By Sherif Abdel Samad
The Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) just ended its 37th round after bringing much drama and tears to its audience. European films featured many angles of people’s struggles with death throughout several eras. The participating European films this year featured a variety of films by distinguished film-makers, ranging from Estonia to Denmark. Many of these films raised questions on death.
With permanent high expectations on French Cinema, CIFF did not disappoint this year, with “I am a Soldier” by Laurent Larivière and “Dheepan” by Jacques Audiard, which won Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Whereas the title of the first would suggest that it is a war film, it is actually Dheepan that sheds light on a forgotten and concealed war.
The film depicts an undocumented period of time in which the Sri Lankan government sealed off a conflict era in Sri Lanka. It features the stories of the survivors that bared the horrors, committed by government and the Tamil Tigers. In a refugee camp, Dheepan, the main character, a young Tamil Tiger, whose wife and daughter were killed during the war, meets Yalini, a desperate woman, searching for an orphaned girl, whom she claims as her daughter. They discover that families have better chances in receiving asylum in Europe.
Shortly after Dheepan arrives with his new “family” to France, they soon realise that life in the banlieues can be just as dangerous as the civil war they left behind in their country, as Dheepan becomes embroiled in a devastating gang war, which reawakens traumas suffered by his family.
It is the ghosts of the past that come back to haunt him, and the violence that ensues can be seen as a metaphor that one cannot simply peel off his skin by travelling to another place. The film is also a silent and sensitive meditation on human proximity, when the camera focuses on the interaction of the diced up family, portraying three total strangers in their bid for human comfort and relief, and the inevitable pain they are bound to inflict on each other.
“I am a Soldier”, on the other hand, portrays the harsh reality of modern everyday life in France. Sandrine, a young woman struggling to make ends meet, cannot afford the rent and moves in with her mother along with her sister and her husband who are also in dire need.
Sandrine is offered a job by her uncle Henri, a dog trafficker, who buys and sells dogs, forging their vaccination certificates. Left with no choice, she becomes embroiled in her uncle’s crooked dealings and soon starts to profit by closing side deals. Yet the life of a dog trafficker is dangerous and treacherous. Sandrine is tricked by traffickers who sell her sick dogs, which soon die in her custody. Her ruthless uncle blames her for the loss and in the end Sandrine has to run from the police.
Yet far from being a thriller, the film sheds light on human endurance in the face of constant financial pressure. In one of the memorable scenes of the film, Sandrine’s brother-in-law sets on destroying the house he is building. “No one has told me that life was going to be this hard,” he shouts. “No one has prepared me for this.” As the title of the film suggests, an attribution to Johnny Hallyday’s song “Quand Revient La Nuit”, there are many forgotten soldiers in everyday life.
Another actual war film is “1944” by Estonian director Elmo Nüganen. The movie features Estonian soldiers dealing with the Bruderkrieg, German civil war, while they’re caught up in the middle between Hitler’s Reichswehr, the formed military organisation of Germany, and the Red Army, Russian National Military Forces.
The film is segmented into two intertwining parts. First, the camera accompanies a troop of the Estonian battalion fighting in the trenches of WWII. Karl is apparently forced to take up arms to defend his country from the upcoming Red Army invasion. Despite fighting alongside Hitler’s army, Karl’s battalion ridicules the Führer (leader) when they are offered his photo, joking that they can wipe their behinds with it. On the other side, Juri fights with his Estonian battalion against the Nazis.
The film culminates in the clashing of the two Estonian battalions. It is too late when the two discover they are fighting each other, and Juri unintentionally kills Karl in battle. Wrecked by guilt, he sets on delivering Karl’s letters to his beautiful sister, with whom he falls in love. Despite its apparently clichéd storyline, the film captures ravaging scenes of Estonian beautiful countryside and simultaneously shows brutal images of a soldier’s life in the trenches. It also offers a glimpse of a forgotten era, depicting how smaller countries, which were not ideologically embroiled in the greatest war of humankind, struggled to persevere.
A film that also deals with death, but in a more fluid way, is “Silent Heart” by Danish director Bille August, who already won a Palme d’Or, Academy Award and Golden Globe. In the past years, Danish cinema has already received international acclaim, with films by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.
“Silent Heart” is another gripping psychological masterpiece, portraying the last two days of Esther’s life, who decides to commit suicide after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which means that all her body functions will cease. Her family arrives at her countryside house to bid her farewell and enjoy their last weekend. Yet her troubled daughter Sanne, who cannot accept her mother departing, strives to thwart her plans.
The film deals with the question: What would you do if you knew you were going to depart from this world? And how would you perceive your life? In a gripping scene Esther is asked by her family how she feels knowing she will die tomorrow. “We are all going to die,” she replies naturally. “But you will die tomorrow,” insists her son-in-law. “I don’t want to think of my death now, but you should,” answers Esther. “You should always bear it in mind.”
In the Irish film “Brooklyn” a tragic death occurs that instantly thwarts Eilis’s plans of settling down in America. “Brooklyn” is an adaptation of Irish author Colm Tóibín’s novel which was long-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize.
It recounts the trials of Irish immigrants who abandoned their homeland in the 1950s in search for a better life. Many of them settled down in Brooklyn. Every Irish family had at least an immigrant, says Tóibín. Eilis, who is stunningly embodied by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, skilfully captivates the insecurities and timidity, portrayed by Tóibín, and her uplifting transformation, once she is integrated in America.
After having found a husband and a job, Eilis’s new life seems settled, when the tragic death of her sister Rose occurs. When Eilis returns to her home town, her mother immediately weaves a plot in order for her to remain in Ireland. She arranges a lucrative job for her and the courtship of one of the community’s promising young men, luring Eilis into abandoning her American dreams.
The film dwells on the torn state of mind of immigrants, wavering between two worlds and two lives. Eilis is equally drawn to both worlds and must take a decision or else she will forfeit both. A moving scene of the film is a Christmas charity event organised by an Irish priest in Brooklyn for destitute Irish men. “Why don’t they go back to Ireland?” asks Eilis surprised. “They don’t have anyone to return to,” says the priest, gazing at the old and abandoned men while the camera captures their lonesome decomposition.