The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘political cinema’

Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, Brazil, 1964)

Posted by nicklacey on 16 January 2013

Manuel y Rosa

Manuel y Rosa

I guess the English title has the benefit of pithiness that the original title (God and the Devil in the Land of Sun) but suggests that the film is about race when it isn’t. The film is about desperation of the dirt poor of the impoverished land the sertão, ‘backlands’ of north eastern Brazil. Cow herder Manuel kills his boss in rage in response to his appalling treatment and so, with his wife, go ‘on the run’. First they join a preacher, Saint Sebastian, who claims he’ll lead them to a ‘promised land’; then a bandit, a sort of low rent Robin Hood (though there’s not much evidence of giving to the poor), Corisco. They are pursued by Antonia das Mortes, employed by the church to kill anyone who threatens the status quo.

I’m afraid that summary makes the narrative seem more coherent than it is. Many of the events are portrayed indirectly, Eisentsteinean montage conveys massacres, but not the way of the Potemkin steps or his later dialectical style; the editing offer an impression of events rather than any political argument. Music, vital in Brazilian culture, structures much of the narrative; a mix of ballads, telling of the events of the film, and Villa-Lobos.

What’s most striking about the film are the compositions where people seem to be randomly standing about but, together, offer a vision of confusion, a land that’s lost its moral compass. The sparseness of the backlands of north eastern Brazil have their bleakness accentuated by the black and white cinematography in the ‘academy’ (4:3) ratio.

Glauber Rocha’s influences are many, not least the French nouvelle vague primarily through co-opting the Gallic attitude of ‘director as author’ rather than through stylistic devices. Like Antoine Doinel, the protagonist finds the sea at the film’s end;  the ocean has mythic significance as the ‘saint’ had preached that he would lead the dispossessed to utopia where the ‘land is sea, and sea is land’. As Lucia Nagib puts it:

‘Glauber’s mythic backland-sea formula expresses the harrowing feeling of this utopian country that could have turned out right but was fated not to from the day it was discovered. (Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia, (IB Taurus), p9)

Whilst the French were, initially at least, in love with Hollywood, the Third World filmmakers of Latin America had no love for America as they suffered under US-supported military dictatorships. As Corisco says, directly to camera: ‘The dragon of evil swallows the people to fatten the Republic.’ This emphasis upon the political had its roots in Italian neo realism; and, as noted above, Eistenstein – who worked in Mexico during the 1930s. This link details more of Rocha’s influences and this takes you to his manifesto the aesthetics of hunger’.

Posted in Brazilian Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Sing Your Song (US 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 July 2012

Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers perform ‘Coconut Woman’ on Bell Telephone Hour, NBC TV 1964 (the show appeared 1959-68)

Sing Your Song is a ‘bio-doc’ celebrating the extraordinary life of Harry Belafonte, the legendary African-Caribbean-American singer, actor-producer and political and social activist. The title comes from advice given to Belafonte as a young performer by the equally legendary Paul Robeson:

“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”

I enjoyed the documentary very much, particularly because it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to understand the importance of Belafonte as a political activist – and then it was in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and also Belafonte’s role as a producer in independent American cinema. In the 1950s I was aware of Belafonte as a singer, but for a child in the UK the politics of race in American society were not very visible. The documentary spends most of its time focusing on Belafonte’s TV career and his leading role in assembling support from other entertainers for the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. With his high profile in American music and television he had clout and he was prepared to put his career on the line to fight for equality. I’d not seen most of the TV and news footage presented here before so this was very exciting.

