Category: Arab Cinema

Sand Storm (Sufat Chol Israel-Germany-France, 2016)

Trapped

There’s a problem for a westerner watching unrestrained patriarchy in action in other cultures; in the instance of this film, Bedouin. For the feminists amongst us it will stimulate ire at the ridiculous and repressive behaviour of men. The problem is that leads us to judge other cultures and whilst judging is fine the question whether the judgement is based on full evidence. It’s too easy to assume ‘west is best’, though as that falsity becomes clearer by the year, it is a barrier that gets easier to overcome.

That said, I do trust the writer-director of Sand Storm, Elite Zexer, as she obviously went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of her portrayal of Bedouin society. She even made a short film on the ‘topic’ and showed it to Bedouins first. I also like the fact that this portrayal of Arab life was Israel’s official entry to the Oscars in 2017 by virtue of the fact that it won the best film at the Ophirs. The linked article is worth reading for a description of the ‘culture war’ the film stimulated at the award ceremony.

Sand Storm, aside from its milieux, is a fairly standard melodrama of a vital young woman being forced into a marriage. Layla (Lamis Amar, an Israeli because Zexer had trouble sourcing Bedouin actors) appears to be the ‘apple of her dad’s’ eye and it is a shock to her when he claims he has no choice but to follow tradition. Layla’s mother (Ruba Blal), also a victim of patriarchy as her husband is taking a second wife at the film’s start, is first shown to support the tradition as she takes her frustration out on Layla. It is one of the strengths of the film that the mother’s transition to resistance is gradual; there’s no epiphany that leads to a dramatic stand. Indeed the film is not only realist in its handheld camera and location shooting as it, in its conclusion, makes clear that though change has to come, it will not come quickly. Layla’s younger sister, Tasnim, watches events carefully and has enough about her for us to hope that she will not be trapped like her mother and elder sister. Hitham Omari, as the dad, brilliantly plays a weak man acting as if he is strong: like the women in the film, he’s trapped in his role.

The film did well at the Berlin Film Festival and at Sundance and is now available on Netflix in the UK.

Capernaum (Capharnaüm, Lebanon-France-US 2018)

2018 saw the release of six films of the highest quality which took many of the top prizes around the world at festivals and national awards. Cold War was followed into UK distribution by Shoplifters and then Roma. Burning appeared in early 2019 and now we have Capernaum. Happy as Lazzaro appears next month. What a year 2018 was! And there are others to come which I haven’t seen yet. We might struggle to find such quality across this year’s output.

Capernaum (the title translates as ‘chaos) is one of the most controversial of the six films. While many audiences and critics have raved about the film, there are some who have accused Lebanese writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki and her musician-producer partner Khaled Mouzanar of various kinds of offences. The most widely expressed of these centres on the concept of ‘poverty porn’, something previously visited upon Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US-India 2009). I struggle to understand exactly what ‘poverty porn’ might be but first here’s a brief outline of Capernaum and its production.

The power of the film lies in the extraordinary performance by Zain Al Rafeea

Lebanon is a country which has suffered more than most because of its own internal divisions, partly derived from its colonial past, and its proximity to the wholescale disruption of people’s lives in Palestine and Syria and the subsequent migrations of refugees to Lebanon. At the same time, Beirut has maintained its position as a major economic and cultural centre for the entire region. Nadine Labaki has attempted to bring together several social issues as the basis for her story about Zain, a 12 year-old Lebanese boy who leaves his family and for a brief period lives with a migrant worker and her infant child. The story engages with the ‘street culture’ of Beirut, the refugee camps, the difficulty of achieving resident status and the ways in which so many people can easily become ‘invisible’ because of their lack of official recognition. Thus the ‘chaos’ of life in Beirut. Labaki’s strategy is to create a narrative which at one level appears to explore this world using the techniques of neo-realism, but also with some of the more expressionist devices of contemporary cinema such as the drone shots which show the extent of of cheap housing and shacks. The narrative structure uses a series of flashbacks from a central court case in which the young boy sues his parents for bringing him into this world of chaos.

Yordanos Shiferaw as Rahil

Nadine Labaki’s previous films as director are Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011). The first is a form of realist melodrama centring on the lives of women from different backgrounds who meet at a local beauty shop. The second is an unusual form of musical comedy which explores questions about civil war via the idea of women in an isolated village attempting to defuse hostilities by manipulating the sexual desires of the men. Capernaum is in some way an amalgam of the styles of the first two films, bringing together a realist style with the narrative device of a courtroom in which the trial becomes an indictment of a whole structure of government policies in Beirut. This is something used in a slightly different way in a film like Bamako (Mali-France 2006). Nadine Labaki also starred in her first two films as a director (she also works as an actor in both French and Lebanese cinema) but in Capernaum she plays the role of the Zain’s counsel in court, an important, but secondary role. Although the trial seems an unlikely event, Labaki consulted retired judges to ensure that the scenes have some credibility. Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals, often with ‘real-life’ experience of the kinds of roles they play.

