After nearly four consecutive months of purely mediocre offerings stuffing the half a dozen independent film festivals held this year, a ray of hope emerged at the French Culture Center’s fourth Encounter of the Image Festivals, which ended last week.
Thirty films were selected from more than 100 submissions for this year’s competition. A jury headed by revered film critic Rafiq El Sabban and comprised of critic Tarek El Shenaway and writer Amal Othman gave away a number of awards, including a scholarship given by the institute for the grand prize winner.
The most notable feature of this year’s festival is the considerable amount of solid short and long documentaries that completely outshined the narrative features, receiving a warm, fervent reception by the festival audience.
Technically, none of these documentaries offered the type of innovative, daring vision you’d expect from such young filmmakers, and their works are jam-packed with obvious glitches and faults that could’ve been easily averted. Nevertheless, nearly every subject tackled by these documentaries was compelling enough to overcome its shortcomings.
Riham Ibrahim’s “Lost Souls was the most talked about film of the festival. The grand prize winner traces the Egyptian survivors of the infamous El Salam 98 ferry that sank in the Red Sea a few years back as they chronicle the horrors they encountered before they were eventually rescued hours later.
The 32-minute documentary opens with the audio recordings captured by the ferry’s black box minutes before it drowned. A cacophony of screams and crying passengers and the ship’s crew uttering their final prayers, mounted to a harrowing, almost traumatizing early climax that left audiences gasping for breath.
Subsequent images of the victims’ families waiting for their beloveds’ coffins, storming the Hurghada police station and blaring chaotically in tears were outright heartbreaking, even painful to watch.
A somewhat inconsequential voiceover and bouts of unnecessary sentimentality were slightly distracting for a raw story that doesn’t require any honing. But the film remains a powerful, disturbing picture about a major catastrophe that is still under investigation.
Amal Fawzy’s “Sons of Kabsh chronicled another recent unfortunate incident: the burning, destruction and evacuation of the unplanned housing of Kal’et Kabsh’s district last year. Fawzy simply points her camera towards the area’s disgruntled residents while showing the scale of the destruction via images of the ruins. The straightforward documentary highlights a tragedy in which the government failed to fulfill its promises.
A group of films chose to focus on particular characters they employed to make larger statements about Egypt’s many conflicting realities.
Karim Hanafy’s “I Wish follows a female journalist and a member of the leftist socialist group Tagammu party as she tries to find her place in an oppressive, tradition-driven, male-dominant society. She speaks candidly about her failed marriage, her fondness for fair-skinned men, her dreams of becoming a football player, which were dashed when her family feared she’d grow muscles, and the hardships she confronts as a single, divorced woman.
Semat’s “Zizo centers on a young prize-winning rower and his failed battle to gain recognition or support from the government. The film is a bit bland and Zizo’s predicament is old news. But it is saved by insightful moments that penetrate Zizo’s psyche to divulge the extent of his desperation, which leads him to consider leaving the country to acquire a different nationality.
Ahmed Nour’s “Galabeya and a Shoe was the biggest crowd pleaser of the event. The protagonist of the film is Bakry, a middle-aged farmer from the governorate of Fayoum who works at the Sawy Culture Center. He leads a dual life, adhering to the norms and traditions of his village while working in a place he constantly questions.
He questions whether music is a sin or not and continuously criticizes others while, on the other hand, he admits deserting his loving, mute daughter with no education or proper medical attention that could have saved her from the present life she’s leading. The film builds slowly to the point when kindhearted Bakry starts to spill out his degrading views regarding women and the Center’s audience.
“Galabeya is an entertaining character study full of quirks and clever subtext that, surprisingly, refuses to judge its leading character.
The biggest disappointment of the festival was Aida Schlaepfer’s much touted “Gangs of Baghdad. The film charts the current wave of abductions overtaking occupied Iraq through the eyes of a number of families and surviving victims.
Apart from providing brief shocking details about how these operations are carried out and the role of police in planning and executing them, the whole affair was quite dry and tedious. “Gangs has no emotional punch, badly needed to bridge the distance between the film’s subjects and the viewers. The long documentary is composed almost entirely of interviews that ultimately feel superfluous.
Schlaepfer’s choice of using a psychiatrist to provide a tremendously long explanation of the victims’ psychological state in addition to an exhaustive recipe to help them overcome the horrors they’ve encountered was unwise, insignificant and totally out of place with the rest of the stories.
Fictional features didn’t fare as well as the documentaries. Sherif El Bendary’s “Saaet Assary (Siesta) was the obvious standout, winning the best short-narrative award and best actor for esteemed art director Salah Marei.
The other highlight was Osama El Abd’s “Obsession of the Depth which won the awards for best cinematography and best actress for Yousra El Lozy. The eccentric, idiosyncratic short revolves around a painter (El Lozy) whose life goes haywire after a critic writes off her work, claiming that it lacks depth.
Despite its dark tones and inevitable tragic ending, “Depth is highly amusing with a mordant, sharp sense of humor rarely found in Egyptian films. El Abd has an eye for completing sunny, freewheeling images with shades of dim, almost gothic ones. As for El Lozy, she displays a strong, highly commanding presence I haven’t witnessed from a young Egyptian actress in ages. She’s the key to the film’s success and her choice of playing her irrational character with a straight face is responsible for the film’s central humor and theme.
The rest, while not as bad as some of the appalling misdeeds of previous festival entries, were quite average and, overall forgettable.
Ahmed Nabil’s “Distancing is based on the same Ibrahim Aslan novella El Bendary coincidentally used as a template for his film. “Distancing is vaguer than El Bendary’s adaptation, visually flat and dramatically less persuasive.
Ahmed Abu Saeda’s “Retired, about a retired man who traps a thief in his office room, was too brief and soulless to make any point. Wael Bedoor’s adaptation of Mousa Sabry’s “Good Doer about a young villager raped by a stranger is realized with good intentions and notable performance from the always reliable Salwa Mohamed Ali, yet lacks depth and empathy.
The success of the festival’s documentaries is proving yet again that the rich political, social and economic reality is becoming the most resourceful platform of ideas for young filmmakers.
Despite their drawbacks, these films possess an immediacy that’s both infuriating and liberating to watch and ponder. It s an immediacy that is sadly absent from the majority of longer narratives on offer, which continue to drift away from the public consciousness