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Family lies
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 10 - 2017

The El Gouna Film Festival seemed like a dream come true for filmmakers and businessmen alike. Nostalgia played a leading role, with the founders Naguib and Samih Sawiris, Amr Mansi, Boushra Roza and Kamal Zadeh determined to create an event that could compete with the Dubai Film Festival. No doubt the work of a man with plenty of experience directing international festivals like Intishal Al-Timimi was a factor contributing to transforming this event from a seaside showcase to a festival taking the first steps on the long way to competing with the greatest world festivals.
The importance of the festival derives from the inclusion of a large number of important 2017 productions. Some of these had already been screened in the official competitions of such festivals as Venice, Berlin, Locarno, Torino, San Sebastian and Sundance. Others were having their world premieres here in Egypt. Among the latter was the Egyptian feature Photocopy, the third production by Red Star, the husband and wife company founded by Safieddin Mahmoud and Baho Bakhsh. The first was Nawwarah, directed by Hala Khalil, and the second was The Originals by Marwan Hamed. The present film, written by Haitham Dabour, is the directorial debut of Tamer Ashri. Screened in the long fiction competition, Photocopy won the $20,000 Best Arab Film Golden Star.
The film opens with an elderly man named Mahmoud (Mahmoud Hemeida) going about his daily business at his little shop, Mahmoud Photocopy, where he has a computer and a photocopier-printer and offers no services beyond printing and copying documents. In the first few scenes the film gives an impression of the character and his surroundings including the people he comes in contact with. Mahmoud used to be a typesetter at a major newspaper but his profession was killed by technology. The central dramatic line in the film is this man's feeling that life around him is coming to an end. The atmosphere is one of solitude and impoverishment. Mahmoud is unable to pay for the maintenance his equipment requires, and — aware of his financial difficulties — the head of the owners council at the building, Bayoumi Fouad, offers to buy his shop for an absurdly low price. This ruins their relationship.
One day a young man comes in and asks Mahmoud to type a number of pages from a book on the extinction of dinosaurs, which he needs for a research paper. No sooner does Mahmoud perform the task, however, than he becomes obsessed with the topic. The script alludes very subtly to the connection between Mahmoud's profession and the dinosaur. And, as if facing his predicament has liberated him, at the same time Mahmoud develops positive feelings that evolve into love for an elderly woman who lives in the building (Sherine Reda); he holds onto those feelings as his only refuge from the encroaching end. The woman too, as it turns out, is lonely and has had a mastectomy due to breast cancer.
The film does not rely on one major event or action so much as a series of smaller events — the intellectual property police closing down Mahmoud's shop is the biggest of these — but it does build up to a climax in which Mahmoud, deciding to express his love by bearing a sign asking his paramour to marry him. This results in her son (whom we never see) returning from the Gulf to force her out of her house. The script hints at mother and son having a dry relationship but does not explain why or how he kicks her out, much less how she manages to return to her flat. Likewise Mahmoud's sudden love for a woman who has been his neighbour for years is not sufficiently justified. Even in a dramatically unconventional format, these developments remain somewhat unconvincing. This is probably the result of an avant-garde approach to narrating what remains at bottom a conventional story. Many viewers felt the film lacked coherence, and some even claimed it had been a short film screenplay that the filmmakers forcibly expanded into a full-length feature.
***
The official selection outside the competition included numerous remarkable films, many of which had been screened in European festivals. They were meticulously curated for the benefit of the audience: the German-Italian film Three Peaks by Jan Zabeil, for example, which won the Variety prize at the Locarno Film Festival this year, deals with human connections that seem smooth on the surface but explode into tragedy once they enter into a difficult experience. The filming locations often intermingle with the dramatic structure within the script rather than remaining a surface aesthetic.
The place where Zabeil chooses to tell his unique tale is the Three Peaks of Lavaredo in the Alps of northern Italy, because the drama relies on a three-way relationship between a mother, Lea (Berenice Bejo), her son Tristan (Arian Montgomery) and her boyfriend Aaron (Alexander Fehling). A dramatic admixture full of questions: the director has no interesting in answering those questions, however; he is simply looking for and keeping a record of the chemistry operating between the three characters. He immerses the viewer in the moment, paying no attention to how the woman came to be divorced and living with a new man for two years now.