However, there are two problems with the film that I did find frustrating. The first was purely technical. Having discovered so much incredible archive footage, it was a real shame that the filmmakers seemingly made no attempt to process the footage in the correct aspect ratios. The result is that the TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s is stretched from the 4:3 standard and made to fill a 16:9 image (I’m assuming that the film was made for TV screening as the home for many US documentaries – HBO is listed as one of the distributors of the film. (I converted the TV image above as the Press photos also include some stretched images.) Since the whole point about Belafonte’s appearance in the 1950s was that, as well as being very handsome, he was tall and slim, it’s very disappointing that you don’t get that from the footage. This is surprising in that the documentary is made by Belafonte’s own production company. But this in itself constitutes the second problem. Although the film’s director is Susanne Rostock, a distinguished documentary-maker, Belafonte narrates the film himself and his daughter Gina is a producer. My impression is that this is Harry Belafonte’s preferred view of his own story. Which is fine, but since he deals with a wide range of political issues it would be interesting to get a wider perspective on his achievements. I admit that one of the aspects of his career that I would have liked to learn more about was his experience in Hollywood. He clearly feels that his political activities have been more important than his disaffection with the film industry. When I did some work on Belafonte’s film career, I found it very interesting and a few more posts might well follow this one dealing with specific films. In organising an event associated with a screening of Sing Your Song, I produced some notes on his film career which are downloadable: BelafonteNotes

Harry Belafonte with JFK in a campaign film which used to urge African-Americans to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. (The ad can be viewed on YouTube.)

My slight reservations about Sing Your Song aren’t intended to put anyone else off watching the film, which I hope will show on UK TV after its cinema run and DVD release. There is also a book, My Song and the official website for the film provides a wealth of resources. Harry Belafonte has been working in the American entertainment industry for more than sixty years and he is still active, using his resources and his celebrity status to develop political campaigns aiming to promote social, economic and political equality, both in the US and in the international arena. As many reviewers have said, he is an inspirational figure and I’m glad an accessible document like Sing Your Song exists. As well as learning about his current political work, I also learned a lot from the archive material. I hadn’t really appreciated just how big a musical and TV star Belafonte was in the 1950s/60s – and therefore the weight that his endorsement of causes carried. His ‘development’ of Caribbean folk tunes in an American context, though in one sense appearing ‘inauthentic’, in another sees him as opening up American popular music to new influences. But it is his strong character that enabled him to challenge the race divide in American broadcasting. I knew about the controversy surrounding his appearance on Pet Clark’s TV Show in 1968 (when the sponsor’s representative objected to the physical contact between the two singers) but not about Belafonte’s own TV show, which was not renewed because the sponsor felt uncomfortable with its social concerns and its ‘blackness’. This morning, the Guardian‘s third editorial, often used as an ‘in praise of . . .’ piece, singles out Harry Belafonte’s book and reiterates his importance as a celebrity figure who commits completely to his political work.

Posted in African-American Cinema, American Independents, Documentary, People, Stars | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

BIFF 2012 #11: Adalbert’s Dream (Visul Lui Adalbert, Romania 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 26 April 2012

Iulica (Gabriel Spahiu) as the engineer in the coat on the factory floor with two of the machinists who he is persuading to do a little personal job for him.

For some obscure reason I seem to have missed all the major films of the Romanian New Wave, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to see this film. As far as I can make out, it isn’t typical and in fact seems to be a conscious attempt to create a contemporary version of the pre-1989 satires of East European communist states.

The plot (based around a real incident) follows a day in the life of a middle manager, a ‘comrade engineer’ in a Romanian factory. The date is precise and important: May 8th 1986, the day after Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup. Our hero Iulica has videorecorded the match (in which the Steaua goalie made four saves in the penalty shootout) and hopes to show it for his boss at the factory and other colleagues after the ‘festivities’ for the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party. (The videorecorder itself being a rare and desirable object.) Iulica has a role in the festivities as well – as the producer of two films made in the factory, one a ‘health and safety’ documentary and the other an ‘artistic’ film, again about health and safety, which provides the overall title of Adalbert’s Dream. Things don’t go quite as planned.

I enjoyed the film which I thought came to life once we reached the factory and met Iulica’s boorish but entertaining boss. After a while, I realised that the tone of the film was familiar, combining elements from the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s such as Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Czechoslovakia 1967) and also Dusan Makaveyev’s wonderful and surreal Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Gabriel Achim, director of Adalbert’s Dream, captures the absurdity of social relations in these particular communist societies. He does this both in the interactions of characters and in his decisions about formats. The film was shot on various video formats including S-VHS and Beta SP in Academy ratio to match the propaganda and health and safety films of the period.

