Al Sawy Culture Wheel’s 5th Documentary Film Festival, screening 42 films over July 18-20, provided an occasion to look through many windows to a world afflicted by conflict, poverty, and other challenges of modernity in a developing world.
Amongst a swarm of movies about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the original and personal documentary “Hadath fi Mahragan Berlin (An Event at the Berlin Film Festival). The overarching Arab-Israeli conflict is rendered in Neveen Shalaby’s documentary in a refreshingly personal light, even if it flows more like a travel diary than a documentary.
Shalaby finds herself among other participants honestly (if a bit naively) asking how she would deal with an Israeli. Participating in a talent camp with her turn out to be Israeli, with whom she discusses the conflict. One Israeli documentary maker is keenly aware that even her work may not “change the world, but what does have potential is one-on-one communication. Another participant, also from Israel, says cynically, or perhaps realistically, to forgo the peace for just yet. “Just talk, she says, “Just talk.
Another different look at the Palestinian mode of self-determination was offered through Khoula Diab El-Lou’s “Ya Halali Ya Mali (My Riches are Rightfully Mine). Titled after a popular dabka song, is an informative short on the traditional Lebanese dance. The documentary reveals the roots of dabka as a dance to invoke rain; its intricacies are broken down into steps that indicate tradition and festivity. Its participants speak of dabka as a dance of self-determination that continues to define Palestinian identity despite occupation.
“Malh El-Gabal (Mountain Salt) by Tarek Marghani tracks the salters’ source of livelihood. Salting is like fishing, say the villagers – much of your gains are subject to luck. Husbands go up to mountains to seek their only source of livelihood while wives stay at home, and the camera follows both.
Another film that tackles economic challenges is Mohab Alaa Ezzeldin’s “Mish Zayy El Naas (Not Like Other People) that centers on an eloquent young lad and his life in a poverty-stricken village. The outspoken youngster rallies on corruption that afflicts his village where teachers ask students for favors, and where officers come and promise changes. “Who are they laughing at? muses the boy. Residents also complain of lack of proper hygiene and water-borne disease, and the further lack of skilled labor such as doctors and engineers.
Social issues such as marriage and the veil are also tackled in Nadi Mounir Hassan’s “Alla Fain? (Where To?) and Fatma Zahran and Hassan Abd El-Zahran’s “Balad Hijab (Hijab Nation). Disappointingly, both movies offer no new perspective. Audience reactions remained unchanged – with the conservatives tut-tutting (including one walk out on anti-hijab statements) and the liberal-minded sighing.
Women who choose not to get married are presented in Hassan’s documentary in an unflattering light; smoking shisha (water-pipe), while the movie and its participants themselves comment on the “immodesty of women smokers. “Balad Hijab is equally lopsided in its portrayal, simply providing opinions rather than analyses, inserting again a picture of a veiled smoker as a comment of the veil as an erroneous signifier for modesty.
Amid general mediocrity, a surprising heart-winner was provided by Ahmed Nour’s “Galabeya we Gazma (Gown and Shoes). The story of a farm-worker in Fayoum, who also works in Cairo, suddenly takes on a surreal quality when you realize the subject is a worker at the festival venue, at Sawy Culture Wheel itself.
While “Alla Fayn? and “Balad Hijab reveal a bias on part of their filmmakers, Nour’s point of view is only ever so slightly inserted when voiceovers contradict with frames, where literally what is said contradicts what is seen.
The power of Nour’s documentary lies in the fact that it takes you to Fayoum, before it hits you with a reality in Cairo, and more powerfully right where you sit. It reveals the perspective of a man who works by a mosque and finds his prayers are sullied when he looks at women that he perceives as immodestly dressed. As you walk out of Sawy, you become the subject of your own documentary – the question is no longer “How does the world appear to me? but “How do I appear to the world?