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Screen blues
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 04 - 2019

An important event for Egypt's film community since it was established by documentary filmmaker Hashem Al-Nahhas in 1991 (initially as round 11 of a Cairo documentary festival that had been held in 1971-1980), the annual Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts has always been organised and financed by the Egyptian Film Centre, headed by Khaled Abdel-Gelil. It has taken place regularly since the late critic Ali Abu-Shadi relaunched it after an extended hiatus in 2001, and for three years now, during which time the number of films selected and guests rose dramatically, its president has been Essam Zakaria. This year there are 150 films from 51 countries in four competitions judged by two juries: long documentaries and short documentaries, and animation and shorts.
Ismailia Film Festival
The festival commemorates celebrated Arab filmmakers who passed away last year – Ateyyat Al-Abnoudi, Osama Fawzi, Farida Arman and Jocelyne Saab – and honours three important figures: Egyptian cinematographer and writer Said Shimi, Lebanese filmmaker Borhane Alaouie and Congolese filmmaker Mweze Ngangura. Shami was director of photography on 108 films, working with such directors as Nader Galal, Ali Abdel-Khalek, Atef Al-Tayeb and Mohamed Khan, and wrote 37 books including last year's Letters to Mohamed Khan in two volumes. Alaouie, who together with Maroun Baghdadi, Jocelyne Saab, Randa Chahal and Jean Chamoun was a pioneer of new wave Lebanese cinema, mixing narrative and documentary styles, made his name with the shocking Kafr Qasim, about the 1956 Israeli massacre of Palestinians, in 1975, and won the Golden Tanit in Carthage Film Festival; his last film, Khalass, won the best script award in Dubai Film Festival in 2007. Ngangure, whose presence stresses the festivals African connection, has been based in the Congo (formerly Zaire) since 1976, when he completed his studies in Belgium; he won over five awards at such festivals as Denver International Film Festival and the Ouagadougou Panafrican Film (FESPACO).

Egyptian filmmaker Amal Ramsis's feature-length documentary You Come from Far Away, which previously won Carthage's Silver Tanit, made a strong impression in Ismailia. It starts with a narration in the voice of the director over CNN images of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This seems unconnected to the rest of the film until it becomes clear that the whole feature is a critique of different kinds of fascism. The action moves onto an Athens-based woman in her early seventies, Hend, who shows the director her family album and speaks of her Moscow-based sister Dawlat (Dawlia in Russian), who as it turns out speaks no Arabic. As the family's secrets are revealed, so are great and worldwide historical events of the 20th century. Mixing interviews conducted in Greece and Russia with images of Beirut and footage of the relevant wars, Ramsis manages to tell a fascinating story in a truly gripping and heartrending way.
In the 1930s a Palestinian communist, Najati Sidki, marries a Ukrainian comrade – as it eventually turns out, a Jewish immigrant to Palestine – and Dawlia is born. When the couple are arrested by the British in the course of the Arab Revolt, the Comintern places Dawlia in an orphanage in Russia. Later she is joined by her mother, who brings her up in Moscow, while Sidki, moving from Syria to Turkey, eventually joins the Spanish Civil War. It was the Arab involvement in the Spanish Civil War, especially on the side of the Republicans, which she discovered in a 2003 article, that drew Ramsis into the topic of the film, she says. It would be four years before she interviewed Sidki's younget daughter Hend. Sidki also criticises Stalin's pact with Hitler, and it becomes impossible for him to see his daughter; even his wife is forced to flee, leaving Dawlia back in the orphanage. The family returns to Jaffa without her in time for the 1948 War, which forces them into Lebanon where Dawlia joins her parents, her brother Said (then 17) and her sister Hend (15). During the Lebanese Civil War the family moves to Athens. The film ends with a reunion of all three siblings in Moscow in 2018.

Indus blues
Pakistani filmmaker Jawad Sharif's long documentary Indus Blues, which won Jury Prize at the Guam International Film Festival in the United States among other awards, involves interviews with folk musicians – sarangi, panniti and suroz virtuosos especially – in various parts of Pakistan, revealing their poverty and struggles as their art faces extinction. The interviews, in which they speak of Islamic extremists as their greatest enemy, take place against remarkable backdrops – landscapes and architecture – combining powerful visual beauty with great performances.

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksandr Techynskyi's long documentary Delta too has stunning cinematography; Techynskyi was a press photographer before he became a filmmaker. Set in the Danube Delta in the Bukovina region, the film opens with a villager collecting reed. Over two winters – the first spent on observing and making a connection with the subjects, the second, accompanied only by a sound engineer, since he did the photography himself, on filming – the filmmaker followed a number of villagers from autumn till early spring. The film shows their traditions and way of life: river fishing (with an axe when the water freezes over – until they are forced to slaughter their animals for lack of food), the harvest, dancing, drinking, prayers, a funeral on the river, Russian Orthodox Christmas celebrations (which clearly retain Pagan elements). The filmmaker stays completely out of it.
The film has no musical score in the film and barely any dialogue. What little there is – including one intimate story of an old woman told in a voice-over – merely adds to the atmosphere. Even the rugged faces of the old people (there are not many youngsters in the film, and it is no wonder they have left for the big cities) are presented as the result of living in the Delta, just like chronic alcoholism and chain smoking. The picture is gorgeous even when it shows objectively ugly images. The colours change as winter advances, from soft yellows and browns to icy white and bright blue, contrasting with the grey skies. The idea of living in the Delta is translated so well to the language of the screen that viewers can almost smell the stench of dung and burning garbage, and feel the biting winter air and the texture of the snow crumbling under their fee, maybe even the pain of frozen toes.

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