Over the past few years, the Gulf Film Festivals — Dubai, Abu Dhabi and now Doha Tribeca — have rapidly become the optimum showcase for Arab films. With all three contributing a substantial chunk of money to support Arab filmmakers through their various funds and grant programs, the Gulf has provided a much-needed source of finance for ambitious Arab filmmakers struggling to produce their works in a region that is yet to attract widespread international attention.
Make no mistake, though; the Gulf’s commendable initiative is not by any means an act of charity: Arabic movies are the festivals’ raison d’être and the primary attraction for international press. The Gulf — which is yet to secure significant world premieres — needs quality Arabic productions to validate their existence and prove their importance to the region.
Following in the footsteps of Dubai, Abu Dhabi Film Festival has set up the Sanad fund for assisting Arab films during various stages of production in addition to a lucrative scriptwriting competition.
The first fruits of the Sanad fund were unveiled at this year’s edition, dominating the larger part of the Arab films. Lots of hubbub about the backstage politics and the contentious tastes of the committees in charge have dominated discussions this year among Arab critics. And while it’s to give an objective assessment of the success of Sanad, the early results weren’t as promising as expected. The fund hasn’t produced anything of great merit. Furthermore, the wide critical acclaim Ibrahim El Batout’s third feature “Hawi” — which was rejected by the Sanad — received in Doha Tribeca could pose a big question mark over the committee’s decisions.
Bahij Hojeij’s “Shatti Ya Dini” (Here Comes the Rain), winner of the Best Narrative Film from the Arab World, is a prime example. The Lebanese domestic drama centers on an ex-political prisoner (Hassan Mrad), kidnapped during the civil war, who gets reunited with his family after 20 years in captivity.
Evocatively photographed by Maxime Heraud, Hojeij conceals the shortcomings of his script with the nuanced performances of the top-notch cast that includes Julia Kassar, Carmen Lebbos and Bernadette Hodeib.
Hojeij smartly averts forcing big dramatic moments into his story, choosing instead to maintain a quiet, almost subdued pace throughout. He never reveals the back-story of Mrad’s character, who remains in a state of psychological paralysis, unable to communicate or connect with his wife and children. The only respite he temporally finds is with a wife of another kidnapped prisoner whom he may, or may not, know.
There are several moving, compelling moments in here; the instance where Mrad’s character sneaks on his daughter while playing the cello is arguably the most beautiful scene in the film.
The problem is that the dramatic structure of the story is rather feeble, and even aimless in parts. The impact of the Mrad’s return is not fully realized, let alone developed. Several threads of the story are left hanging while some primary characters, such as Mrad’s son, feel peripheral to the drama.
Coupled with a mostly flat direction and a lack of urgency or vigor, “Here Comes the Rain” ultimately comes off as a good TV movie with serious lapses, modest production values and a palpable absence of ambition — a common anomaly plaguing most of this year’s Arab selection.
The Egyptian factors
Egyptian films didn’t fare any better. The most disappointing entry of the bunch is Dina Hamza’s “Dakhel we Khareg El-Ghorfa” (In/Out of the Room), a one-hour documentary feature about the life of an executioner (commonly known in Egypt as Ashmawy).
A character study of sorts, Hamza adopts a detached approach to her subject, Am Hussein, refusing to impose any personal judgment. She details the morally constructed world Am Hussein has built around him to rationalize his line of work. She intercuts shots of the execution chamber, the majority of which are captured in close-ups, with scenes from Am Hussein’s daily life.
Although she did assert her rejection of it in the discussion that followed the film’s screening, the question of capital punishment is hardly raised by Hamza. And while her subject is undeniably intriguing, her exceedingly pedestrian direction fails to sustain interest.
There’s no art to Hamza’s easy filmmaking; her craft is defined by an unshakeable sense of laziness. She doesn’t attempt to produce anything remarkable, in terms of both the visuals and the narrative. Both the course of the story — talking heads of Am Hussein and his Brethrens explaining why they do what they do — and the visual structure — footage of the execution room punctuated with everyday Cairo scenery — are monotonous and, quite frankly, dull.
Am Hussein does all the work for Hamza, essentially instigating him to talk.
More successful, if equally lacking, is Fawzi Saleh’s documentary “Jeld Hayy” (Living Skin), an unflinching look at the children working in the manufacture of natural leather.
