In the face of the many odds that Arab cinema has been facing material, economic and psychological and the closure of festivals (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Damascus) that once gave it fulsome support by way of generous development grants, the recently launched El Gouna film festival in Egypt has stepped in to fill the gaps. The CineGouna Bridge is a forum for dialogue between different cinematic voices, set up to establish a link between filmmakers from the Arab world and their international counterparts. And the CineGouna Springboard is a project development and co-production lab that helps in getting financial support for Arab filmmakers.
But above all, El Gouna is where some alluring Arab films can be viewed. They throw open the crucial concerns of filmmakers from much of the Arab world. And this is where my primary interest lies. What haunts Arab filmmakers whose countries have been plagued by extremism? How do they handle the daily struggles of people, the warped mentalities of terrorists, the fallout of war and violence? How do they envisage their own future and the future of their children? Quite simply, how do they get by?
For example, the Algerian-French-Lebanese film Divine Wind by Algerian director Merzak Allouache was a story of a tough young woman (it’s hard to tell how young she actually is) and a weak, pliable young man. She is back in Algeria from Syria. Tough, unsmiling, unlikeable, fearless, ruthless and determined, and as dry as the sands around her, she acts like she is on the warpath. Nour is out to find recruits for the extremists.
In Algeria, she is after the young Amine. In fact, the film starts with him. He drives his car in the desert, stops it, runs out and cries. In his equally arid home, there is nothing and no one except a portly old African maid who cooks. Amine prays, reads holy books, does martial arts exercises and little else. He meets no one. Maybe he is just the kind of recruit Noor is looking for.
We see the old maid in the market (she will prove to be an informant) where a man hands her a mobile and tells her to inform him of anything suspicious. Things are brewing but few are aware. Nour bosses over the man and the maid; she even has sexual proclivities, and there are a couple of emotionless encounters between her and Amine.
But that is no big deal. She is here to blow up the well-guarded oil refinery in the Sahara with help of an unwilling Amine. He resists, he will not wear the detonator suit she gives him, he does not want martyrdom. Divine Wind is studded with the mention of Allah, ISIS and paradise.
Who will win this real and psychological war in the desert? “The film,” writes festival director Intishal Al Timimi “is a condemnation of the distortion and disfigurement that has afflicted Algeria.” And actor Mohamed Oughlis says, “I worked hard to study the character of a passive extremist, manipulated and confused.”
The title Divine Wind stands for the Japanese Kamikaze pilots who were selected for suicide missions where saying no was not an option.
And then the flip side of the coin: Dear Son, an Algeria-France-Lebanon co-production directed by Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia, it won for Mohamed Dhrif the Best Actor Award in the Narrative Feature Competition section. A young man, who is about to take his school-leaving exams, suffers from migraine. A visit to a psychiatrist seems to help and then comes the inexplicable jolt to his parents. The young fellow who seems unable to decide between his parents’ expectations of him study, marriage, family, work and a life of his own choosing, simply disappears. A brief note he leaves behind states tersely that he has gone to join the jihadists in Syria. The parents’ world is ripped apart. They had imagined a “normal” life for him. Now they must contend with questions that seem to belong to another world: Is this really their son? Did they ever know him? What pushed him to join the jihadists? The father (Mohamed Dhrif) does the unthinkable: he goes looking for his dear son, and the search becomes a journey of self-discovery for him. It was a splendid performance full of warmth and humanity, of anxiety and love.
Then there was The Cord, a Syrian short film by Al-Laith Hajjo, shot partly in a flat and largely in a small street just beneath in the middle of a thoroughly shattered town. The street has symbolically become a life-and-death frontier for the neighbourhood residents. Step out or cross it and you won’t live snipers are everywhere. On one side live ordinary middle-aged people, on the other, a young couple. The woman who is pregnant, gets her labour pains well before her due date. But how can her husband take her to the clinic? It would mean getting into his ramshackle car and moving. And in any case the fatigued car won’t move. Nor can help come from the midwife or the neighbours who hear the woman’s cries but can only watch, not run across the street to help. Amidst unbearable tension, as the woman lies in the back of the car, the midwife and other women yell instructions to the husband about how to deliver a baby. And he does what he is told, much to his own fright. That the director seems to say are the daily travails of a war that are unseen, unknown, but lived every day.
