Looks can be deceiving — especially with a city like Frankfurt. The fifth largest city in Germany is the financial and transportation center of the country, home to the European Central Bank and the German Federal Bank in addition to some of the largest commercial banks in Europe.
The stodgy, serious veneer of Frankfurt makes the unlikeliest space for a cultural fair, let alone a grand festival celebrating contemporary Egyptian culture. Yet dig deeper beneath the surface and you’ll find a charming, rich place with an ideal setup for any art fest.
With its vast museums, trendy modern art exhibits, an exquisite opera house and lively jazz clubs (the 60-year-old Jazzkeller is the oldest jazz club in Berlin), Frankfurt boasts a vibrant, diverse cultural scene. It also houses a beautiful film museum which hosted a seven-month long panorama for Arab cinema between 2004 and 2005.
Frankfurt is currently hosting the travelling exhibit “Tutankhamun – His Tomb and His Treasures,” a spectacular show presenting the story of the most famous pharaoh along with the fascinating account of the discovery of his tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter.
Impeccable replicas of the young pharaoh’s tomb chambers are expertly curated at the Mainzer Landstrasse hall. Since its premiere in Zurich in Spring 2008, 2.5 million visitors have seen one of the biggest touring exhibitions of our time in 11 European cities including Munich, Hamburg, Madrid, Budapest, Dublin, Brussels and most recently Cologne.
This year, organizers of the exhibit — Germany’s leading concert promoter, Semmel Concerts — have decided to expand the scope of the show, arranging a parallel exhibit of contemporary Egyptian arts that ranks among the biggest in Europe. Book readings by established writers such as Gamal El Ghitani, visual art exhibits sponsored by art gallery Safarkhan, stand-up comedy and a theater performance are all lined-up for the fest, which concludes in April next year.
Last week, “A Festival of Egyptian Culture” opened its film program at the art-house cinema Harmonie. The opening film was “The Yacoubian Building” (2006), Marwan Hamed’s epic adaptation of Alaa Al-Aswany’s multi-million selling novel. I presented the film along with Hamed.
From December until February 2012, Harmonie hosts five classic works that reveal different sides of cotemporary Egyptian history.
A small intimate movie theater specialized in foreign and art-house film, Harmonie is one of the few remaining theaters in Frankfurt that still operate in analogue (most, including its sister cinema in central Frankfurt, have switched to the cost-efficient digital projectors).
“Yacoubian” was Hamed’s debut feature film, arriving on the heels of his highly acclaimed 2001 short “Lily,” also a literary adaptation.
Penned by Hamed’s father, revered scriber Waheed, “Yacoubain” was one of the biggest films of the decade, grossing more than LE 25 million and topping the local box-office that year. The lavish production, lush cinematography and large ensemble cast —Adel Imam, Nour El-Sherif, Youssra, Hend Sabri and Khaled El Sawy — harkened to the epic productions of the 50s and 60s. Set in the 90s, the multi-character drama traces the intertwining lives of tenants of an old downtown Cairo building, a microcosm of a decedent Mubarak-era Egypt.
It was also notable for being one of the first Egyptian films to feature an openly homosexual character, which spurred conservative PMs (including journalist Mustafa Bakry, recently elected for the upcoming parliament) to call for banning the film.
“Yacoubian” won multiple awards, including Best New Narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival and the International Jury Award for Best Actor at the São Paulo International Film Festival.
After the screening the film, viewers were given the chance to interact with the director in the Q&A session. The usual questions regarding censorship and the making of the film popped up. Every audience member I spoke to seemed concerned about the future of Egypt, skeptical about both the ruling military and the rise of the Islamists. The genuine excitement many experienced with the outset of Mubarak gradually subsided, replaced by confusion.
“This is transitional phase,” a young woman told me the next day, “and you’re either going to reach the shore safely or you’ll drown in this ocean of chaos.”
In many ways, “The Yacoubian Building” is the centerpiece of the program, acting as a bridge between older films and new ones.
The oldest entry of the program is Shadi Abdel Salam’s “Al-Mummia” (The Mummy/The Night of Counting the Years, 1973).
