One of the biggest dilemmas that have always bemused me is the evaluation of beginning filmmakers. Theoretically, the lack of experience automatically lowers expectations on first works; the imperfections are projected givens. I, however, constantly rebuffed this premise having seen remarkable first and second works from across the globe, including places with less experience, facilities and resources than Egypt. And hence I’ve tended to evaluate any film based on a wide set of criteria that rarely includes experience.
Experience is not what young Egyptian documentary filmmakers lack. It’s knowledge, Knowledge of aesthetic, narrative structure and the balance between artistry and information-relaying.
The selection of Egyptian documentary shorts screened on Thursday at the ongoing American University in Cairo’s 3rd Cairo Documentary Film Festival, contained no remarkable films for primarily the reasons mentioned. Despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, which often come off as forced rather than organic to the chosen subject, there’s nothing novel in those films; nothing fresh or truly enlightening to distinguish them from hundreds of videos and short documentaries floating in cyberspace.
The unnoticeable indolence of these films is what most hit me. The two best films I saw on Thursday are, in essence, conventionally-shot features elevated above the rest for their choice of intriguing, if not uncommon, subjects that made for interesting viewings. The sense of flawed experimentation, immediacy and youthful ambition critics crave for in short films by young filmmakers were nowhere to be seen in this selection.
Rather than representing a snapshot of a pre-Jan. 25 Egypt bound to be swept up by the irresistible winds of change, these films stand as a rude awakening to a troubled society beleaguered with countless challenges yet to be confronted.
The evening started with Yasser Elwan’s five-minute “Sura” (Picture), a concise look at Egypt during the Mubarak reign composed, in the manner of great French documentarian Chris Marker, of still photographs intercepted by video footage of Nasser’s rousing speeches.
Elwan employs mainly profile photographs of ordinary Egyptians from different age groups in pointing up Nasser’s unfulfilled promises of an Egypt for the poor and marginalized. Elwan listlessly rolls his random, inexpressive images as a tedious voice-over attempts to give these figures a digestible context.
What do these haphazardly-put images truthfully represent? Nothing much. Elwan relies on these images to tell the story, but there is no story. What we essentially get is a Powerpoint presentation dull and forgettable in equal measures.
Equally problematic, if somewhat amusing, was Karim Eishenawy’s “Article 212.” Based on the bestselling non-fiction book of the same name by young satirist Haitham Dabbour, the film illustrates the contradictions between various articles of the Egyptian constitution and their implementation on the ground.
Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, abuse of authority and many other articles get ripped up in a swift-paced montage narrated by TV presenter/political activist Ahmed El Esseily and edited by director Amr Salama (“Zay El Naharda”), still adhering to his bouncy, ostentatious MTV-style technique.
A number of segments are indeed funny, but the film is not as smart, or entertaining, as it thinks it is. Eishenawy, who is prepping a sequel centering on the new amended articles, is more or less stating the obvious and the whole affair feels quite sleight.
Philip Rizk’s two videos, “Sturm: Fayoum” and “Sturm: Amonsito” didn’t fare better. Comprised of unused footage of video reports commissioned by Al-Masry Al-Youm daily, both videos have the look and feel of monotonous, shallow television reports.
Faced with water shortage that’s putting an end to his small business, a villager in Fayoum contemplates the impact of this crisis and complains of the government’s lack of support and its reluctance to provide them with their rightful share of water. The second follows the trails of the tile and garments Amonsito factory workers who were put out of work after the government-owner Banque Misr acquired the factory, closed it down and refused to pay workers’ retirement wages.
Steering away from the compulsory talking heads populating similar reportages, both videos, nevertheless, fall into the trappings of video journalism that lays too much emphasis on the human subjects and nothing else. The complex, rich milieu of both stories isn’t fully explored which, as consequence, reduces the degree of empathy with the subject. Both videos use empty spaces — vast dry lands in the first and chambers chockfull of operating equipments in the second — that alas lack evocativeness, to paint a picture of an abandoned world with plenty of potential gone to waste by a negligent, corrupt government.
Rizk’s videos are meaningful and sincere, yet they don’t make for a compelling viewing. Sheer reality and good intentions don’t necessarily translate into good filmmaking.
Two films produced by the Higher Institute of Cinema delighted visually but fell short on content. Mohamad Al-Wassify’s “Living in the Nile” traces the life of a middle-aged fisherman struggling to make ends meet and becoming an endangered species like his fish. The second is, simply put, a celebration of non-verbal communication.
There’s a major discrepancy between these two shorts and the rest of the Egyptian selection. Both films are beautifully composed, assured and lush. The visages they incorporate in their narrative are picturesque, lyrical in different parts. Unfortunately, their treatment of the narrative is less striking than the visuals. The first presents a featureless one-dimensional portrayal, no different than Rizk’s, of another small fry crushed by the callous regime. The second is a collection of nice-looking images in search of a topic, tainted at the end by naive pretentiousness.
The two highlights of the selection were Michael Graziano and E. Joong-Eun Park’s “Young Arabs” and Mohsen Abdelghany’s “I Am George.”
The subject of “Yong Arabs” is the 15-years-old students of the elite French all-boys school Collège de la Salle, the young Arabs who are supposed to lead the region in the not so-distant future. The 18-minute film contains no voice-over, allowing the students to reflect on the US, the Arab world and marriage. The result is equally hilarious and illuminating.
All students share the same opinion about these topics: all have stereotypical impression of the US (a free nation abiding to no normal codes and disrespectng Arabs), all want supportive wives who also must be pretty, all believe that the Arab world has the upper moral hand above the rest of the western world and all appear to be brainwashed by American pop culture.
One student states that his role model is Oprah Winfrey while a “Braveheart” fan says it’s Mel Gibson. A few of them have a rock band and are shown in one scene playing Green Day’s punk anthem “American Idiot.” There is no trace of mockery in Graziano and Park’s treatment of their subjects; the students mostly come off as genuine and affectionate.
What “Young Arabs” proves is that even in the finest private schools in Egypt, kids remain ill-informed, badly educated and deeply misguided. While Jan. 25 may have proven otherwise, the fact of the matter is that young Egyptians still suffer from a lack of concrete purpose, torn between the lure of the American dream and the promise of Arab nationalism.
“I Am George” touches upon the hot-button topic of being a middle-class Christian in present-day Egypt. The titular protagonist of the film is an amateur actor who always finds himself in troubled waters because of his Christian name. A resident of Shubra, home to the biggest Coptic community in Cairo, George chronicles his numerous travails to overcome the stigma associated with his name. In one memorable occasion, George says, a producer asked him to change his name to Youssef. When he refused, the producer dropped him.
With a burning passion for art and nowhere to go, George resorts to the confined institution of the church, directing and acting in church plays. He does not deny the presence of discrimination but asserts that Egypt has never been as divided as it is now.
Abdelghany then turns his attention to the New Year’s Eve bombing of Alexandria’s Al-Qeddesine (Church of the Two Saints) and the further friction it has caused. George admits he was angry like all Copts, but he refused to join the protests, claiming that Christians should seek no one to complain to but God. That attitude has already proven to be a thing of the past in light of the recent destruction of the Atfeeh church and the religious vote that influenced last week’s constitutional referendum, the division George mentions though might be graver than our most pessimistic estimates.
The 3rd Cairo Documentary Film Festival wraps up Saturday with a screening of video streaming of the January 25 Revolution and a group of Iranian documentaries.
Screenings from 10:30 am-10 pm at the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Campus.