Shocking and abrasive, Saleh plunges the viewers deep into a forgotten, unseen world that, nonetheless, lies in front of our very eyes.
Saleh presents a realistically bleak picture of the Magra El-‘Uyun district, home of a large number of slaughterhouses, where — as he points out in the end — half of its 80,000 labor force is comprised of children under 15.
The world Saleh explores has no prospects and no hope for its young inhabitants. Poverty is an epidemic none of the district’s denizens can escape. With no supervision or any protective measures, the kids are left to fend off grave dangers every day in exchange for a few pounds.
Saleh’s film is beautifully framed; juxtaposing harrowing images of unimaginable ugliness and cruelty with a set of exquisitely composed ones. He succeeds in finding shades of beauty in the most unsightly of circumstances.
Saleh’s dexterity in the visual department cannot hide the limitations of his film. With no tangible narrative or plot structure, “Living Skin” fails to fully engage. His characters are almost undistinguishable from one another: each is a product of a dysfunctional family, each has been involved in a romantic relationship, each is struggling to make ends meet. Individual stories steadily grow redundant.
Unlike Tahani Rached’s greatly acclaimed documentary “El-Banat Dol” (Those Girls), Saleh fails to establish a personal link by which the audience can connect to his characters. The empathy required on part of the viewers is impossible to establish; the emotional investment in this shabby document is nonexistent.
Along with Daoud Abdel Sayed’s sublime “Messages from the Sea” — reviewed in these pages last March — the real standout of the Egyptian participating films is Maha Maamoun’s video installation “Siyaha Dakhiliyya II” (Domestic Tourism II).
The video is a collage of footage taken from Egyptian films with the Pyramids featured as backdrop in all chosen sequences.
Commencing with the 1940s and ending in modern times, the video charts the social, economical and cultural changes Egypt has witnessed during the past 60 years. For the unacquainted foreign audience, “Domestic Tourism” may represent a fascinating snapshot of a nation always at odds with its own history. For Egyptian viewers, the experience is richer and far more complex.
The most discernable facet of the piece is the stark contrast between the 1950s and early 1960s and the subsequent decades. The blithe, untroubled ambiance of the post-revolution era is progressively replaced by the apprehensiveness brought by the 1967 defeat, the bittersweet victory of 1973, the economic calamity and state of loss of 1980s, and the cultural and social decadence of the present.
Each sequence is a part of a big whole; stories with which Egyptian viewers have a long history. Each sequence doesn’t only represent a small part of a larger narrative, but a reservoir of personal memories.
An accomplished comedy
The most accomplished Arab film I’ve seen this year at Abu Dhabi was Lebanese comedy “Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla” (Ok, Enough, Goodbye) by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia.
Set in Tripoli, provincial capital of north Lebanon where nothing seems to happen, the film revolves around a sluggish bakery owner in his late 30s, living with his mother, who is forced to become independent when she leaves him in a town that doesn’t acknowledge the concepts of personal space or individuality.
Attieh and Garcia encircle their fabulous lead with an array of highly peculiar supporting characters — an irksome little boy with knowledge of different types of machineguns, an Ethiopian maid who cannot utter a word of Arabic — who not only enrich the comedy but intensify it.
Using a cast of non-professional actors (the lead’s mother is Attieh’s real-life grandmother for instance), the film twinkles with an aura of naturalism, augmented by “The Office”-like talking heads shot via a prehistoric camcorder.
The result is not the most original and smartest Arab film I’ve seen in Abu Dhabi, but one of the funniest Arab comedies I’ve seen in years.
Underneath the deadpan, acerbic comedy is a caustic social commentary touching upon a disparity of hot-buttoned issues such as racism, prostitution, crushed masculinity and social despair.
The choice of Tripoli is no coincidence. Attieh and Garcia parallels history of the city — a place with strong history of unrealized prospects, a large tombstone of unfinished projects — with their lead protagonist to superimpose his impotency. As the man continues to fail in his many petty endeavors, what finally emerges is an impassive account of an exceedingly lonely man trapped in a place with little expectations; a place where he can never be his real self.
Fawzi Saleh’s documentary “Jeld Hayy” (Living Skin) is an unflinching look at the children working in the manufacture of natural leather.