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From traffic jams and cake to depressive teenagers: Highlights of the 3rd Zawya Short Film Festival
 
 

The lineup of the third edition of the Zawya Short Film Festival, which ran February 1–3, screened 15 titles by Egyptian filmmakers at Zawya Cinema in downtown Cairo. On Saturday night, the festival jury, made up of Ayten Amin (Villa 69, 2013), Sherif El Bendary (Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim, 2016) and Marouan Omara (One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake, 2016) picked the winners, handing out awards in five different categories.

Muhammad Taymour won the Best Director award for his eight-minute film Men Reehet al-Marhoum (From the Remains of the Dead, 2017), an homage to dead grandparents and the happy, carefree times spent in their homes during childhood. Instead of featuring a human presence, the film takes us on a journey through several old Cairene apartments. The dusty objects housed within are representative of an easily recognizable middle-class aesthetic and the voiceover is steeped in nostalgia as it recalls the sounds, tastes and smells of a time past.

The award for Best Screenplay went to Amrosh Badr for Haga Sa’aa (Something Cold, 2017), which made it to the official selection of the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival last year. The film follows the lives of five separate characters in Alexandria for a day, until their paths converge at the same wedding celebration. Although it is a well shot work, it feels incomplete as its 19-minute runtime proved too short for the multiple different storylines to fulfil their potential.   

Special Mention was given to Ahmed Roshdy’s Baeaa al-Batata al-Maghoul (The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller, 2017), an animated short inspired by the real murder story of Omar Saber, a child sweet potato seller who was shot by a police officer near the United States Embassy in Cairo in 2013. On Friday, Zawya announced on its Facebook page that the film, which features revolutionary sentiments and allusions to police corruption and military complicity, was denied a screening permit from the Censorship Board, and therefore would not be screened as planned.

The Jury Prize, meanwhile, went to Noha Adel’s Into Reverse (2017) while the Best Film Prize went to Khaled Medhat Moeit’s Al-Raed Tom (Major Tom, 2017). Below, Mada Masr explores both films in detail as part of our selected highlights from the festival, along with three other special mentions of our own.

Still from From the Remains of the Dead

Major Tom

An homage to the French New Wave, drenched in millennial aesthetics, this atmospheric and character-driven film takes us on an honest journey into the mind and world of Thomas (Abdel Rahman Salem), a teenager obsessed with the music of David Bowie. After his girlfriend breaks up with him, Tom sinks into a haze of depression and struggles with suicidal thoughts.

The choice of a female narrator who speaks in French throughout Major Tom, mirroring a sex symbol from one of the protagonist’s favorite French films, allows the director to avoid any weak or unnecessary dialogue, and creates a suitable medium to inventively explore Tom’s coming of age and obsession with sex. By taking dialogue out of the equation almost completely, the filmmaker gives himself the freedom to use his camera in creative ways, alternating between close-ups and fixed camera settings which reflect Tom’s inner struggle. The influence of New Wave icons such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut is clear in the filmmaker’s stylistic choices, the chaotic jump cuts and fragmented narration true to the nature of Tom’s turbulent mind.

Moeit cleverly locates the film within the confines of Tom’s messy yet artistically decorated bedroom, as dim, bluish lighting conveys his depression. The film also explores notions of escapism, prevalent in millennial culture. Tom turns to Bowie’s songs, which are used to reflect his frequent mood swings, drugs, cinema and his dreams of walking on the moon to escape his reality, represented by his father and his girlfriend, whose faces we never fully see. It is another means by which the director keeps viewers rooted in the illusion of being inside Tom’s head, with other characters merely abstract figures outside.

Salem’s performance is one of the film’s definite strengths, as he faces the camera with seemingly natural ease. Yet his acting abilities are put to the test when, in the second half of the film, he delves into theatrics while reading a poem about death. Although the poem does tie in with the themes of millennial anxiety and a preoccupation with death, it betrays the filmmaker’s attempt to incorporate too many elements into his film, which, at this point, starts to become a bit too philosophical for its own good.

Into Reverse

Premiering in last year’s Muhr Short Film Competition at the Dubai International Film Festival, Into Reverse is a hilarious and immersive experience that takes advantage of a very Cairene setting and characters to tell a simple but solid story.

Adel’s style is communicated in the film’s first frames, as she slowly but surely introduces the viewer to the setting: the closed and empty balconies overlooking a street; a shot of the street’s name and the “No Entry” traffic sign. With this understated opening sequence, Adel establishes the film’s environment through her impeccable visual narration. Then, with a closely observed rhythm, she throws the spectator into the midst of conflict: a frantic traffic jam in the narrow, one-way street, with a steadfast woman—the only driver going in the right direction—refusing to pull her car into reverse as a slew of raging men demand she backs off in order to clear the road.

As this extremely Egyptian predicament progresses, Adel appears to be in full control of her film’s elements, and her attention to detail pays off in the portrayal of her diverse set of characters, who are brought to life by a surprisingly skilful cast, and complemented with well written dialogue that is witty, realistic and concise. Adel’s subtle yet powerful statement on male entitlement and the daily struggles women go through in Cairo comes across beautifully in the contrast between the two main characters: the explosive anger of Hamdy (Ahmed Essam) as he yells at the quietly confident Hanan (Mona al-Namory), whose minimal dialogue is compensated for with close-ups of her expressive face and shaking hands, as Hamdy continues to bang on the hood of her car.

