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Other Africans
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 03 - 2019

The eighth Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF, 15-21 March) closed last week, having screened over 80 films in five competitions – the long narrative, long documentary, short, student project and freedom film programmes – and three out-of-competition sections: the official selection, the panorama of Egyptian films and the Tunisian cinema tribute.
“Cinema, Other Lives” was the slogan the festival president, screenwriter Sayed Fouad and the festival director, filmmaker Azza Al-Husseini came up with months before the opening, a reference, as Fouad explained it, to “the concept of cinema in general”: “There is no doubt that we experience the feelings and we live through the suffering of film protagonists. In every cinematic experiences, we fly in a world parallel to the one in which we live. We witness images that make space and time eternal, adding years to our age. We truly live other lives.”
The Burial of Kojo
Since its launch in 2012, in addition to being a forum for film professionals from across the continent, LAFF has provided local talent with educational opportunities in the form of workshops in acting, screenwriting, documentary and narrative filmmaking, animation, storytelling, theatre directing, ballet, drawing and sculpture. This year the festival extended its activities to Qena (a 50-minute drive from Luxor), where films were screened in the Open-air Theatre at South Valley University.
The six-day event opened with the Ghanaian film The Burial of Kojo, directed by Sam Blitz Bazawule, which won the Grand Nile award for best film in the long narrative competition. The film was not screened at the opening ceremony, a trend started by the late critic Samir Farid, who while president of the Cairo International Film Festival in 2014, having noticed that people tend to leave before the screening, came up with the idea that “opening film”, rather than being part of the ceremony, should be a title of honour given to a chosen film to be screened on the first day of the festival.
Mixing mythology into realism, The Burial of Kojo is inspired by the biblical tragedy of Cain and Abel. The opening scene, a powerful piece of cinematography, shows a figure standing by a burning car on the seashore, while a girl's voice begins to tell the story of her father Kojo and her uncle Kwabena. Occasionally still images – a black-clad horseman with a crow's head, for example – are presented upside down, adding to the sense of magic.
Identifying the good father with a white dove and the evil uncle with a crow, a device that seems somewhat too direct, the filmmaker employs symbolism as well as smoke and slow motion to generate the atmosphere of the little girl's dream. But that dream is intermingled with real life when an old man gives her a caged dove and tells her to be careful of the crow. Later Kojo finds the dove dead, and he helps his daughter to bury it – a bad omen.
Mining the riverbed for gold, the two brothers earn their living by selling it to a greedy Lebanese trader, but now that a Chinese company has moved in with heavy equipment their livelihood is encroached upon. But perhaps the real-life drama doesn't sufficiently explain how the two brothers' relationship developed to a point when the elder killed the younger by throwing him into a mine shaft. A LAFF masterclass by French African cinema specialist Olivier Barlet (which included the launch of Madiha Hegazi's Arabic translation of his book African Cinema in the Third Millennium) focused on The Burial of Kojo among other films.
Sew Winter To My Skin
Written and directed by Jamil Quebeka, the South African film Sew Winter To My Skin, which won the best artistic contribution award in the long narrative competition, is in the adventure genre. Based on a mid-20th century true story, it tells the story of a black Robin Hood named John Kepe who stole sheep from white farms and gave them to poor black villagers. The film focuses on a liberal journalist and writer who is searching for the truth about this African outlaw, being tried for a murder he did not commit.
Using a non-chronological approach to circumvent the biopic format, the filmmaker jumps from one time to another, somewhat losing his grip on the story. Although the film is about resistance against racism in South Africa, the filmmaker is “politically correct” Hollywood-style, presenting, alongside General Botha, a WWII veteran who is the evil white landowner, the good white journalist who feels for Kepe and is motivated by the desire to know the truth, as well as an evil black police officer alongside the good protagonist.
With swastikas cropping up not only at the farmer's house but also at the police headquarters and on the street, Sew Winter To My Skin may be one of the first films to depict Nazi sympathisers in South Africa during and after WWII. Here as elsewhere this is a very carefully made feature, with excellent sets and costumes, art direction, acting and cinematography, but the script leaves much to be desired in the way of dramatic structure and character development.
