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War of the worlds
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 09 - 2009


Samir Farid reports from the Venice Film Festival
Yesterday Ahmed Maher's Al-Musafir (The Traveller) was screened as part of the official competition of the Venice Film Festival (2-12 September): the first Egyptian film to make its way to the competition in the festival's 66-year history. Together with Berlin and Cannes, Venice is among the three major film festivals in the world today, though it remains perhaps the most prestigious of all.
This year Egypt contributes a total of three films to Venice alone, a feat unprecedented in any of three festivals: besides Al-Musafir, Youssry Nassrallah shows Ihki ya Shahrazad (Sheherazade, tell me a story) outside the official competition; and Kamla Abu Zikri's Wahed Sefr (One Zero) is part of the Horizons programme.
While Maher competes for the Golden Lion or any of the official competition prizes as well as the festival's Debut Award (granted by a special jury and worth US$100,000, to be divided between the director and the producer), Abu Zikri is competing for only one prize: the Horizons best fiction film award. Worth mentioning is the fact that Abu Zikri is the first female Egyptian director to have a film screened in a major international festival.
All three choices were made by the official festival administration, as opposed to the Italian Critics Syndicate or the Italian Directors Syndicate -- which put together the Critics Week and Venice Days programmes, respectively.
Arab films also include the Tunisian filmmaker Raja Amari's Buried Secrets in Horizons, and Harragas by the great Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouche. The Swedish animation feature which opened the Critics Week, Metropita -- a Brave New World-style critique of technology set in Europe in 2024 -- is also the work of an Egyptian: Tarek Saleh.
It should come as no surprise that Venice has opened its doors to Egyptian film where such films exist that are worthy of entry: the festival director Marko Muller is not only a perceptive critic and a true cinephile with over two decades' experience directing festivals prior to joining Venice in 2004. He is also the best kind of orientalist, interested in the dialogue of cultures. He studied Chinese culture and presented the first comprehensive programme in Europe on the history of film in China. While directing the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, he presented the first comprehensive programme on the work of Youssef Chahine (1926-2008).
Muller was therefore an eminently appropriate candidate for directing the Venice Film Festival in the post 9/11 world, since more than ever before the need was now felt for dialogue and pluralism without compromising the high quality of festival fare. It is a formidable task, but not an impossible one -- and Muller has managed it this year whether in the official competition or in the two fringe programmes. Here are films from 37 countries representing every continent apart from Australia: 24 in the official competition, 22 (including two short films) outside it, and 31 (three shorts) in Horizons. (Critics Week includes 10 feature films, and Venice Days 18 features and one short.) For the first time, in addition, the festival has organised a programme named Contemporary Italian Cinema, featuring eight full-length and two short films, while in the historical programme Rediscovering Italian Cinema (1932-1980), there are 52 full- length and eight short films.
But diversity is no mere function of country of origin. Of the 111 full-length features chosen by the festival administration, 32 are documentaries, 20 debuts. There are four animation films outside the official competition. Every living generation of filmmaker is represented, from those born in the 1920s to those born in the 1990s. Likewise genre, and style: there are political, social, historical, detective and horror films; there are classic and postmodern films; there are films targeting children and the family.
In addition to its usual competition with Berlin and Cannes -- especially Cannes -- Venice now faces competition from the Toronto Film Festival, which opens this month. Toronto is the fourth most important festival even though it has no competition, due to its location closest to Hollywood. Yet 71 out of 75 films in the official programmes of Venice is a premiere.
I have attended this festival many times since 1970 and I can testify to there being a greater number of films than usual, even though it remains the strictest festival in terms of the quality of its choices. Quantity was no object in its own right but rather reflects the drive for variety and dialogue. This round of Venice brings Egyptian cinema back onto the map of world film, and with it Indian cinema (of which there are four screenings outside the official competition). With 1,000 films produced a year, it is inconceivable that there should be no Indian films worthy of the top festivals -- yet it Muller was the first to act on that insight.
The official competition -- the more important, by far -- includes seven American films, four Italian films, four French films, two films from Germany, and one from each of Austria, China, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Sri Lanka and Egypt. The distribution of hegemony is thus between America (seven films) and Europe (seven), with Asia coming in third (five), while Egypt remains the more important representative of Africa and the Middle East.


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