Two dialogues about the Panorama film festival
 
 
The 400 Blows
 

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Panorama of the European Film, one of Cairo’s most exciting cinematic events.

The festival is organized by Misr International Film (MIF), the production company founded in 1972 by late Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. Since last year’s Panorama, Zawya, MIF’s arthouse cinema in downtown Cairo, has become a destination for moviegoers: Announced in the 2013 catalogue, it’s now eight months old.

Last year’s screenings took place in three venues: Galaxy, City Stars and Sheikh Zayed. This year there were just two: Galaxy and Zawya. And while last year’s lineup included films by two emerging Egyptian directors — Hala Lotfy’s Coming Forth by Day and Ayten Amin’s Villa 69, which was premiering — this November there were no premieres or Egyptian contributors. For Carte Blanche, a category introduced this year, filmmakers Nadine Khan, Yousry Nasrallah and Ahmad Abdalla were each asked to choose a film that has influenced them.

In 2013, Panorama sold 4,680 tickets during its 11 days. This year the number was slightly higher (4,849): The draw of two new Egyptian titles and three venues must have been matched by this year’s flashy titles, such as Ida (2013), The Hunt (2012) and Winter Sleep (2014). Like last year, students, journalists and filmmakers could obtain badges granting free access to the three daytime screenings.

Filmmaker and critic Tarek El Sharkawy and I closely followed Panorama this year and last year. The screenings stimulated lots of conversation between us, about the movies we liked and those we didn’t, the acclaimed titles we had expectations about and the unpredicted discoveries. So we sat to talk about these two Panoramas. The first conversation below is the result.

Each year Panorama presents films from a particular country or region: Last year was the Nordic Focus, this year it was Switzerland. SwissFilms, the promotion agency for Swiss filmmaking, curated a program of five documentaries under the title “Telling Migration.”

I found the choice of documentaries on migration for an Egyptian public — which included school students, as part of Panorama’s Education and Cinema program — irritating and questionable. I didn’t have an articulated argument about why I didn’t like it, so I went to talk with Andrea Thal, a Swiss artist/curator (and new artistic director of the Contemporary Image Collective). The second conversation below is the result.

Talking to the filmmaker

Tarek El Sharkawy: My favorite last year was The Resurrection of a Bastard (Guido van Driel, 2013). I think it will be rediscovered as a milestone in future.

Ahmed Refaat: It’s an adaptation of a comic book made by the director.

TS: Yes. I liked how it blends the metaphysical characters from the comic with a typical crime film. The main character who gets shot in the neck and survives. The African immigrant dazzled by the absence of trees in the Netherlands.

AR: It’s also funny and violent. I remember people didn’t like it. The audience was small anyway, but I remember negative reviews.

TS: I argued about it with another audience member. Its violence and peculiarity were repulsive to him, while I saw it as more funny and entertaining than gruesome. I guess audiences here are not that used to films with such bold action and aesthetics.

AR: Now that we’re going to talk about some Egyptian films, I wanted to ask you about something: Should we criticize our friends’ work? I read this article in Mada about critiquing the work of people we know and work with. Also a friend hinted that he would prefer not to write about Egyptian filmmakers as he’s a young screenwriter working in the same scene. Do you share this sensitivity?

TS: Actually yes, but it’s just a case of wanting to be very accurate, well articulated, not impulsive in any way.

AR: So what did you think about Villa 69?

Villa 69

TS: I was very enthusiastic right after the screening, as it exceeded my expectations, especially the script. I think it stands out as the most promising element of the film, along with Khaled Abol Naga’s performance. Its relatively unconventional mix of drama, dark humor and flashy jokes was successful, although it fell into the trap of cliched characters, like the grandchildren characters. Otherwise, I found that the editing lacked unity, with obvious unnecessary jump cuts and abrupt endings, and at some points the mise-en-scene was overly ambitious and failed to deliver its effect, like the dream sequence.

AR: Another movie was Coming Forth by Day, Hala Lotfy’s debut.

TS: Hala had been working on this film since 2007, after directing many documentaries independently and for Al Jazeera. While making Coming Forth by Day, she and the crew co-founded Hassala Films, an independent production company supporting young filmmakers’ debuts. Her fiction debut won the FIPRESCI in Abu Dhabi, the Golden Lion in Wahran and the Bronze Tanit in Carthage.

AR: On a side note, Hassala’s second production, Nadine Salib’s documentary Um Ghayeb, has already won three international awards.

