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I love cinema
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 06 - 2005

Back at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Samir Farid finds plenty to commend
Holland has always been known as the land of flowers and tolerance -- until October 2004, anyway. It was then that, in response to a film about the persecution of women in Muslim majority states, a Moroccan zealot murdered director Theo Van Gogh. I have not seen the film in question, and it may well be that it is biased and extremist -- something that will never justify murder, nonetheless. Among those who denounced the murder was the institution that organises the Rotterdam Film Festival -- the fifth round of which closed on 5 June. In line with this response, the administrative troika that manages the festival -- Palestinian chairman Mohamed Abu Leil, Tunisian general director Khaled Shawkat and Iraqi artistic director Intishal Al-Tamimi -- decided to hold the closing ceremony in a historical church and under the slogan "The first round after the assassination of Theo Van Gogh"; the ceremony ended with a performance of Tala'a Al-Badru 'Alaina (The full moon is upon us), the song with which the people of Medina welcomed Prophet Mohamed on the eve of his Hijra from Mecca.
The first Arab film festival to be held in Europe was organised by Ghassan Abdel-Khaleq in Paris, but only the Institut du Monde Arabe Festival endured; organised by Magda Wassif, it resumed the work of Abdel-Khaleq while expanding and enhancing its facilities. Today, however, it is arguably the Rotterdam Film Festival that heads the bill of Arab cinema in Europe. Though the facilities provided by the Institut will by default surpass those of an NGO like the one that organises Rotterdam, the latter remains by far the freer -- unrestricted by the diplomatic conventions of the former, which is administered collaboratively by France and the Arab states. Indeed Rotterdam 2005 demonstrates that the festival has developed -- at least since its third round, the last I attended, in which I had the honour of being the head of the jury. There is a marked difference between the two rounds, with the present one being less amateurish and more professionally organised. (It remains peculiar that, given the quantitative ad qualitative rise of film festivals worldwide, there should still be no Arab film festival in Cairo, perhaps the oldest and greatest film centre in the Arab world.)
A festival can only be judged by the extent to which it meets its goals; and the goal of Rotterdam is to present the best Arab films, both full-length features and shorts, fiction and documentary. In 2005 one could safely say that some 80 per cent of the year's creme was screened -- a notable success, further corroborated by the announcement of the prizes, which went to the best fare on offer. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the feature and documentary juries were headed, respectively, by Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi and Lebanese video artist Mohamed Soweid. It would be impossible for the results to satisfy every viewpoint: what the juries achieved, rather, was to offer a clear and coherent viewpoint. The night of the full moon was made all the more exciting when Khleifi announced that the grand prix went to Moroccan director Jailani Farahati's Dhakira Mu'taqala (Memory in Detention), while the silver prize went to Egyptian filmmaker Osama Fawzi's Bahhib Al-Sima (I Love Cinema). The debut prize, on the other hand, went jointly to Moroccan filmmaker Ismail Faroukhi and Iraqi filmmaker Udayy Rashid for The Great Journey and Not Suitable for Broadcast, respectively.
Together with, although in a different style to, Hiner Salem's Kilometre Zero, which was screened in the Cannes Film Festival competition last month, the latter documents the rebirth of cinema in the post-Saddam era; it is itself the birth of a cinematic poet of Iraq. Very much a visual poem about wastelands, it moves from one example of dereliction and damage to the next. In the process it expresses Iraqi ambivalence regarding the fall of Saddam, and the fact that Iraq is in the throes of a difficult, unpredictable birth. And while The Great Journey expresses the complicated relations between the Muslim East and the Christian West, Memory in Detention constitutes a turning point in the history of Moroccan cinema, dealing as it does with the issue of political detention, seldom tackled in the cinema of the Maghreb (Tunisian filmmaker Nouri Bouzeid's Gold Cans is the only exception) -- in a way that demonstrates the accomplishment of an excellent veteran director at the height of his maturity. As for Bahhib Al-Sima, it is the greatest event in Egyptian cinema since the millennium -- the first treatment of its kind of the Coptic community, combining the realism of Salah Abu Seif with the boldnes of Youssef Chahine and the modernism of Yousri Nasrallah. It was only logical that it should generate quite so much discussion and debate. In this sense, indeed, it was also an event of the Rotterdam Film Festival -- and one that was well received.


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