Only a vocal minority of commentators are against this film which scores a very high 8.4 on IMDb. But it is worth looking at the negative reviews to try to understand the issues a little more clearly. The Slumdog Millionaire comparison is interesting because some of the critics refer to Capernaum as ‘Oscar bait’ and accuse it of ‘manipulation’. (The film was distributed in the US by Sony Classics in the US, giving it a higher profile than Labaki’s earlier films.) At the same time there are charges from some critics that the film is ‘without cinematic merit’ while for others its use of hand-held camera and drone shots (and its flashback structure) are cinematic devices which ‘get in the way’ of presenting the real conditions faced by the thousands living in cheap housing or on the streets in Beirut. The charge is that Labaki is a relatively wealthy woman exploiting her non-professional actors in order to make American audiences cry – and presumably to make themselves feel better. One commentator calls Labaki a ‘Western woman’. But not everybody who is educated, talented and speaks French and/or English is ‘Western’. It seems that Nadine Labaki had to help some of her non-professional actors in ‘real life’ because of their precarious positions. ‘Zain’ is played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and ‘Rahil’, the woman he meets and befriends is played by Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia who became an illegal migrant worker in Lebanon. Both Zain and Yordanos were helped in different ways. The parents of the little girl who plays Rahil’s son were also arrested during the shoot and the crew had to intervene. Even so the mother and child were deported back to Kenya and the father to Nigeria. This information is taken from the film’s Press Pack.

Zain’s lawyer in the court case is played by Nadine Labaki herself

But what about ‘poverty porn’? Describing something as ‘porn’ suggests that it is produced in order to ‘arouse’ audiences/readers, to stimulate an excessive interest in something. In the case of ‘gastro-porn’ or ‘gardening porn’ it’s used as a criticism of middle class readers who revel in the expensive beauty of these objects of consumption. But how does this work with images of poverty? Their status as pornographic images can derive only from the perceived exploitation of the actors or the behaviour of those who watch/read the imagery. However, unlike haute cuisine or beautiful gardens, images of poverty are also concerned with exposing and circulating ways of living/surviving that are often excluded from cinema screens. There is always a case for showing not excluding. The argument must be about how they are shown, but also about the need to show them in such a way to attract audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues.

If I think about my own reaction to the film, I don’t think I was ‘shocked’ or that I felt ‘manipulated’ by the film. Many scenes are certainly difficult to watch and I was emotionally engaged but I’ve seen similar films before. Once or twice I was struck by similarities with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and, more oddly, I thought about Battle of Algiers (Algeria-France 1966) – I think it was the prison scenes. I was very impressed by the performances of the non-professionals. Zain in particular is a very distinctive young boy, small for his age but seemingly fearless. The fact that he is a very attractive and appealing child has perhaps fuelled some of the negative reviews. The German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun is still in the early stages of his career but I thought his work was very effective. The music by Khaled Mouzanar worked for me and he and Nadine Labaki have produced a film with a universal story that is stunningly presented in the context of Beirut.

I don’t know Nadine Labaki personally and I can’t judge whether she has exploited her non-professional cast. All I can do is watch the film and read what she has said about its production. Her most vocal critics might have some local knowledge about life in Beirut but from my perspective this is a powerful film that deserves its large audience. The claims that it has no ‘cinematic merit’ just seem silly. In the wider context I hope that Capernaum makes audiences more aware of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and exerts pressure for changes in international policies affecting the region. It would be good if attention switched to a little further down the coast and focused on the major causes of the refugee crises in Lebanon over the past 70 years – the forced flight of Palestinians from their homelands and the proxy war that has just been fought in Syria. I’m also looking forward to whatever Nadine Labaki produces next.

Here’s the Canadian trailer:

The Nile Hilton Incident (Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2017)

Noredin (Fares Fares) interviews the singer (Hania Amar)

The Nile Hilton Incident is an intriguing film, not only in its presentation of an exciting crime thriller in a precise location, but also as a film production which invokes a specific kind of response. In its own way it’s the perfect case study for ideas about global film.

