The visionaries behind Egypt’s art house Arab film celebration tell The National about the difficulties of selection and representing the realities of life in the Middle East through cinema
Reels of Arab realism: the challenges faced by Cairo Cinema Days
Once again, Cairo Cinema Days – the initiative of Egypt’s only art house cinema, Zawya – is presenting a curated recap of Arab films produced in the past 18 months.
Showing across three cinemas – with screenings scheduled in Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said – its title is a nod to neighbouring festivals Beirut Cinema Days, the Palestinian Days of Cinema and Tunisia’s full-grown, high-profile Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage.
Between narrative films, documentaries and shorts, the second edition of the film festival will screen 34 films from 10 Arab countries, over seven days. “I’d say that most of the films are about what it means to live in the Middle East today ... there’s also this idea of in-between,” says Zawya’s managing director, Youssef Shazli.
Shazli explains that the selection started in December, taking Zawya’s programming team of four to the Dubai International Film Festival and then the Berlinale for initial research.
“You only see trends when you put films together ... our taste is peripheral,” says filmmaker and Zawya head curator Alia Ayman about the festival strategy and practice of producing a cinematic “survey” with “minimal intervention”. It includes a catalogue of relatable films that impressed judges at international festivals and ones with familiar directors.
Lesser-known, experimental projects also make their way to the final line-up. With or without them, however, Cairo Cinema Days remains a challenge to market. Short of big directors and popular stars to flaunt, and due to their distinct mode of address, “these films don’t have the same selling elements [as their commercial counterparts]”, Shazli says.
However, at Zawya, there is no intention to dumb down the selection for the sake of sales. “Our primary role is [to be] a platform, yes, but what we are also very interested in doing is making our presence useful for the making of cinema,” Ayman says. “Films become important because they are urgent.”
This trend, which is particularly evident in issue-driven, politically saturated Arab films that are produced – fully or partially – outside the region, compelled Ayman to create a new section, titled On Defiant Images, spotlighting Arab artists who play with form. Sitting at the intersection of a genuine awareness of the sociopolitical landscape and an ability to meditate towards new, imaginative realities, the makers behind these films “don’t deliver what is expected of them”, and in doing so, Ayman says, they fight the traditional functions that funders often impose on films.
By way of embracing self-criticism, Shazli says the pool from which Zawya chooses films could be rethought.
“There’s definitely something wrong when our starting point is always other, bigger festivals that decide for us which the good films are, and which aren’t,” he says, acknowledging that the challenge lies in scarce resources and an undersized programming team.
At the outset, Zawya, which is Arabic for “perspective”, screened one film at a time, renting their only screen from a decades-old cinema in the heart of downtown Cairo. More a project than a venue, today, four years on, its team hosts several screenings at a time, leads directors’ talks, workshops, contests, and the Panorama of the European Film, an annual showcase of skilfully curated films that has become a favourite among Cairo’s cinema-goers.
Shazli and Ayman, who together lead curation around the year, are part of a community of cultural operators who are piercing through the cultural hegemony by “making room for the underdog,” as Ayman put it recently.
To her, the intention behind Cairo Cinema Days’ selection is two-fold. First, there’s a desire “to get audiences to watch these films”. When viewers are introduced to new directors and unconventional cinematic languages, and audiences are encouraged to engage with the issues at the centre of contemporary documentaries, “the alternative cinema will no longer be obscure”.
“We [also] attempt to answer the question: Where do these films go afterwards? We don’t have internal mechanisms to give value to these films [outside of festivals],” Ayman says.
Most of the films that make up this year’s line-up are co-productions. On one level, the festival sets out to test whether there is a possibility for these films to appeal to local audiences, which would be a triumph for regional distributors, who are often unable to secure commercial releases in the cities from which the films’ stories originate.
But can these films attract a big enough audience that would be willing to pay for a ticket to watch them at regular theatres? Surely not in our immediate future, but Ayman maintains that “we can do more by being aware ... of the constraints of this economy, and how to dodge these issues”.
Highlights of films screened at Cairo Cinema Days
From Cannes 2017’s Un Certain Regard comes Beauty and the Dogs by Kaouther Ben Hania, the writer-director behind the acclaimed Challat of Tunis (2013). Dogs tells the arduous, likely familiar tale of a young Tunisian woman who was raped by cops, as we come to learn from the film’s trailer. Using real-life events, Ben Hania juxtaposes one woman’s nightmare with the crude banality of Tunisia’s hospitals and police stations, whose officials operate under the guise of lawfulness.
Another anticipated film that also premiered at Cannes is Karim Moussaoui’s first feature Until the Birds Return, a heartening three-part story through which he juxtaposes Algeria’s turbulent past with its present landscape.
From Palestine comes Wajib, a father-son drama about the Palestinian custom of having to deliver wedding invitations in person. It stars Saleh Bakri opposite his father, veteran actor Mohammad Bakri, who both won the Muhr Award for Best Actor at the Dubai International Film Festival last year, while director Annemarie Jacir picked up the award for Best Fiction Feature. “As the silent observer, it was at times funny and other times painful,” Jacir said about making the film, after she followed her husband and his father for five days as they delivered invites across northern Palestine.
New York-based Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat’s Looking for Oum Kulthum, which chronicles the life of the legendary Egyptian singer. A film-within-a-film, it stars Egypt’s Yasmin Raeis, who was named best actress at DIFF in 2013.
On the documentary front, Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting explores notions of trauma and collective memory, conjured from real experiences. It won the main documentary prize and one of three audience awards at Berlinale last year. While Andoni films prisoners as they reenact their incarceration, spotlighting Israel’s notorious mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners, In the Ruins of Baalbeck Studios, which also screened in Berlin, follows the revival of the archive of the biggest film production studio in the Arab world.
From Egypt come three intimate documentaries. Ahmed Zeidan’s I Have A Picture, which had been in the works for seven years, follows Motawe Eweis, one of Egyptian cinema’s most famous extras. While Ahmed Nabil’s The City Will Pursue You is a contemplation on the changing landscape of Alexandria, told through six characters, Happily Ever After is a post-2011 “metaphor for the disappointing trajectory of events in Egypt,” according to its makers.
Cairo Cinema Days runs from Monday to April 30 in Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said in Egypt. See www.zawyacinema.com/event/view/45