I confess to a certain nostalgia in watching a film set in a factory with lathes, men with oily rags and overalls, smartly-dressed women from the office etc. By 1986 in the UK factories on this scale were disappearing – and with them aspects of working-class culture. Some of what was lost won’t be missed, including the sexism and the drudgery of some work patterns. But what the factories did provide was employment and a sense of community and belonging. The best factory systems also provided a social and cultural life for the workers and this is something that is important to recognise when watching Achim’s satire. All of those possible pluses are there but they aren’t allowed to be fulfilled because of the underlying problems associated with Romanian communism. Everything is focused on pleasing the political bosses, but because everyone’s individual desires (and beliefs) are very different – and because the system is ‘broken’ in terms of the quality of goods and services it produces – the sucking up to the party boss is doomed to failure. Achim brilliantly crystallises this analysis in his use of the Health and Safety Film, examples of which, with their bureaucratic pedantry, crop up throughout the film. I won’t spoil the film by listing all the ways in which the issue is presented – but Achim is able to end the film with a very striking sequence. I should say that several scenes are also very funny.

I’m not sure how the film will fare in the Bradford competition or how it will be read by younger audiences, but once I’d properly tuned in to the film I realised that it works very well.

A brief trailer:

Posted in Comedies, East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

This Is Not a Film (In film nist, Iran 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 20 April 2012

Panahi uses tape to mark out a girl’s room/’cell’ in a film he’s banned from making. So where is the camera here? Is Panahi’s colleague standing on a chair?

It was incongruous watching This Is Not a Film on the giant IMAX screen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The image only filled the centre of the enormous screen but even so this was probably the biggest screen the film has played in the UK. And perhaps it isn’t that incongruous since Jafar Panahi’s film is either the cleverest film I’ve seen in a long time or a film that through circumstance has become the ultimate statement about films and filmmaking. (It was on the IMAX screen as part of the Museum’s response to current distribution developments in the UK – though not ideal, using the screen for current releases allows extra flexibility and extends the run of films like This Is Not a Film.)

For anyone unaware of the background to the film, I should point out that Jafar Panahi, one of the best-known and most celebrated of Iranian directors, was arrested in December 2010 and put under house arrest after committing the ‘crime’ of voicing his support for the Green opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad during the 2009 election. Panahi has been sentenced to imprisonment and banned from making films and engaging with foreign critics for 20 years. This film is therefore ‘not a film’ but an ‘effort’ put together by Panahi and his friend, the documentary producer and director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.

Panahi is obliged to stay in his apartment in Tehran. It’s a very nice and certainly a spacious apartment but it is still a prison. The film details a day of his incarceration from breakfast until evening time. For most of the time Mirtahmasb operates a small professional digital camera while Panahi has his iPhone with its camera facility. Little in terms of conventional narrative action takes place but the events of the day are loaded with significance – starting with a call from Panahi’s lawyer about the appeal on his sentence. There are several visitors/calls at the door and more phone calls that are played through a speakerphone. Panahi analyses/comments on three scenes from his back catalogue of productions which he plays through his TV set. He also attempts to tell us the story of the film he would be making if he hadn’t been banned. This sounds like a typical Panahi neo-realist film in which a young woman from Isfahan who wants to go to university in Tehran is locked in her room by her father . . . but perhaps she is actually more interested in a potential relationship with a boy? The final section becomes a little mini-narrative in its own right in which Panahi, now operating the main camera, ventures a few feet outside the apartment, following a caretaker putting out the bins. The day in question is actually ‘Fireworks Wednesday’, the Persian New Year when people celebrate with bonfires on the streets as well as fireworks. The TV reports at some point that Ahmadinijad has outlawed such celebrations because they are not ‘Islamic’ (I think they are Zoroastrian – see Asghar Farhadi’s film Fireworks Wednesday.)