A moving camera follows Aaron and Tristan while they play in the swimming pool. Through this scene the director gives a distinct impression that the man and his girlfriend's son are close and in harmony. It's as if the triangle is being presented visually as well as dramatically, the better to prepare the viewer for the discord to come. The two males' relationship — the weakest side of the triangle — is the main scaffolding of the drama, and it begins to give when, keen on nature, the three of them go on a holiday at Three Peaks. There Lea discovers that Tristan's father has bought him a mobile phone so that he can phone him while he's on holiday. The connection with Aaron is already undermined. Lea doesn't like the fact that Tristan calls Aaron Dad, however, feeling there is something unhealthy about it. Aaron himself is touched by this and Lea's objections anger him.
This three-way disagreement may indeed be the basic pivot of the whole film. Whether it is the two lovers making love uncomfortably for fear of waking Tristan — all three are sleeping in the same cabin — or Aaron teaching Tristan to cut wood for the fire and the latter, in a close-up shot of a violent swing, appearing to symbolically sever Aaron's relationship with the family. Towards the end of the film the man and child go on a hiking trip that shows how dry and cold they are towards each other despite the gushing warmth of the opening scenes. Complex relationships tackled in the most straightforward way: this is the cinematic style of the film. But its power resides rather in its stunning visual language using a handheld camera and brilliant, incredibly appropriate winter scenery.
***
The Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov's Closeness, which won the FIPRESCI at the Cannes Film Festival this year, also deals with relations that seem solid on the surface but are full of tension – which brings them to the edge of the abyss. It opens quietly with a tomboyish/butch girl named Ila (Darya Zhavonar) helping her car mechanic father at his workshop. This is taking place against furious ethnic conflicts in Natchlik, in 1998. The filmmaker reveals the girl's relationship with her brother by showing them smoking furtively together in the courtyard on her return from work. The Jewish family is closely knit and it remains so until Ila stars feeling jealous of her brother's huge engagement party — the most important dramatic development, which explodes the inner tension.
The brother and his fiancée are kidnapped by a local gang, and all the Jewish families gather and chip in trying to provide the ransom — in vain. The girl's jealously comes through in her dialogue with her mother; she feels she is her father's true son, and goes so far as to say to her mother that it's possible her brother will be killed and she will really be the only child. The plot thickens when a young man persuades his father to pay the whole ransom but as Ila's dowry. But Ila as a Muslim lover, Zalim, who works at a petrol station, to whose house she flees when she feels she is being sold for the ransom money. There she enjoys drink and drugs with Zalim and his friends, part of whose entertainment is to watch a video of Chechen militants slaughtering Russian soldiers. Ila purposely loses her virginity to Zalim, leaving a blood soaked kerchief on her parents' table while her suitor's family are dining there. Yet the young man goes ahead with paying the ransom even after the marriage project is abandoned.
The film is a metaphorical expression of the internal division of this society — the Russian-Chechen conflict — which resorts to conflicts within the same family among the Jewish and Muslim minorities who are not directly party to the conflict. Here as elsewhere in the festival the choice of screenings lives up to the slogan, “Cinema for humanity”, not in the sense of direct or superficial optimism or tolerance but rather in the depths and complexity of the human relations depicted.
GFF AWARDS:
The Feature Narrative Competition:
- Scary Mother, El Gouna Golden Star Award (trophy and $50,000).
- Insult, El Gouna Silver Star Award (trophy and $25,000).
- Arthamia, El Gouna Bronze Star Award (trophy and $15,000).
- Photocopy, El Gouna Golden Star Award for the best Arabic Feature. Narrative Film (Trophy and $20,000).
- Daniel Gimenez Cacho (Zama), the Best Actor Award.
- Nadia Kunda (Volubilis), the Best Actress Award.

The Feature Documentary Competition:
- I am Not Your Negro, El Gouna Golden Star (trophy and $30,000)
- Brimstone and Glory, El Gouna Silver Star Award (trophy and $15,000).
- Mrs Fang, El Gouna Bronze Star Award (trophy and $7,500).
- I Have a Picture, El Gouna Golden Star Award For the Best Arabic Feature Documentary (trophy and $10,000).

Short Films:
- Nightshade, El Gouna Golden Star Award (trophy and $15,000).
- Merry-Go-Round, El Gouna Silver Star Award (trophy and $7,500).
- Mama Bobo, El Gouna Bronze Star Award (trophy and $4,000).
- Punchline, El Gouna Golden Star Award for the Best Arabic Short Film (trophy and $5,000).

Special Awards
- Soufra, The Cinema for Humanity Award (the Audience Award), (Trophy and $20,000) and also won the Mentor Arabia Award (the prize includes $10,000).
- Baghdad Photographer, the Film Factory Award (trophy and $5,000).


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