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Cowboys on Judgement Day
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 09 - 2018

Last Thursday, the second El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 20-28) opened with a gigantic celebration, with numerous celebrities from all over the world among the 450-strong guest list. Present were GFF founder Naguib Sawiris, El Gouna resort founder Samih Sawiris, GFF co-founders and administrative heads Amr Mansi and Bushra Rozza, GFF Director Intishal Al-Timimi, Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem and Minister of Tourism Rania Al-Mashat.
The ceremony included the handing out of Career Achievement Awards to Egyptian filmmaker Daoud Abdel-Sayed and Tunisian producer Dora Boushousha (Sylvester Stallone will receive the same award at the closing ceremony). It also marked the sad news of the death of Gamil Rateb the day before.
As the programme began to unfold, it was clear how much of an impact politics has had on cinema, not only in the Middle East but also in the United States, where the rise of the alt-right has disrupted lives and values.
***
America
The history of cinema is filled with films on the problems of adolescence. Normal biological and psychological changes are enough of a subject, but in Dear Son (Welidi), in GFF's Narrative Feature competition, the Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia focuses on a sudden, radical shift that turns such changes into a tool in the hands of Islamic State (IS) recruiters. Ben Attia is not interested in describing the social, financial or political motives that drive a young man without any fundamentalist background to join the Jihadist group. In fact, the substance of the drama is the father's suffering. The action opens with the day-to-day monotony of a middle-class family — the father Riyadh (Mohamed Dhrif), the mother Nazli (Mouna Mejri) and their 19-year-old son Sami (Zakaria Ben Ayyed) — disturbed only by the terrible migraines and vomiting fits to which Sami is subject and the parents' attempt to find a cure. This suggests a terminal illness, but with the director's concentration on Riyadh's fatherly concern — over his son's illness, then disappearance — it is never made clear what the medical issue is. To the possible consternation of an audience accustomed to cause and effect, Ben Attia eliminates all the usual causes of domestic disturbance that might lead to a teenage son joining IS, and he does not demonstrate how the Jihadist ideology penetrated Sami's thinking. Suggesting, rather, that IS recruiters target ill young men, he concentrates on the resulting devastation within the family. Because its plot is far more confusing and its cinematic techniques different, Welidi to my mind cannot be compared to Ben Attia's last film, Hedi, which won the best first feature and the best actor awards at the 2016 Berlinale.
The young Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania's 2017 Beauty and the Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit), which premiered at Cannes's Un Certain Regard — based on the true story of a girl who was raped by policemen — has been widely debated, no less for its subject than the filmmaker's approach, which focuses on the girl's struggle to fight back showing the action from her point of view. Her documentary feature Zaineb Hates the Snow, in which she portrays six whole years in the life of a nine-year-old girl who loses her father to a car accident through her mother's decision to marry a Canadian emigre and take her daughter to live with him and Zainab's slow adjustment to these changes, is another remarkable achievement. Her new narrative project, The Man Who Sold His Skin, is competing for the CineGouna SpringBoard awards. Her short narrative film The Sheikh's Watermelons (Batikh Al-Sheikh) in the Short Films competition has a very simple storyline that she nonetheless uses to explore the connection between traditional preaching and Islamic extremism. Though Ben Hania is interested in the lives of women, this film only depicts women obliquely through the issues religion poses to the lives of villagers. It opens in a small village mosque where, when two boys enter with their mother's coffin to perform funerary prayers, one of the faithful shouts that the woman had owed him money. And so the moderate imam, investigating, asks everyone to chip in to pay back the debt — only to discover that the coffin contains nothing but watermelons. The two boys are in league with the man and they have managed to rob the faithful. But it is through the imam's extremist assistant trying to take advantage of the situation by presenting the imam as part of the ploy that Bin Hania makes her point. The imam took in the assistant even though he knew about his extremist tendencies, and the assistant (as it turns out) is the one who orchestrated the whole incident in order to replace the imam.
Dear Son
“There are two kinds of people on this planet. There are leaders and there are followers,” so says the almost 70-year-old “cowboy”, explaining his ideas about power in Claus Drexel's documentary America in the Documentary Feature competition. Such ideas are widespread among the US lower classes, especially in the South and Midwest, where they can take on sinister overtones as they feed into white supremacy. This man, for example, gave Hitler as an example of a leader. Looking furtively to one said, he explained that, though Hitler was wrong, he could make “a whole nation” follow him. Mostly filmed in Arizona, the film comprises a series of interviews with rednecks during the 2016 presidential elections, interspersed with shots of the beautiful desert landscape splattered with the paraphernalia of the Republican voters excited about Trump's rise to power: rifles, deer heads and Confederate flags. The editing and music are smooth and peaceful even as the interviews, smoothly shifting from politics to daily life (including gun control) and back again, are disturbing: a pregnant woman counting the different kinds of guns she and her husband own, and once she has given birth vowing to give her newborn his first pistol as soon as he turns five; an elderly woman who shot dead a young man who stabbed her justifying her Second Amendment right to owning guns saying, “Excuse my English. We live in hell, and when we die we go to heaven.” Drexel, who makes no effort to hide his own feelings — though unlike Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine, Drexel does not provide his own interior monologue or running commentary — intensifies the atmosphere of paranoia and foreboding by including one of the then candidate's campaign speeches: “You will have the great pleasure of voting for the man that will easily go down as the greatest president in the history of the US, me, Donald John Trump. God Bless America.”