This  film is a product of a familiar Nordic co-production set-up. It’s a Swedish-Danish production with German co-production money. The writer-director Tarik Saleh is Swedish and so is his leading man Fares Fares (who was actually born in Beirut). The female lead Mari Malek is a Sudanese refugee who spent four years in Egypt before gaining asylum status in the US and building a successful career as a DJ, model and actor. The film is photographed by Pierre Aïm, whose early success shooting La haine in 1995 marked him out as a filmmaker to watch. Much of the cast is Egyptian but also features North African actors and others from Arabic-speaking diasporas in Europe. The film’s dialogue is almost completely in Arabic and the original intention was to shoot the street scenes in Egypt. But, presumably because of the plot’s dénoument in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 and the portrayal of State Security forces, permission was denied by the Egyptian authorities. The production was forced to transfer to Morocco with interiors shot in studios in Sweden and Germany. With all these ingredients the film might have struggled to achieve any form of coherence, let alone represent the crowded streets of Cairo. But based on my experience of watching Egyptian films and walking the streets of cities elsewhere with a similar feel, it all worked for me.

Salwa (Mari Malek), the Sudanese maid is a witness

The trick in a film like this is to manage to combine a story with universal elements and enough aspects of local culture to be convincing. One of the few ‘popular’ Egyptian films to get a UK release in recent years is Clash (Egypt-France-Germany 2016) and The Nile Hilton Incident doesn’t look out of place in such company. Police officers appear in both films but otherwise the genre frameworks are a little different. Noredin (Fares Fares) is a middle-aged police officer with a degree of seniority in a police district close to Tahrir Square in Cairo. He is shown doing  his rounds by car with a younger sidekick Momo. He accepts bribes from street traders and eventually we realise that the district is the fiefdom of Noredin’s boss (and uncle) Kammal. When Noredin is called to a murder scene he discovers the body of a glamorous nightclub singer in a Hilton hotel bedroom. The police already there don’t seem too concerned but Noredin believes the murder is the work of a professional killer.

The film’s narrative becomes familiar as soon as Noredin spots a clue and begins to pursue it. It will lead him eventually to another singer and to a seemingly respectable politician. He will also recognise that the hotel maid is a crucial witness. Noredin himself is a sad figure and he operates as a kind of modern Chandleresque investigator. He’s no white knight and his sense of honour is compromised by his acceptance of baksheesh, but he’s still our hero and we want him to come out on top even though he makes plenty of mistakes. Noredin could also be a Jo Nesbø character or any one of the police investigators across the world who try to deal with celebrities and politicians and find that their bosses don’t always support them. The maid is Salwa, a Sudanese worker whose status could be easily undermined. This character and her narrative importance again situates the film in line with Nordic noirs – the asylum seekers who shouldn’t be working (as maids or trafficked as prostitutes) and who won’t usually co-operate with police because of fear of deportation. In this sense Cairo is a city with an élite who need an ‘invisible army’ of illegals to keep them in comfort – as in most major Western cities.

Trouble in the streets.

In the final section the narrative becomes more specifically ‘Egyptian’ when it involves demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The trouble erupts on Egypt’s National ‘Police Day’, the starting point for the Egyptian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. The other scene that intrigued me is when Noredin visits his contact, the Lebanese singer, in a nightclub. While this is another familiar element in a US/UK/French etc. film noir, it is also an element in Egyptian films in which any excuse for a song or dance performance is usually taken, especially that of a Lebanese singer who is a beautiful woman. I’m sure Tarik Saleh wants his film to be shown in Egypt. Given the shooting ban this seems unlikely, but perhaps audiences will still find it via streaming services, satellites etc. I have no idea how the film would fare in Egypt – would the mix of Arabic dialects be a problem? Outside Egypt any audience with a love of film noir should enjoy the film immensely.

Here’s the UK trailer:

Cairo Station (Bab el hadid, Egypt 1958)

Youssef Chahine as Qinawi, the news vendor

Cairo Station was the 11th film directed by Youssef Chahine. He was still only 32 and he also played the central character in the film. Although he was established and had already shown films at Cannes, it was this film that announced him as a major director in global cinema. He managed to cram a great deal into 77 minutes and to make a film both thoroughly Egyptian but also remarkably contemporary in an international setting.

The film’s plot involves a recognisable romantic triangle but its presentation of characters and location, already dramatic, is further enhanced by Chahine’s performance as Qinawi the lame man with a dangerous obsession. I showed the film recently as part of an event on Egyptian Cinema and one colleague remarked that the rapid dialogue was reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. Someone else noted the neo-realist aspects and other suggestions linked the film to work by Fellini and Sergio Leone and to film noir melodramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s from the US or UK (the latter invoked particularly by the railway scenes).