Widely regarded as the greatest Egyptian film of all time, Abdel Salam’s first, and only, film is an impressionistic, deeply philosophical meditation on the Egyptian identity and our hazy relationship to the past. The film is based on a true story about a tribe at the end of the 19th century who made a living out of selling ancient pharaonic artifacts. “Al-Mummia” was recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.
The shadow of Egypt’s glorious ancient history looms over Abdel Salam’s sweeping cinematic poem, stressing the stark contrast between a distant, ungraspable past and an ambiguous, destitute present representing a pale reflection of the great civilization we once had; a world where tribal alliances and familial bonds overpowered national interests and legacy preservation.
A different aspect of Egypt’s past is explored in Youssef Chahine’s Silver Bear winner “Iskanderija…Lih?” (Alexandria…Why?, 1979). The late Chahine, the Arab world’s foremost filmmaker, has numerous masterpieces to his name: “Cairo Station,” “Saladin,” “The Land” and “The Sparrow” to name a few. But in “Iskanderija…Lih?” — the first part of an autobiographical quadrilogy — he created his warmest, most personal film of his legendary career; a loving postcard to the faded multiculturalism of Alexandria and Hollywood films.
The Alexandria of the 40s as depicted by Chahine as a colorful cosmopolitan city where Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Italians and locals peacefully co-existed; a melting pot of every creed, religion and ethnicity; a unique haven filled with diverse wonderful sights and sounds.
A bleak portrait of Sadat’s Egypt is presented in Atef El Tayeb’s “Al-Bari’” (The Innocent, 1986). El Tayeb was the pioneer of the 80s neo-realism wave, a fearless filmmaker who built his career on documenting the rapidly changing society in the 80s and early 90s. El Tayeb directed several masterpieces such as “The Bus Driver,” “The Prison Cell” and “Love on Top of the Pyramid,” but “Al-Bari’” was, by miles, his most controversial film. Also scribed by Waheed Hamed (in his second work for cinema), the film centers on a naive villager (screen icon Ahmed Zaki) who becomes witness to the atrocities committed in detention cells. The highly contentious subject matter led to the film’s ban for 19 years.
Zaki’s character, Ahmed, embodies the good, pure Egyptian essence confronting newfound realities it cannot adapt to. His innocence is destroyed by a corrupt, self-serving system governed by questionable ethical codes and double standards. Ignorant and unsuspecting, he’s absorbed by the system, becoming part of it; a clog in the large torture machine attempting to sustain a putrid structure corroding the remains of the civilization Egypt once had.
The newest film in the selection is Ahmad Abdalla’s sophomore feature “Microphone,” a film that points directly to the future of the country. Abdalla, a former accomplished editor and one of the most exciting names in the independent film wave, followed his debut feature “Heliopolis” with this award-winning musical docu-drama about the underground art scene in Alexandria. Despite being released on January 25, the film succeeded in attracting a sizeable audience who embraced the film and branded it the movie of the revolution.
Infused by the defiant spirit that ignited Egypt’s biggest popular uprising, “Microphone” is a bold, rebellious and uplifting look at a determined, insuppressible generation unafraid to challenge both the bureaucratic political system and the stoic society at large; the secular, enlightened youth who fired the first shot of the revolution and led the entire nation.
Despite the stern obstacles, the film’s protagonists march on, unburdened by the heavy weight of our ever-present history, undeterred by the tyranny of the regime. They have set the path forward, for the people to choose different courses never made available in the past 60 years.
Whether the rest of the country will heed their call remains to be seen. Whether they will or not is beside the point; the fight will continue regardless.
“Alexandria…Why?” is screening on January 11, 2012; “Microphone” is screening on Jan. 25, “The Innocent” is screening on Feb. 8 and the “The Mummy” is screening on February 22. All films are shown at the Harmonie theater in Frankfurt. Follow Daily News Egypt for our extensive coverage of “A Festival of Egyptian Culture.”
Naglaa Fathy in "Alexandria…Why."
A scene from Ahmad Abdalla’s "Microphone."