On the one hand, the whole film is about imprisonment. Panahi shares his space with his daughter’s pet iguana, ‘Igi’, an enormous and very endearing creature who at one point crawls behind a bookcase, threatening to topple hundreds of books. A neighbour asks Panahi to look after a yappy dog for a short while but dog and iguana don’t mix. But even imprisoned, Panahi can’t/won’t stop being a filmmaker. He and Mirtasmasb make fun of the definition of ‘not making’ a film. “You can’t say cut!”. “Just keep the camera running”. What is a film? How do we separate the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’? Nothing in This Is Not a Film is ‘redundant’. Panahi looks up from his MacBook (plenty of product placement!) to watch the TV screen for a few moments as the 2011 tsunami devastates a coastal village in Japan. How do we ‘read’ this scene? Later on, when Panahi asks a few simple questions of the stand-in caretaker, the answers reveal something about life in Iran outside the comfortable middle-class flat. Here is a young man studying for a Masters, but having to work doing several jobs to pay for his education – some of them unpleasant and jobs that must be done full-time by somebody else. This isn’t a critique of Iranian society as such but simply an example of what a student might face and that’s probably enough to anger the authorities.

Each of the three sequences from his earlier films that are shown on his TV set allows Panahi to demonstrate how his realist approach throws up interesting questions about cinema, in particular about ‘amateur’ actors interacting with a script and how the accidental mise en scène of neo-realism sometimes creates strongly symbolic images. And in a sense of course, this is the tease of This Is Not a Film – 72 mins of what seems to be a ‘day in the life’ of an imprisoned filmmaker, but which is actually an artfully constructed essay on cinema. It will no doubt become a film school classic as a film to study. But as we sit back and enjoy it, there is the real worry in that completing the film and smuggling it out of the country for international exposure, Jafar Panahi might have goaded his tormentors into an even harsher regime of repression for filmmakers. I hope not.

The film’s official website in the US also carries details of screenings in the UK. It deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to have been getting so far, so please don’t miss it.

Posted in Directors, Iranian Cinema, People | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, Italy-Algeria, 1966)

Posted by nicklacey on 23 March 2012

The face of imperialism.

The Battle of Algiers is an extraordinary film for a number of reasons, primarily the impartiality with which the events are portrayed and the style in which it is shot. It was made just after Algerian independence from France and focuses upon the battle for the capital city in 1957, which although a failure for the National Liberation Front (FLN) at the time, sowed the seeds for the eventual withdrawal of France.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo drew upon the Italian tradition of neo-realism by using non-actors, except for the vital role of Colonel Mathieu, and location shooting. The latter was possible as the film had the co-operation of the Algerian government. Despite the fact that the government’s involvement might suggest a propaganda, nation-building, purpose for the film, Pontecorvo, and screenwriter Franco Solanas, do not portray the French as monsters.

Indeed, the even-handedness of the way each side is presented is quite remarkable; both commit atrocities and deaths on both sides are shown to be equally tragic. For example, the bombing of the Casbah, by off duty French policemen, is followed by the equally cold-blooded bombing of, amongst other places, a milk bar full of young people. Whilst it is clear that the atrocity committed by the French was answered by Algerian revenge, Pontecorvo spends more time emphasising how innocent the French victims are through a series of eyeline matches from the woman planting the bomb. The aftermath uses the same music, Bach’s B minor Mass, which also accompanied images of the dead being dragged from the rubble in the Casbah.

Later, Algerian ‘freedom fighters’ rampage through town in an ambulance shooting anyone they can. This is in response to the torturing of Algerians as the paratroopers tried to track down the FLN’s leadership. Col. Mathieu is even allowed to justify the use of torture, though this is used to illustrate politicians’ hypocrisy. As he says, if you wish Algeria to remain French then it must be done. Mathieu is no cardboard villain but a compassionate, professional soldier, played with great charisma by Jean Martin (who’d lost a part because he signed a petition supporting Algerian independence). On two occasions, when French passers-by attack Algerians in hysterical revenge for killings, it is gendarmes who come to the rescue. It’s not obvious as to why the French banned the film for many years.

I should make clear that the film doesn’t condone torture; the scenes are quite horrific and the film’s viewpoint is obviously anti-colonialist. The French should not be there; there should be no reason for torture.