The ‘love triangle’ with Abu Ser (Farid Chawki) asserting his status over Qinawi in respect of Hanouma (Hind Rostom)

As the title suggests, the setting is Egypt’s main railway station built in the late 19th century on the site of the first station in Africa dating from 1856. Over the opening images of the station some narration gives us an impression of the large numbers of trains arriving and departing the station. The narrator turns out to be the operator of the newspaper stand on the station who has taken pity on Qinawi, offering him a job as a news vendor and finding him a shack by the railway tracks in which to live. Qinawi’s background remains a mystery, although like most Cairenes he has a village to go back to. We soon learn that he is obsessed with images of attractive women which he cuts from pin-up magazines and pastes on the walls of his shack. He has further become obsessed with Hamouna (Hind Rostom), one of a number of women who (illegally) carry buckets with bottles of soft drinks down the tracks, selling them to thirsty passengers (angering the official supplier on the station concourse). But Hamouna is expected to marry Abu Seri (Farid Chawki) the would-be leader of the railway porters who is attempting to form a trade union. Added to this by scriptwriters Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hai Adib (both seemingly writing their first feature) is a third narrative strand about a young couple. A young woman (only a teenager?) waits around the station for her lover – who can’t acknowledge her in public because he knows his parents won’t approve of their liaison.

The drinks sellers swarm over the trains to reach passengers. Here Hind Rostom adopts an audacious pose – claiming ownership over a carriage?

I got the feeling that the film starts like a neo-realist melodrama – something like a de Sica film – but as director Chahine gets into his stride, we tend to lose a little of the sense of the ‘everyday’ in a busy railway station and the narrative slides into film noir thriller territory. Chahine was that interesting combination of an Egyptian committed to the socialism of Nasser, but also an international film artist. In Cairo Station, the political issue does get sidelined but in Chahine’s later films different ‘national’ political stories are prominent. In this film Chahine worked with two of the biggest stars of Egypt’s ‘Golden Age’ of studio production. Hind Rostom was sometimes called the ‘Marilyn Monroe of the East’ and Farid Chawki was dubbed the ‘John Wayne’ or ‘Anthony Quinn’ of Egyptian cinema (he certainly has the physical presence). Both are very good in their roles, but, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that the popular audience in Egypt at the time didn’t respond to seeing their heroes playing ‘harder’ roles than they might do in popular comedies, melodramas or action films.

The strengths of this film are partly in the photography and editing and the action by the railway tracks with the dangers associated with so many moving trains. The action in the narrative is compressed into a single day and in the last section, as night falls, the noirish elements begin to dominate, not just with the dark shadows and single light sources, but also the mise en scène of windows, doorways and other ways of disturbing the balance of the compositions. Without spoiling the narrative too much, the closing scenes offer a chase across the tracks. The photography is by ‘Alvise’ (Alevise) Orfanelli a film veteran who also wrote and directed films. His start was in 1919 and Cairo Station was his penultimate film. He died aged 59 in 1961. Orfanelli was part of the Italian community in Alexandria and was an important mentor and guide for Chahine in the late 1940s/early 1950s (see the excellent website of the Alexandria Cinema website http://www.bibalex.org/AlexCinema/cinematographers/Alvise_Orfanelli.html). The film’s music by Fouad El-Zahry is equally effective and carries motifs that remind me of American studio pictures – another trait associated with Chahine’s later films.

The unnamed young woman in the film’s closing shot

There are several interesting social observations in the film. After our screening we noted that only one woman in the whole film wore a headscarf (and this became a short comedy sequence when her husband tried to stop someone looking at her). Two rather supercilious men are identified as religious observers tut-tutting young people in Western clothes, but otherwise Cairo appears to be a secular city, at least on the surface. How different to modern filmic representations. The sub-plot of the two young lovers is particularly interesting. The young woman is a passive character whose life involves a great deal of waiting. At one point she asks Qinawi for a telephone token and on receiving it she says “Merci” rather than “Shukran”. She may be a character representing Chahine’s own biography. He grew up in a tri-lingual household speaking French (like many Alexandrines) and married a French-Egyptian woman. Some of his later films became much more auto-biographical.

Realist (and potentially dangerous shots) on a working railway

The general critical response to Cairo Station saw the film as presenting the marginalisation of Cairo’s poorer characters and how this sense of exclusion in this case pushed Qinawi into sexual violence and a tragic ending. What is just as important is the social realism and humanism of the film in which characters are equally likely to help each other as well as to display prejudice towards one another (so Qinawi is mocked because his limp makes him less likely to marry the girl of his dreams.

I enjoyed Cairo Station very much and I was very impressed by Chahine’s handling of his actors and the choreography of action in the film. The film is thrilling and visually inventive and as others have noted, there is plenty of evidence that Chahine had learned from other directors, but also that he probably influenced many others. And the film felt so contemporary for 1958. When the hip young people of Cairo board the train and an impromptu session from ‘Mike and the Skyrockets’ starts, as my colleague suggested, it was almost like Expresso Bongo (UK 1959).