TS: I remember right after the screening of Coming Forth by Day you said you loved the first 50 minutes. I loved them too. They contain some of the best scenes in an Egyptian independent film since Osama Fawzy’s Fallen Angels’ Paradise (1999).

AR: I agree. There are problems, of course: The exterior scenes were not nearly as good as the scenes in the apartment. Hala and the crew said afterwards that the exteriors were shot first. Also the audio background in the apartment showed the neighborhood they’re living in, and the interior design was so detail-oriented that it felt too close to home. It was funded totally independently, but it’s also worth saying that a post-production fund really gave the film a push that’s very recognizable in terms of the colors and final image.

At this year’s Panorama, it was great watching Francois Truffaut’s first film, The 400 Blows (1959), in a theater — chosen by Nadine Khan for Carte Blanche. A movie from 1959 that still carries a revolutionary spirit in 2014 — that’s rare don’t you think? It’s very genuine in both subject and style. After watching it on the big screen I really think it’s Truffaut’s best.

TS: The 400 Blows was probably the first French New Wave film I watched, when I was 14 or 15, and nine years later, after watching a lot of other New Wave films, it’s still one of my favorites. The final sequence is unique — Truffaut pushes his main character far away from the center just like he pushed his film away from mainstream French cinema, making that sequence silent, with provocatively long tracking shots and the actor’s final stare at the lens.

AR: At this year’s Cairo International Film Festival, we saw an Egyptian director’s debut and it was also about an adult’s memories as a child and relationship to his mother. What did you think of Karim Hanafy’s The Gate of Departure (2014)?

TS: Well, it’s very brave to make a film like that in Egypt. Hanafy showed great ambition in experimenting with narrative and pace and visual style, which is good, as the industry needs this type of ambition to evolve. But the problem was the poor execution of his vision, starting from an overly ambiguous storyline and underdeveloped characters.

Making a film without dialogue puts a big responsibility on a filmmaker: You have to be visually inventive to compensate for the lack of information usually provided by what characters say to each other. Most of Hanafy’s lengthy shots were immaculately framed and beautifully lit by Zaki Aref, but they did not build up effectively to serve the story or successfully deliver the desired mood. Most of the sequences were separated by disturbing fades, making it look like a series of vague and disjointed beauty shots.

AR: I agree that the fades disturbed the continuity. I liked The Gate of Departure not only because of its ambition in experimenting but also because it resonated with me. I disagree about mood — the beautiful shots and storyline had some literary references I could relate to. Women as carriers of memory and sadness, direct contact with death — Egyptian death if you know what I mean, the one you find in Amal Donkol’s poem about the death of his sister or Yehia el-Taher’s Al Too’ Wel Eswera (The Collar and the Bracelet). The most important thing was I felt the feelings behind it, no matter how raw or poorly crafted. I believed the script was autobiographical in an honest, self-critical way.

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So what’s this year’s biggest discovery?

TS: Home from Home: A Chronicle of a Vision (2013). A beautifully shot black-and-white four-hour epic. It was my first Edgar Reitz film, and I found it surprisingly entertaining — I was shocked when the lights went on to announce a break, two hours into the film. He’s telling a story from the mid-19th century, when poor rural German families dreamt of immigrating to the Americas. He set the film in a fictional village, with minute detail, from pitch-perfect house interiors to stunning, almost mythical long shots of the surrounding landscapes, along with solid performances from a big ensemble cast.

AR: I know it’ll sound ignorant but my discovery this year was Bela Tarr. I think how lucky I am that my first Bela Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011 — chosen by Ahmad Abdalla for Carte Blanche) was a 35mm copy in a theater. I could hear the projector. I don’t remember watching anything like it before. The opening tracking shot of the horse and cart is a celebration of a camera’s power. Remember that Samuel Fuller statement: “I write with my camera?”

Also regarding Carte Blanche, you said you enjoyed Yousry Nasrallah’s talk about Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964).

TS: It’s always very interesting to hear Yousry Nasrallah talk about cinema, especially as he has this kind of enthusiasm and passion that never gets old. He was asked about why the actors were always staring away from each others’ faces in Gertrud, and how they rarely exchanged looks, and his interpretation, which was very interesting to me, was that they’re all continuously staring at “death,” and that it was somehow the driving force of their actions. In a film that’s mainly about how a woman holds on to her dream of ideal love over the years.