***
GFF's opening film was French filmmaker Thomas Lilti's The Freshmen (Première année), featuring Vincent Lacoste as Antoine, a second-time applicant for medical school. He befriends Benjamin (William Lebghil), a first-time applicant eager to follow in his surgeon father's footsteps, and they join forces by studying together. In the course of time Antoine grows obsessed with grades to the point of seeing anyone who scores higher, even Benjamin, as an enemy. Himself a doctor known as much for Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014) as Folded Eyes (2006), Lilti takes on the French medical education system. The film manages to bring in other social issues too: Benjamin abandoned and living alone in a small apartment where his only friend is an Asian neighbour who occasionally feeds him, for example. With frequent mock exams, continuous studying and revision, the university atmosphere is stressful, but the two friends, revising out loud in the front yard, seem to be making up for their lack of a social or personal life.
The film is a well-rounded take on a social issue that is entertaining and full of humane insight.
With touching music by Andrey Kurchenko, stunning cinematography by Mark Taniel and impressive acting all round, Russian filmmakers Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov's The Man Who Surprised Everyone is one of the most remarkable films in the narrative feature competition. It won the Venice Horizons Award for Best Actress (Natalya Kudryashova) and was nominated for the Queer Lion Award and the Venice Horizons Award for Best Film at Venice Film Festival this year. The story of Egor (Evgeniy Tsiganov), a state forest guard in the Siberian Taiga who suddenly discovers he has advanced untreatable cancer, it opens with him in a small boat on his way to work in the forest. Egor is married to Natalia (Kudryashowa), they have one small child and are expecting another, and so the news is doubly devastating. After they fail to persuade the doctor to do anything, though Natalia borrows money for the purpose, they meet a local healer who eventually tells Egor the story of Zhamba the Drake, a local legend about a male duck who was about to die but changed his gender to female and so, when death came for him, death could find no one of the required description and had to let him be. One day at their small house in the duck-filled farm Natalia is startled to find a strange woman in the yard, but when she approaches her she realises it is Egor in drag. When he refuses to stop dressing as a woman Natalia locks him up in a shed. But soon enough the curious villagers gather round and he is forced to come out and meet them — as a woman. This is a conservative, patriarchal community and Egor's behaviour is completely unacceptable. Even when he and his family are kicked out of the village, however — until he is completely cured — Egor does not give up his female attire.
In a deeply moving scene, Natalia feeds and clothes Egor in women's clothes despite her disapproval.
The two filmmakers, Merkulova and Chupov have worked together since their 2013 debut Intimate Parts, about middle-class sexual issues.
Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan's The Day I Lost My Shadow, which received the Lion of the Future (Luigi De Laurentiis) Award at the Venice Film Festival two weeks ago, was preceded by a message from Kaadan, who was denied the visa required for her to be present at the screening, read by Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania: “Before, the question was how a Syrian could live a normal life under war. Now the question is how a normal Syrian could visit an Arab country. I hope this film will touch you… Today our absence is a statement.” The film is the story of a day in the life of Sana and her eight-year-old during the war, and it shows how even the simplest daily tasks — doing the washing, or obtaining a butane cylinder for the cooker, which is the motive behind the journey on which Sana meets Jala and his sister Reem, beginning her adventure with them — can turn into absolute nightmares.
Egyptian-Austrian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky's debut Yomeddine (Judgement Day in Arabic), which was selected for the Cannes Official Competition and won the François Chalais Prize, is about a Christian man with leprosy, Beshay (Radi Gamal), and a little orphan boy who because of his Nubian skin and hair is named Obama (Ahmed Abdel-Hafez). Together the two characters are going on a road trip in search of Beshay's family, but rather than driving a car north they use a donkey-drawn cart and head south, and it's as if Argentinian cinematographer Federico Cesca's photography is a journey into the collective Egyptian psyche. Shawky, who uses amateurs in grassroots settings, builds the mood slowly, starting with Beshai's deformed fingers. At the colony where his father left him many years before, promising to come back, he continues to sell rubbish for a living until the death of his wife Ireny (Shouq Emara) at a mental institution drives him to go on this journey with his beloved donkey Harby. Obama joins him against his wish by hiding in the cart. On the road the two antiheroes encounter all kinds of misfortunes: shunned by people who fear leprosy, they lose their money, then (a somewhat forced inclusion of religious issues) Beshay is arrested, locked up and ends up running away with a Muslim Brotherhood member. Eventually Beshay meets a former truck driver who has lost both his legs and works as a beggar and two of his friends, and they have a rather out-of-character philosophical conversation while flashbacks are followed by The Judgement Day monologue. In the end both Beshay and Obama have the chance to find out about their families, but both are so overcome by fear and confusion they forego it. Though beautifully made and full of valuable material, the film comes across as a showcase of dispossessed minorities. The first film by Shawky, who received Variety's MENA Talent Award at the GFF, was a 2009 short documentary on the Abu Zaabal Leper Colony.


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