By Daniel Lindvall.
The warm winds of the Arab Spring swept through the thirteenth edition of Stockholm’s African film festival, CinemAfrica (March 21-25). Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia together supplied ten out of fourteen films (excluding the shorts, but including two Franco-Moroccan co-productions). The making of 18 Days involved ten directors and six scriptwriters. It tells ten different stories that all take place between the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution, on 25 January 2011, and the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, on 11 February 2011. Made in record time on a ‘zero budget’, it is, like every such anthology film, highly uneven. The best episodes make poignant observations about how an exceptional event, such as a revolution, affects us differently according to our place in society. A young working-class woman who makes her living selling coffee in Tahrir Square is suddenly emboldened to raise her voice in public; a small shopkeeper fearfully locks himself in his shop for days; two young male street-vendors try to figure out whether the revolutionaries or the pro-Mubarak gangs are the best customers for their Egyptian flags. Other episodes seem pointless or try to cram in too much in too little time. But as a whole 18 Days remains a unique artistic document, representing an immediate and unfiltered reaction to a historical event of this magnitude.
If 18 Days can be said to capture the mood during the first weeks of the Egyptian Revolution, Lust (directed by Khaled El Hagar), made before these events, shows us an Egypt that is just about to explode. Along a narrow alley in the popular neighbourhood of Alexandria, we experience the daily power struggle between the poor and the even poorer, between men and women, parents and children. Pressed hard by economic austerity and ever increasing uncertainty – the reality behind the celebrated neo-liberal policies of the Mubarak regime – human relationships are deformed by fear, scarcity and lack of opportunity. The alley functions as a metaphor for Egyptian society in a similar way that the decaying art-deco building in the box-office success The Yacoubian Building (2006) did. But whilst the earlier film showed us the full scope of class society, from the wealthy in their luxury apartments to the poor living in huts on the roof, Lust focuses entirely on the poor majority. Lust and 18 Days confirm Egyptian cinema as one of the most exciting national cinemas to follow at the moment.
Add to this one of the most visually impressive documentaries of any comparably dramatic event I’ve seen, ½ Revolution, directed by Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim. This is as close as you will get to actually seeing the Egyptian Revolution without having been there. Despite bullets flying around their heads and tear-gas canisters exploding at their feet, Shargawi and El Hakim have managed to capture events in central Cairo with a quality of photography more reminiscent of a fiction film.
Another documentary that will stay with me for a long time, though more for its story than its aesthetic qualities, is the Tunisian Boxing With Her, directed by Latifa Robbana Doghri. It closely follows Tunisia’s highly successful women’s national boxing team and, in so doing, offers a complex image beyond clichés. Certainly we see patriarchal prejudice, but also the respectful attitude of male coaches and the admiring eyes of young boys throwing their first punches under the guidance of a female idol.
Franco-Moroccan co-production Omar Killed Me, the directing debut of actor Roschdy Zem, deservedly won the prize for best film. It succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of combining a humorous Hitchcockian tone, on the one hand, and gripping drama with drama-documentary overtones, on the other. The true story that it is based on, of a Moroccan gardener convicted for the murder of one of his French employers after a sloppy police investigation and a trial reeking of racism, has been referred to as the ‘Dreyfus affair’ of our time. However, equally deserving of praise was the, also Franco-Moroccan, Free Men, directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi. This is another film based on true events. Set in Paris during the German occupation, it tells the story of Arab resistance fighters, headquartered at the Paris Mosque, who help Jews escape the concentration camps. Believing that they are taking part in a war for freedom and democracy for peoples of all nations, their sacrifices highlight the grotesque betrayal committed against the colonial peoples in general, and the Arab world in particular, after the end of the war.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.