Through fluid hand-held camera movements, smooth editing and efficient scene blocking, Adel manages to create a full, rich world within the small, packed street. Other elements further acquaint us with Hanan, such the music she listens to (the voice of Fayrouz makes for a memorable soundtrack), the inside of her car and even the contents of her phone as she scrolls through pictures while stubbornly waiting for the men to solve the problem on their own. Even though parts of the dialogue feel a little forced at times, the film’s feminist undertones certainly don’t, despite their indisputable presence.

Red Velvet

Directed by Mahmoud Samir and Youssef Mahmoud, Red Velvet (2017) opens with a scene of a child, Asser (Asser Hany), climbing into bed and sleeping in his mother’s arms. In the morning, while Asser is still asleep, the mother dies, but not before calling 112 in an attempt to get help. She cannot speak, however, and so after she dies, the operator keeps calling. Asser, oblivious to his mother’s death, answers the phone when he wakes up, and the film takes us on a suspenseful journey. The child, who is diabetic, struggles to fight the temptation of a delicious-looking red velvet cake, and at the same time tries to give the emergency operator the information she needs to locate his address.

The filmmakers’ careful compositions effectively manipulate the audience’s attention, building tension and creating palpable conflict throughout the film’s 15-minute runtime. In establishing the cake in the kitchen as Asser’s main point of focus, while the crux of the film is in the bedroom, the filmmakers use fluid camerawork to build a strong spatial relation between both rooms, immersing viewers within the confined space of the house.

Even though the phone operator’s persistent calls are unrealistic, and her forced performance unconvincing, this is offset by the child’s natural acting and charismatic screen presence. The stark contrast between his playful, animated performance and the solemness of the situation makes for a powerful narrative tool. Visually, this disparity manifests in the grey, cold environment of the bedroom, where the mother’s corpse lies on the bed, which is offset by the sunny, colorful kitchen, where the boy stares longingly at the dark red cake covered in frosting.

Even though the film’s ending doesn’t live up to its promising build-up, the filmmakers effectively build drama by withholding key information, making for an engaging experience.

Still from Red Velvet

Paria

An attempt to dissect the concept of the outcast, Omar Elhamy’s Paria (2015) is a contemplative experience which blends a Terrence Malick vibe with an edgy Lars von Trier dysfunctionality. It is a concept film that demands a patient and attentive audience, and some may find it difficult, though rewarding, to get through the 20-minute runtime.

An unconscious man, whose name we later learn is Marc (Marc-André Mallet), is rescued from the sea and carried ashore. We see him wake up and take a boat trip to what appears to be his hometown. There, he orders food in a diner, where a kind elderly waitress invites him to an evening at her family home. The man’s discomfort, clearly conveyed by his timidity, is made all the more tangible by his host’s confident, friendly demeanor, as she tells him stories about family members who are also strangers.

The cold, detached sense of loneliness and exile conveyed at the start of the film gradually dissolves, giving way to the only warmly lit scene in the film, as Marc has dinner with the woman’s family in an intimate setting, where the conversation is virtually one-sided and his responses are one-worded.The family’s organic dialogue contrasts with Marc’s silence, further accentuating his emotional state.

The film starts and ends with haunting footage of the sea, and makes effective use of natural elements with impressive cinematography and interesting lighting throughout. Shaky camera movements, inverted angles and out-of-focus compositions serve the sense of debilitation sought by the filmmaker, disrupting otherwise picturesque visuals. A similar disorientation can be found in a cold color palette sequence that portrays a jovial town parade, which are often an occasion for communal bonding. Rain drenches the street as the residents march to the soundtrack of an old English nursery rhyme about death, and our protagonist is nowhere to be seen.

Although the film’s slow pace, sparse dialogue and lack of a clear narrative risk viewer detachment at times, Pariah leaves a lasting emotional imprint by virtue of the director’s sensory choices alone. It is a challenging art-house film that comes off as a ragged visual poem.

Punchline

In Punchline (2017), Egyptian-Swiss director Christophe Saber establishes a Tarantino-esque vibe right from the beginning. Two gangsters (Mehdi Djaadi, Alain Borek) sit in a car, preparing for their first job, as one of them expresses his fascination with the style of Frank, the “big boss.” This simple conversation sets up the film’s premise, as the audience embarks on an entertaining journey, watching the wannabe gangsters attempt to find their own style and figure out “the coolest thing to say” before performing their first execution.

The film is a spoof of Hollywood gangster films, with the two protagonists trying out different quotes from famous action flicks, their victim, Michel (Laurent Baier), joining in their banter. The humorous dialogue is complemented by the actors’ natural performances, as they play off each other in remarkable harmony.

However, despite the laughter it induces, Punchline succeeds in maintaining the necessary tension, never compromising the realism of the situation. Saber’s no frills directorial style and camera work allow the audience to focus on the witty dialogue, which is undoubtedly the film’s strong suit, while the under-saturated picture establishes a cold, threatening atmosphere that is interrupted with bursts of comedy.

The film plays out as seamlessly as an engaging anecdote told by a skillful comedian: there are no unnecessary shots or lines of dialogue and it is tight and perfectly paced, ending at just the right moment and on just the right note.

As with the punchline of a good joke, the film is smoothly set up, and then goes out with a bang.

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Hessen Hossam