AR: Last year Marguerite Duras was there to talk about Hiroshima Mon Amour. We should have interviewed her.

TS: Yes, we should have.

AR: So, Winter Sleep

TS: By Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

AR: He’s one of my favorite living filmmakers. I’d dare to say that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) is one of the best films I’ve seen in my life. Nuri co-wrote Winter Sleep (2014) with his wife Ebru Ceylan as he usually does. When asked about the long dialogues, especially as he didn’t have them in his prior movies, he replied that he was always fond of dialogues but wasn’t sure if it would work well in cinema as it does in theater for example. But he said that now he wanted to give it a try. The script was 138 pages. What did you think about those 15 to 20-minute dialogues?

TS: I saw him indulge in very well-written dialogue that went deep into the details of human relationships rarely exploited before, even in Richard Linklater’s dialogue master-works like the Before trilogy. But I prefer Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which got a perfect balance between dialogue-driven drama and cinematic bravura. That was Nuri at his peak.

Talking to the Swiss artist/curator

AR: First of all I want to say that I didn’t hate the films in the Swiss focus at all. Also most of the filmmakers behind them are from immigrant origins. It’s just the idea of a focus on emigration for a non-European audience, who are actually represented on the screen as immigrants.

Andrea Thal: It’s important to consider who looks at what, in which context, from what perspective, where? Very basic questions when you think about representation and power structures.

AR: Something you mentioned is that on this level it works like a PR campaign.

AT: Well, “PR campaign” is too much of a phrase for it. At the end of the day, these institutions are there to produce, promote and distribute these films. So part of what they do is send stuff to festivals all over the world. Of course part of this has a representational function — you cannot separate it from the representation of the state.

AR: The name SwissFilms itself is nationalistic.

AT: It might not be totally nationalistic but it’s tied to the state and has representative function toward it. You can argue that this is problematic because we have to stop thinking in nationalistic terms, as I personally think. Another perspective is that it might be interesting, because being bound to the state may result in a criticality toward the state, which is certainly what we see in these films — they’re not just embracing it.

But there’s the question of what happens when this program is taken to Egypt, where an Egyptian audience that includes children watch these films. It becomes something else, it might have good intentions, but may be received differently by its target audience. Another reading could be that it’s trying to show the capability to be critical. Also the curator might have thought that due to what happened in Egypt and the region these last years, it’s better to include serious social issues.

AR: You mentioned earlier something about the migration issue becoming a managerial question in essence.

AT: That’s something that really irritates me about these late capitalist societies, especially in western Europe. The importance of managing things. Migration has become completely an issue of management. So it’s about doing it as invisibly and cleanly as possible. It’s absurd. For example managing flying people back to “their” countries, which is horrendous — two people have died on such flights in Switzerland.

AR: Managing giving shelter to people during cold nights, managing the inclusion of immigrants’ children in the European educational system.

AT: We almost only hear about migration issues through questions of management. The scheme of flying people back is described in another film by Fernand Melgar (director of The Shelter (2014), screened in Panorama this year), called Special Flight (2011). If immigrants about to be deported are considered dangerous by the state, they’re tied up and brought to planes in wheelchairs. These gruesome, brutal procedures appear on the surface as a managerial approach but they have an extremely violent aspect.

AR: I think The Shelter is good, it shows how absurd this approach is. And at least three of the five documentaries prove what you say about this management approach to migration, which is not as bad in movies as in politics because in the films you can see the absurdity. In Anna Thommen’s Unknown Territory (2013), it’s a question of the blending-in process of young newcomers in the Swiss education system and labor market. Frédéric Florey and Floriane Devigne’s The Laundry Room (2013) is about managing a laundry room in a Lausanne apartment block that has mostly immigrant residents.

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AT: That’s the violence of it at the end of the day. It’s not the violent image of hundreds of dead bodies in the Mediterranean, which is a big mass grave — but it’s complicit in that clean managerial situation. In this sense, direct democracy like the recurring referendums on immigration is dangerous. It kills people, though mostly not Swiss people.

AR: I think it’s revealing that in the Q&As after the screenings the theme of migration was not questioned. I didn’t question the title myself, although it was declared in the catalogue. It was watching the films that left me with a disturbed feeling.

AT: This is something we should try to do more here, as an institution that claims to have expertise on images: Developing this critical discourse around who looks at images where and what it means in relation to questions of power, privilege and representation, or what I call critical visual culture. It would be great to have more of these questions asked.

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Ahmed Refaat