Dubai Film Festival celebrates the margins of Egyptian cinema

The night after the Dubai International Film Festival opened in December, Ali Sobhy, the street clown from the alleys of Cairo’s Ain Shams, changed his Facebook profile picture to one with him wearing a formal suit, as star of the movie Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim. Just like any celebrated actor on the red carpet, except he edited out his head and wrote: “No one knows me, they all wanted to take photos with the suit.”

As well as to watch films from all over the world, I attended the festival to see director and actor friends and hear about their new experiences. People like Sobhy, who counter my feeling of alienation in a luxurious city and bring me back to downtown Cairo’s cafes. Dubai’s prospering international market is subject to the standards of capital in all its activities, to the point that the festival’s public screenings are at Fox Cinemas in the Mall of the Emirates.

Filmmakers, movie-goers and shoppers mix in a cosmopolitan city, whose festival has become a destination for a huge number of people working in the regional industry, with a surprising ability to attract big names despite its short history.

As usual, Egypt’s attendance exceeded everyone else in the number of people and productions. For each of Dubai Film Festival’s 13 editions, Egyptian producers and directors have competed to show their films, although between 2007 and 2014 Abu Dhabi Festival was equally attractive (it was cancelled in 2015). But the crisis that affected the quality of Egyptian scripts in recent years, and even its vanguard directors, resulted in a disappointing showing for one of the world’s oldest film industries.

This seemed to change in 2016. Not only because two Egyptian features won the Muhr awards for best director (Mohamed Hammad) and best actor (Ali Sobhy) — both directorial debuts — but also because some of Egypt’s contributions came with a different cinematic spirit than that which currently dominates Egyptian cinemas.


Praise preceding the festival started with Mawlana, an adaptation of a novel by journalist Ibrahim Eissa, directed by Magdi Ahmed Ali. Marketed as a controversial film tackling the ambiguous relationship between the religious institution and Egypt’s authorities, in a political era marked by Islamists rising to power after the revolution, it centers around an up-and-coming preacher (played by Amr Saad). There was also Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces, directed by Yousry Nasrallah, whose experience of that era finally resulted in a straightforward drama, viewed out of competition due to Nasrallah being a member of one of the juries, and Kamla Abu Zekry’s A Day For Women, about a swimming pool’s women-only day.

Away from the red carpet, two of the three Egyptian entries in the short film category created a lot of buzz in the halls of Jumeirah.

The 20-minute One Week, Two Days, by Sudanese director Marwa Zein, starring Amr Saleh and Yasmine Raees, tells the story of a couple haunted for nine days by the idea of conception and parenthood. It came three years after Raees won the Muhr for best actress (for her role in Mohamed Khan’s Factory Girl), which made her non-attendance this year surprising after she had told the press she would appear.

The most glaring absence this year was the much-anticipated animated short The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller. Made using rotoscope software, it tackled the true story of the murder of 12-year-old Omar Salah by a police conscript near Tahrir Square in 2012, during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Its absence (though its star, Khaled Abol Naga, showed up) gave rise to speculation about diplomatic pressures to stop its screening in Dubai, particularly as it was pulled after the film schedule was released, forcing organizers to shamefully announce that it was “due to dire circumstances beyond the will of both parties.” Naga met this with similar diplomacy to maintain a good relationship with the festival.

The presence of politics was not limited to the shorts category. Mohamed Rashad made a strong impact with the feature-length documentary Little Eagles, a personal testimony that interweaves his relationship with his father and his city, Alexandria. It contrasts his father’s generation struggling against Anwar Sadat’s government with the director’s generation struggling against Hosni Mubarak’s government, tackling through this personal narrative many political issues surrounding revolutionary movements in Egypt.

Withered Green

Coming from Locarno Film Festival, 34-year-old Mohamed Hammad presented his feature Withered Green. Hammad, whose films (such as his two fiction shorts, Central (2007) and Pale Red (2009) show a sensitive interest in Egyptian women and the hidden sides of their lives, depicts here the life of a single 30-something woman whose menstrual cycle suddenly stops. Set in the time between her first and second visits to the doctor, the film depicts the daily life of Iman (Heba Ali) in the apartment where she has lived alone with her sister Noha (Asmaa Fawzi) since their parents died.