Unlike the neo-realists, the event portrayed is not insignificant but a decisive moment in Algeria’s fight for freedom. Also, the use of faux newsreel footage (the image was processed to look grainy) is a departure from neo-realist technique. It does, however, give the film immense immediacy. I have to keep reminding myself that the film is a recreation; Paul Greengrass achieves the same effect with Bloody Sunday (UK, 2002).

A final point to make, and something that has been reflected in the Arab Spring, is the vital role of women in the uprising. Three women plant the bombs that kill many and the final shot of the film is a woman, holding the national flag, who keeps coming forward despite being pushed back by French security forces.

The Battle of Algiers is one of the greatest films of the 20th century.

Posted in African Cinema, Italian cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Margin Call (US, 2011)

Posted by nicklacey on 24 February 2012

Go-getting young men?

Imdb says this film cost under $4m to make which suggests its excellent cast (Spacey, Irons, Bettany, Moore, Tucci) made the movie because they wanted to make a statement against the banking system that’s still sending millions into destitution after the 2007 collapse. Writer-director, J.C. Chandor (it’s the first time he’s directed a feature), has done an excellent job in dramatically portraying what happened when it all went ‘tits-up’ in September of that year. Though I think the casting of Kevin Spacey, as the banker with a heart, is wrong; he always has something of the sleaze about him, a residue of earlier roles.

The real sleazeball is Jeremy Irons, who tells his computer-whizzes to explain the situation to him as if they were talking to a dog. The word oleaginous may have been created for Irons in this role: the salesmen who only cares about sales. And that is the root of the problem, when salesmen call the tune then any pretense that a company is offering a service and value for money goes. When I worked for The Times, the ad manager explained he wasn’t ashamed of being in sales as that is what drove capitalism. Clearly, and this was the mid-’80s, he felt some shame about a job that didn’t produce anything and what’s gone after – particularly in financial services – is shameful. I was taught that accountants’ first rule is ‘prudence’, but that was the ’80s too. Since then accountants have often been complicit in the ‘making money at any cost’ (except to themselves) mantra that infected, and still infects, many businesses. Cameron can moan about ‘anti-business’ rhetoric but it is business that has severely damaged the British economy.

I’m not sure anyone who is vague about what caused the financial crisis will fully understand it from this film (read Michael Lewis’ Big Short) but that’s not the film’s fault; Inside Job (US, 2010) is a documentary offers more technical explanations. Only so much can be explained by a drama that’s trying to engage a large audience, and this is a readily engaging film. It’s a shame it only took $5m in North America.

A mention should also be given to up-and-coming Zachary Quinto who takes a lead role and produces.

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

al-Ard (The Land, Egypt 1969)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 July 2011

The villagers Abdel Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili) and Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim) in 'al-Ard'

My second film at the Liverpool Arabic Film Festival was a beautiful print (supposedly the only viewing print available and hired at considerable cost) of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 adaptation of a novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi. The novel was written in the 1950s about events in the 1930s but the film’s appearance in the late 1960s still resonated, especially after the trauma of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war against Israel.

Outline

The focus is on a small village in the Nile Delta region. The peasant farmers rely on Nile water to irrigate their crops, especially cotton as a cash crop. The authorities (in the 1930s Egypt was a semi-autonomous monarchy but still ultimately under British control) allow the fellaheen (peasants) 10 days of water (per year?). This is barely enough but then news filters through that the ration is to be reduced to 5 days. The villagers must organise themselves to protest and to put their case. However, there are different interests for the Mayor, the wealthier landowners and the local bey (noble rank) and they conspire to maintain their own status so that the main burden falls on the fellaheen. The central conflict focuses on Abou Swelem the most respected of the fellaheen, who has remained on the land while his two former comrades in the 1919 rising against the British have ‘progressed’ to positions in the town or in business and now carry the honorary title ‘sheikh‘. Abou Swelem (Mahmoud El Miligui) has a beautiful daughter Wassifa who is courted by a peasant farmer and by the educated son of one of the sheikhs. Eventually the villagers will have to fight for their land and their crops.

Commentary

This long (130 minutes) film is beautifully directed and wonderfully acted by all concerned. The 35 mm print looked stunning – in Technicolor I assume? The film was shown in competition at Cannes in 1970 and this perhaps explains the quality of the subtitles.