Soudade Kaadan, the director of a Syrian-Lebanese-French co-production The Day I Lost My Shadow, places her story at the start of the Syrian war in 2012. The first words on the screen: “On the other side of the city, shadows are abandoning their owners.”
Winner of the Luigi de Laurentis Venice Award for a Debut Film, the simple yet psychologically complex story is about a young woman, Sana, and her eight-year-old son Khalil. Sana works in a pharmacy while her husband (as we learn later) has left for Saudi Arabia some years ago in search of work.
The film begins, develops and ends with a feeling of fear, haste and restlessness. Yes, it’s war again. People live with power cuts, gas and water shortage, helplessness, and, of course, bombardments.
A trip to a nearby town to refill her empty gas cylinder takes her inadvertently into the conflict zone. Accompanied by a weary and angry brother and sister, the three are left to fend for themselves when the man who gave them a ride, abandons them and scoots. Over three days, even as she worries about her son, she discovers that people in these affected areas have lost their shadows. What could this mean? Have they lost their souls traumatised as they have been by the cruelty of war? Does having no shadow mean that the light somewhere around you has died? Like some exquisite shots of branches with no leaves, or of women digging graves for people who are likely to die? Soudade Kaadan ventures into a world of magic realism as ideas merge with reality.
But she offers no solutions. Her attention is on how people try to live “normally” in times of terror, especially for the sake of their children, but losing inevitably something of themselves in the process.
In The Gunshot by Karim El Shenawy (Egypt), which is set against the backdrop of the country’s January 25, 2011 revolution and its aftermath, we have a forensic doctor Yassine who turns to alcohol for succour. There is an unusual line about the film’s theme penned by Amir Ramses, El Gouna’s artistic director. “When lies are nobler and more poetic than the truth, and when the masses want to believe what’s false, which path should you take: following collective consciousness or clashing with it?”
Which is what the film is about. The doctor writes a report about a body that has been found near the site of clashes with the police. His report creates a storm. Yassine says that the man died due to a gunshot wound from close quarters, not by a sniper’s bullet. But death by a sniper’s bullet would make the man a martyr and that is what people want to believe. Their defence of the revolution means, among other things, the creation of martyrs, and anyone opposing this would be a traitor. It’s a question of blind adherence to what you want to believe in (even if it is for the larger good) rather than to the truth. A detective film with connotations that are both ideological and idealistic.
But there are films of another kind too. In The Gift (director Latifa Doghri from Tunisia), a young couple’s first wedding anniversary is round the corner. Myriam, the young conservative wife and a scarf-wearing kindergarten teacher, looks forward lovingly to a celebration. But her taxi-driver husband is cold. What he yearns for is “a long life and obedience”.
And so she decides to give him a truly novel gift the reconstruction of her hymen and her virginity! It is a desperate gesture, but she hopes it will put some life into him. Her female friend in whom she confides is outspoken: “Will you get your hymen re-sewn every time he loses interests?” she asks scornfully.
In the event, the husband’s response is both catty and explosive: was her intact hymen a gift even on their wedding night?
That for Myriam is the last straw, and paradoxically, a renewal. She charges into the street, a new look on her face, a new spring in her step, a new liberation in her veins and no scarf on the head. She has understood herself, her husband and her life. She gives away the new scarf that her husband had just gifted her to the first woman she meets. She won’t be needing it anymore. And from then on, there’s no looking back.
To be sure, there were other Arab films with themes far removed from the agonies of war and terrorism. But for me, it was gratifying to see the strength of what each filmmaker conveyed: an open mind, and a heart of gold often in the midst of debris within and without.
The writer is an eminent film critic and has been on the jury of several national and international festivals...