Freedom Fields
In the long documentary competition, the Libyan film Freedom Fields by the British-Libyan filmmaker Naziha Arebi – following the national women's football team early in the wake of the 2011 revolution – was one of the most interesting in the festival. An account of prejudice against women, a common enough issue across the Arab world, it is also, at a deeper level, a reflection on the different stages of the Arab Spring. At first some Libyan athletes believe they will benefit from the growing spirit of freedom after the end Gaddafi's dictatorship, hence the formation of the Women's Football Team in the first few months of 2011. Soon, however, Islamic fundamentalists begin to control the political scene and reveal their sexist prejudices. Under religious pressure, the football federation is forced to dissolve the team and cancel its budget.
The filmmaker located a number of the footballers and followed their lives, focusing on their hopes, frustrations and defeats, and in this way the film achieves its goal of making the audience sympathise with them as football becomes their refuge. The next stage of the film begins when the teammates and some members of the administrative department think of re-establishing the team as an independent women's football club from Tripoli. The filmmaker follows that independent team in their training and struggle. At the end of the film, Arebi illustrates their triumph as the team participates in a tournament in Lebanon against football teams from other Arab countries. They are happy although they do not win.
Illegal immigration has recently become a principal topic of African cinema. It is a tragic problem, putting thousands of lives in danger, but it is also a way to secure funds from grant-making institutions or production companies that favour the topic, which explains the disproportionate number of films about it. The Senegalese film Sega directed by Idil Ibrahim, which won a special mention from the short film competition jury, starts with a black screen and the voices of illegal immigrants trying to survive in the sea, with the dialogue hinting that someone called Amadou couldn't make it. Sega is a young survivor who is deported back to Senegal. The filmmaker portrays this young man's desperate feelings of failure and his meeting with Amadou's fiancee to tell her Amadou died. When Sega seeks out the smugglers once again, it is she who stops him.
Immigration and identity figure in the Algerian film Timoura (Territories) by Azidine Kasri, which won the Grand Nile award for best short film. The film discusses the issue of an Algerian immigrant in France, Brahim Kasri, who works as a mechanic and owns his own garage in Paris. Although he was born in France, he doesn't have French citizenship due to a detail in French law mentioned in the film after the credits.
The film opens with Brahim filling in his application for nationality after his wife dies. His son Yann, who does have French citizenship, is more interested in the life of the Algerians in France. The plot revolves around the father being in a trouble with the police and the son helping him to hide out in an Algerian neighbourhood. The script also involves a trip to Algeria itself where Brahim goes to see his 90-year-old father. The filmmaker has said that the film was inspired by a true story of a relative of his, and that explains why the main character has the same family name as the filmmaker.
Yet another film dealing with immigration is the Moroccan short film Yasmina directed by Ali Esmili and Claire Cahen, about a 15- year-old Algerian girl living in France with her father who is about to get married with his French woman. The teenage girl is a football goalkeeper, she has the talent for leadership and becomes the captain of her team. One day as she goes home after a football match she finds her father being arrested to be deported to Morocco. The film captures this tragic moment, the girl running from one place to another so as not to be caught and expelled. Her father forbids her from attending a very important football match but everyone in the team is counting on her. The filmmakers use close shots to capture this devastation in the young girls looks. At the end of the film the movement of the girl during the match and the movement of the camera assert her inner feeling.
The Same Degree
The only Egyptian film in the short competition was The Same Degree by Mina Al-Dafashy, a Higher Institute of Cinema graduation project that nonetheless testifies to the director's excellent command of his craft (which explains why it was screened in the short film and not the student film competition). The film opens with different types of shots and camera movements showing the details of an ordinary, poor alley in the neighbourhood of Shubra. The second sequence shows the details of one particular morning in the life of the protagonist, a young women getting ready for a job interview as an air hostess.
The story takes off when the girl finds out her mother lent the only bottle of good nail polish to the neighbour. It is now almost empty and she cannot afford to buy a new one. The film takes the audience on a trip with the young girl to find a tester with the exact same colour (or “degree”) so that she can complete her nails without paying. But the title may be referring to something else as well. At the end of the film, after her struggle, she is seen entering the lift with an upper-class girl about to have the same job interview. The film ends with a black screen with the sound of an aeroplane hinting that the protagonist got the job.

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