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Cinéma du Réel brings experimental documentaries to Cairo

The Cinéma du Réel documentary film festival kicked off on Sunday evening at the French Cultural Center (CFCC) in Mounira with a line-up of documentaries on diverse subjects ranging from Palestine to the school infirmary. Cinéma du Réel is an international documentary film festival founded in 1978 by the Public Information Library in Paris. The …


The Cinéma du Réel documentary film festival kicked off on Sunday evening at the French Cultural Center (CFCC) in Mounira with a line-up of documentaries on diverse subjects ranging from Palestine to the school infirmary.

Cinéma du Réel is an international documentary film festival founded in 1978 by the Public Information Library in Paris. The festival presents over 200 films annually, showcasing the work of experienced and first-time documentary filmmakers.
 
Among the highlights of the program is “Grandmother,” a short film by Yuki Kawamura which won the Best Short Film Award at the festival. The film is a meditation on life and death and the cycles of nature, but is above all a tribute to the filmmaker’s grandmother. The camera captures the final days of Masa’s life.

At 83, she has been in a coma for 50 days, and the family has gathered in anticipation of her passing. Although they have expected her death for quite awhile, Masa’s passing impacts the family deeply as they gather together to mourn this remarkable woman and lay her to rest.

Susana de Sousa Dias’s “48” is a compelling short portraying the lives of Portuguese political prisoners. The film is based around a series of photographs taken by the Portuguese Political Police of the faces and profiles of prisoners. Taken during the 48 years of Dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s rule (1925-1974), these photographs constitute an important record of repression.   

By transposing the prisoners’ stories onto these images taken just as they entered detention, Dias juxtaposes the aged and wearied voices of the future with the naïve faces of the past. Prisoners that survived tell their stories of incarceration, reliving memories, their fears, their scars, their arrests, the physical abuse, the torture, and the humiliations during one of Portugal’s most devastating eras, shedding much-needed light on a history little known beyond the borders of the Iberian Peninsula.  

“You Are Served,” an Indonesian and Belgian production directed by Jorge Leon, looks at the lives of Indonesian migrant domestic workers, tracing their journey from their rural homes to training centers in the cities and finally to their work placement abroad.

The women are shown in their rigorous daily routine at the center, learning to speak Chinese, practicing household tasks, and, most of all, missing their families and waiting to be told they have received a work placement.

The film is a slightly abstract, free-form essay. While it features interviews with the owner of a recruitment company and some women who have worked abroad or are preparing to work abroad, the impressions given are one-time, fleeting sound bites, preventing the audience from connecting with the people or experience portrayed. The director clearly hoped to capture the existential struggle inherent in global migration and the bind that third world workers find themselves in that forces them to seek opportunities abroad. Inevitably, the dashed hopes and abuse suffered by the women once they actually begin working is reflected in despairing letters home read aloud.

The situation of foreign domestic workers in Asia and the Middle East is a subject well worth focusing on in a documentary that could shed light on the plight of these women and help improve their conditions.

The strange mix of abstraction and documentation in “You Are Served,” however, is unsatisfying and somehow manages to leave the audience cold, despite the horrific nature of the stories related by the women.

A purely fictional narrative or a full-blown documentary would have been a much more apt vehicle to approach this issue, although Leon’s effort does posit a starting point for future forays into the subject.

The festival continues through January 24 with wide-range of documentaries, including Palestinian and Egyptian joint productions.
 

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