyptians are a people with a great inner wealth and a lot of hidden talents, said Head Judge Samir Auf in his closing speech. “They just need the opportunity to channel those assets.