Hala Elkoussy’s new film “In Search of a City (in the Papers of Sein)” commences with the dedication, “In memory of those who lost their lives for freedom in the Arab Spring Awakening 2011.”
Elkoussy’s 34-minute short from 2012, which had its world premiere in the short film competition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, is not about Egypt’s ongoing ferment. The Egyptian visual artist-cum-filmmaker has, rather, based her film upon some written “notes” she’s got from a Cairo vendor, who specializes in discarded papers.
The narrative of “In Search of a City” is set within the once-new downtown Cairo that Khedive Ismail Pasha erected along French lines in the 19th century. This city is now on the verge of rapid economic and social change – as the offices of old middle class businesses (doctors, lawyers and the like) are vacated in favor of crass new commercial enterprises, and family flats are bought up by real estate speculators.
The papers were written by an anonymous figure Elkoussy has named “Idler Sein,” evidently a female traveller who came to know Cairo by her long walks through the city. Conflating this flâneure with herself, the filmmaker tours the viewer though an historic city that is already all but extinct and partly imagined.
Elkoussy’s film was one of the strongest Arab works at the 2012 edition of IFFR and one of the few from this region in the festival’s competitions. The one Middle East feature in contention for IFFR’s Tiger Award, Orhan Eskik?y and Zeynel Dogan’s “Voice of My Father,” a fiction-documentary hybrid about migration and identity among Turkey’s Kurdish community, was not among the three winners announced Friday.
Traces of the Middle East could be found in the winners’ circle. The festival announced Saturday that The Dioraphte Award (a 10,000 euro prize set aside for the feature made with support from Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund that scored highest among audiences) went to “Goodbye.”
Made by Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof, his first feature since his release from detention last year, “Goodbye” tells the story of a young human rights lawyer who is seeking to leave Iran after she and her journalist husband are banned from practicing their professions.
Though not necessarily in competition, Arab filmmakers and visual artists did have a prominent place at IFFR this year because of the Power Cut program of short and feature-length docs and video art. This non-competitive program was devised to shine a light on the cultural production of the Arab Spring.
Since the uprisings around the region are grounded in long-term developments – and since artists in these countries are likely to be more preoccupied with politics than with making good work – programers Peter van Hoof and Sacha Bronwasser and curators Delphine Leccas, Charlotte Bank and Nat Muller sought out strong works that had been shot before January 2011.
Consequently much of the work in Power Cut might already be familiar to interested regional audiences. “The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni,” Rania Stephan’s meta-fiction about the deceased Egyptian film star, which uses VHS recordings of her 80-odd films as source material, was one of the great success stories of 2011.
Soudade Kaadan’s 2008 doc “Two Cities and a Prison,” which relates the story of an experimental theater project in the Syrian towns of Hassekeh and Qameshli and in a juvenile detention facility in Damascus, took the top documentary prize at the Dubai film festival that year.
Some Power Cut works – most, like “In Search of a City,” were chosen for the Egyptian Timelines selection – were completed in 2011, though most do not address the revolutions explicitly.
One film that does depict some of the revolutionary ferment of 2011 is “Transparent Evil” by Lebanon’s Roy Samaha, which screened in the Shifting Shores selection of new Arab video art.
Like much of the documentary film about the Arab Spring that emerged last year, this 27-minute work arose from serendipity. Samaha and his collaborator Gheith al-Amine had been commissioned to make a film retracing the route of James Bruce, the 18th-century English earl who once documented his journey down the Nile from Alexandria to Aswan.
“Transparent Evil” is basically a video diary of Samaha and Amine’s efforts to document the events in Egypt in the spell between Jan. 25, 2011, and the point when the two artists felt compelled to leave – as Egyptian security officials had begun routinely arresting anyone on the street with a video or film camera.
The filmmaker’s voiceover – electronically distorted so that it sounds like that of quadriplegic British physicist Stephen Hawking – says that he brought with him some photos from the early 1960s depicting a pair of Lebanese men vacationing in Egypt with a pair of Egyptian friends. Samaha self-consciously juxtaposes these and other archival images of historic Egypt with video and found footage (one of them from an online video game) meant to depict the chaotic contemporary realities.
Much of the most-interesting recent work in Power Cut emerged from Egyptian artists.
“Rice City” (2010), the 20-minute experimental fiction by Egyptian visual artist Sherif al-Azma, approximates a classic black-and-white film aesthetic (a la film noir) to relate an allusive tale of a beautiful art deco woman (Mona Gamil), a decadent rice merchant (Count Federio di Wardal), and a black man (Santo Walle) who appears to be a servant of some kind until the three characters are depicted sitting together for a meal. There is a strong sense, however, that the explicit narrative of “Rice City” is less important than the mood of Lynchian surrealism the work evokes.
Another interesting work, which would have sat comfortably in Power Cut but screened in IFFR’s Spectrum Shorts program, is Ahmed Ghoneimy’s 13-minute “Bahri” (2011). The latest of a spate of diverse works to emerge from Alexandria, Ghoneimy’s short is set in the poor district of Bahari, where Amr, an art student, strolls through an amusement park at night, filming youngsters enjoying themselves on the various rides.
A couple of men, each radiating the redneck paranoia of undercover intelligence officers, collar Amr and interrogate him in a neglected corner of the city, accusing him of being a child molester and defying him to prove otherwise. The film nicely captures the tension between the practices of the security state and those of the artist. It is a conflict that is likely to remain part of Egyptian artists’ creative landscape in the coming year.