In her book on Arab Cinema, Viola Shafik (American University in Cairo Press, 2007: 137) cites al-Ard as an example of ‘socialist realism’ but suggests that the ideology in the script is derived from the novel whose author expressed “an uncompromising Marxism” – rather than from the director, who she points out was from the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The only other Chahine film I’ve seen up to now is the 1958 Cairo Station. Shafik describes that title as ‘commercial realism’ using the generic conventions of the crime film. I think I need to revisit that film.

‘Socialist realism’ was the realist form developed in the Soviet Union after Stalin repressed the more experimental work of the 1920s. In many ways it mirrored the ‘Hollywood realism’ of the 1930s and 1940s except that it focused on the collectivist ideology of the workers’ state rather than the individualism of Hollywood. It was the form taken up by Chinese Cinema post 1949 and up to the mid 1960s. al-Ard, however, made me think not about Soviet or Chinese films but about Indian Cinema. The scenes of village life are reminiscent of Hindi ‘social films’ going back to Mehboob and Bimal Roy, though al-Ard being ten years later is more polished. The politics of the film suggest Indian parallel cinema, especially some of the films of Mrnal Sen. Although the film is essentially realist in its presentation, there are moments when short sequences of montage are used for emphasis. The narrative is ‘bookended’ by close-ups of the central character’s hands running the soil through his fingers at the beginning and being literally torn through the soil at the end. There are scenes of song and dance at a wedding and an almost erotic scene of a village woman bathing. The references to Indian Cinema are not too surprising given that the theme of struggles over land are universal. This specific narrative involving careful gradations of social class operating within a colonial framework is certainly very similar to conditions in much of India where British policy left in place feudal arrangements which allowed exploitation by larger landlords (cf the zamindar system in British India).

al-Ard is not a simplistic tale by any means. The various plot lines are brought together very carefully and we learn that the bey, while pretending to help the villagers is in fact using the potential dispute to make it easier to build himself a new road (using land taken from the peasants). To enforce this theft, troops are brought in. The sergeant in charge of these camel soldiers is himself a displaced peasant and he and Abou Swelem have an uneasy bond. But if I remember correctly, the soldier was displaced in order to build a dam – which aids everybody. The bey‘s road is also ‘modernisation’, but designed primarily to boost his private enterprise.  Abou Swelem recognises this like any good socialist. Abou Swelem’s daughter must choose between the brave and strong man who is seemingly a younger version of her father and the weak but educated man who represents the possibility of economic progress. The fair distribution of land has proved to be the major issue for many states following decolonisation. (Zimbabwe for instance?) It remains an issue to fuel political discourse. I hope that this wonderful film gets many more screenings.

The festival screening was introduced by Brian Whitaker, former Guardian Middle East Editor (and current online editor). I found this useful in picking out some of the interesting aspects of the narrative. Viewing the film in 2011 it’s salutary to note that the recent ‘revolution’ in Cairo was largely a middle-class affair amongst the educated youth. Millions of fellaheen still toil on the land for little reward as far as I can see.

al-Ard also played at Cornerhouse Manchester this week alongside Cairo Station so thanks to whoever secured the bookings. More please!

Posted in Arab Cinema, Melodrama | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Marcides (Mercedes, Egypt/France 1993)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 July 2011

Gamel (centre) with his partner (left) in the gay community at the cinema in Marcides

To Liverpool for the ‘Arabic Film Festival’ at FACT (part of the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival). The ‘Arab Spring’ has increased interest in all aspects of Arab culture and this is a welcome event. I’m sure it is very difficult to get prints of Egyptian films into the UK, so I wasn’t too surprised that this particular film turned out to be on DVD. The quality was pretty ropey but quite watchable – better anyway than the experience of lolling about on squidgy sofas to watch a cinema screen which somebody thought was a good idea for patrons of ‘The Box’, the FACT space dedicated to more arty fare.