The 90-minute film moves with a slow pace that fits Iman’s monotonous life working in a pastry store. Hammad, in a way unusual for Egyptian cinema, used his first time to focus on tiny details, without care for drama, and to convey the protagonist’s melancholy experience amid this monotony, apparent even in her personal movement through Cairo using the tram, a mode of transport that went extinct two years ago.

Iman’s slow movements and the antique atmosphere of tram cars and old ticket men converge with the theme of struggle between aging and fertility. She moves between her three uncles through a series of family complications to borrow a temporary father for her sister’s upcoming engagement ceremony.

Despite the monotony, Hammad, with his fresh and informed artistic choices, depicts the monotony of a life empty of major events without boring the experienced viewer. But more than that, what made winning best director a great feat was the film’s low-cost production, self-financed by Hammad and his wife Kholoud Saad, a co-producer, as well as cameraman Mohamed Sharqawy. Except for writer Ahmed al-Aidy, who plays the doctor, the cast were all acting for the first time. The only one I recognized was Kiki, the pet turtle of the cameraman’s brother, in whose house the movie was filmed.

The production team came across many obstacles, most notably them getting arrested three times — The outdoor shooting occurred on the tram rails between Manshiet al-Bakry and the Faculty of Education station, which is the area between the presidential palace and the Ministry of Defence. The Muhr crowned their efforts, and sent an implicit message to the high-production, multi-financed movies in the festival that a good film is not necessarily an expensive one.

Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim

The other buzzy Egyptian film was Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim, also the first feature-length film by its director. Sherif El Bendary’s four previous experiments, the last of which was Dry Hot Summers (2016), clearly established his cinematic voice: a mix of bleak realism and comedic fantasy. The story was written by director Ibrahim El Batout and was offered five years ago to scriptwriter and director Ahmed Amer, who eventually gave it to Bendary and energetic producer Mohamed Hefzy.

Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim combines the tragic reality of post-revolution Egypt and collective frustration with the bitter sarcasm Egyptians often use in resistance. It tells the story of two young men from the same alley. Ali (Sobhy), in shock after an accident took the life of his fiancee, falls in love with a small goat he found at the scene. When he starts treating her as if she is his late fiancee, he becomes the target of mockery and his mother’s constant irritation.

The mother takes him to try a faith healer, where he meets Ibrahim, a genius sound engineer suffering from neuroses that threatens his work at a mahraganat music studio: he hears very loud voices while alone, something that drove his grandfather to deafen himself.

In a desperate yet silly attempt to find a cure, Ali and Ibrahim take the advice of the healer: to sink three stones in Egypt’s main three bodies of water (the Nile, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean). So taking along Hoda the goat, they begin a trip between Sinai, Alexandria and Cairo, getting into all sorts of funny situations. Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim offers spontaneous comedy without the cheapness that has dominated our box office for years.

The film, in which Ahmed Magdy plays Ibrahim (after a small role in father’s film Mawlana), was basically Ali Sobhy’s breakthrough to the silver screen, earning him the best actor award against expectations. As anybody who knows Sobhy knows that he was in some ways playing himself, with the working-class traits and slang he utilizes as a street performer in the Outa Hamra (Red Tomato) troupe. I was reminded of his tragic arrest by the military police near Tahrir Square in March 2011, on suspicion of being a “thug,” and his subsequent torture in the halls of the Egyptian Museum.

This heavy background gave the award a deeper honorary level of recognizing an actor coming from the margins, who raised a victory sign from the height of his horse-shaped award. “For all those rejected by their communities that have the courage to be different,” he wrote later, under a new Facebook profile picture that did show his head.

Among all the film choices, the Muhr highlighted two distinct cinematic experiences that came from outside the usual market calculations and interests of the official Egyptian scene. This makes the Dubai Film Festival, with its global position as a window to the Middle East film industry, a space that celebrates works made with the most basic of resources and styles — an unexpected paradox that may revive Egyptian cinema and help overcome its artistic slump.

Translated by Ahmed Bakr.

Hossam Helaly 

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