Marcides isn’t arty as such but it is a challenge for UK audiences. I think it is best described as a political and social satire presented in the format of popular melodrama. Written and directed by Yousry Nasrallah and starring one of Egypt’s major female icons, Yousra, the film was programmed because of the director’s links to the major Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine. Nasrallah (b. 1952) assisted Chahine and then had his own films produced by Chahine’s company, Misr Films. Nasrallah was first a journalist in Lebanon and then assisted Volker Schlöndorff in 1980. (See this Cannes posting)

Plot outline

Warda (Yousra) is first seen in flashback to 1956 at a VIP function interrupted by the British/French/Israeli attack on the Suez Canal. She is being put forward for marriage by her wealthy mother who doesn’t know that she is already pregnant after a liaison with an African diplomat. Quickly, we learn that she married a much older man who conveniently died soon after. Her first child, to her relief, is not visibly ‘African’ but she calls him Noubi (i.e. after ‘Nubian’). She later has another child she names Gamel (after Nasser) and who is passed off as her uncle’s boy. In 1990 these past events set up the melodrama when Noubi returns home after being incarcerated by his mother (under pressure) in an asylum – because he wanted to give money to the Communist Party! When his uncle marries and then collapses at the wedding, he tells Noubi that the family fortune is bequeathed to him and Gamel, who Noubi thinks is his cousin. All Noubi has to do is find Gamel and avoid the clutches of his new aunt Raifa (a lesbian with a drug problem).

Yousra as Afifa dances with Noubi (Zaki Abdel Wahab) on the streets

From this point on the melodrama develops at a frenetic pace. It involves all of the following – drugs, politics, corruption, people smuggling, Cairo’s underground gay community (in ‘slum cinemas’), street battles between the police and the Muslim Brotherhood, the fall of communist leaders in Eastern Europe and the 1990 World Cup in which Egypt played both Algeria and England. Yousra also appears as a second character, Afifa, a supposedly much younger woman making a living as a belly dancer who falls for Noubi and who in one scene performs for a night club audience. The star is thus fully utilised in twin roles separated by 34 years, looking little different. In fact Noubi is able to pass her off as his mother at one point. Noubi is played by an older actor with dyed blonde hair but none of this really matters. Scenes are underlined by musical cues and for melodrama fans this is a real treat. I enjoyed the film immensely even if there were aspects of the plot that puzzled me or that just whizzed by too quickly. (The title refers to the status symbol of ‘successful’ Egyptian life.)

Commentary

I was intrigued to discover more about Yousra who is famous in Egypt for her TV drama appearances, including in that Egyptian institution the ‘Ramadan Soap’ or musalsalat. These serials, rather like Latin American telenovelas, include historical dramas and thrillers as well as romances. Up to 50 a year are produced in Egypt currently and they obvious draw away potential cinema audiences during Ramadan. Marcides was presumably a model for the way in which some of these shows have developed.  A great beauty and a popular music star, Yousra (b. 1955) has been seen as a modern star who accepted playing the mother role in narratives at a time when she could still be a romantic lead. Her celebrity status is such that she has become a much quoted figure in the Egyptian media.

Marcides was produced during one of the low points for Egyptian Cinema when popular films were often seen as too formulaic. In this film, Nasrallah is possibly satirising the formula by offering title cards to head each ‘chapter’ of the film. Usually these introduce a new character perspective but the last one announced ‘The happy ending’ – which turns out to be just a little ironic. I’m not sure how effective Nasrallah’s satire is but it is interesting that the story links the oppression of gays, the Muslim Brotherhood and football supporters in seemingly a general critique of those in power. The overall narrative offers the ‘downward descent’ of a rich young man from a Christian élite who finds that the life ‘underground’ is more acceptable. There are quite a few laughs in the film but these are undercut by some of the more disturbing images – such as coffins returning from Iraq with the bodies of Egyptian contract labourers.

Marcides received a couple of American reviews which clearly have problems trying to understand the film. It perhaps acts as a good example of films that don’t travel easily – in this case beyond the Arab world. It’s available on DVD from Arab Film Distributors, but only for institutional screenings at $200 per show.

Here’s a 2008 interview with Yousra on Al Jazeera (in English):

Posted in Arab Cinema, Melodrama | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 457 other followers

%d bloggers like this: