The first of two Egyptian films in my selection, In the Last Days of the City proved to be fascinating – perhaps not the easiest start to my festival viewing but certainly a film I’ve thought about a lot since. Produced, written and directed by Tamer El Said, it’s an independent film that has taken several years to make and now emerges as an almost documentary record of a particular district of Cairo before the Arab Spring of 2011. In the Q&A after the screening, the director and his lead actor Khalid Abdalla referred to a film that was “made with foresight” and “edited in hindsight” – preparations began in 2009 with shooting spread over 30 months and a long period of editing.
Khalid (the actor uses his own name) is a thirty-something filmmaker in Cairo attempting to complete a film. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what kind of film it is intended to be, but it includes footage of people he knows and it is inspired by material sent to him by filmmaker friends who are in Baghdad, Berlin and Beirut. At one point he meets these friends in Cairo. At other times he finds himself looking around the city and coming across isolated incidents – police beating demonstrators, a man assaulting a woman. At these moments we feel a sense of unease at Khalid’s seeming voyeurism.
The film draws on the repertoire of films about filmmaking. Khalid has several problems. He falls out with the editor who is trying to complete post production in his flat. Khalid is also being forced out of the flat and must pack his books and household goods and search for a new place to live, not helped by a ‘useless’ estate agent. One of his subjects for his film is his ex-girlfriend who seems increasingly reluctant to help him out. Khalid’s mother is in hospital and he tries to see her on a regular basis.
The filmmaking process for Tamer El Said began with the intent to create a fiction and then slid into reality. The director used his own flat as one of the film’s locations and did then find himself forced to move. The scenes on the street did pick up the tension in Cairo before 2011. The status of the film now before us is uncertain, fiction bleeds into reality and vice versa. What is most striking are the formal properties of the filmic image. So, with an image on the computer screen, the camera zooms in and we are taken into the ‘fictional world’ on screen – but this is revealed to be the ‘real world’ of Khalid’s friends. The same can happen in reverse of course. ‘What is real?’ is an age-old question in cinema. Here though it takes on a new urgency as major changes are taking place in Egyptian society. Two observations are important. First, we are seeing only a small part of the city from a middle-class perspective (i.e. not necessarily wealthy but educated/artistic/cultured) and secondly the beautifully composed images by Bassem Fayad seem to convey the sadness of a city approaching turmoil implied by the title. This is certainly a festival film that will be a difficult sell for cinema distribution. It’s important though that this kind of Egyptian independent film gets seen internationally and broadens the perspective offered by different forms of Egyptian popular cinema.
This was an entertaining way to finish my visit to LFF 2015. That is if some perfunctory murders can be counted as entertainment. But in the context of the rest of the film perhaps they can. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya is a locally-trained Lebanese filmmaker who seems to have taken inspiration from a story about the Lebanese film industry in the 1950s. ‘Very Big Shot’ refers, I think, to the lead character Ziad (Alain Saadeh) a local Beirut criminal whose career up to now has involved a small scale drugs business run out of a pizzeria alongside acting as courier for a bigger operation. Ziad has plans to set up his own restaurant with his second brother Jad. Youngest brother Joe (the pizza chef) is against this idea if it means selling the family house. Here’s a family social issue that might be the background to a typical crime film – especially since we know that Zaid and Jad have already attempted to involve Joe in their criminal activities.
The film takes off in another direction when Ziad needs to ship a large consignment of drugs abroad. Visiting a customer who isn’t paying his drugs tab, a nerdy aspiring filmmaker, Ziad watches a documentary featuring an interview with veteran Lebanese film director Georges Nasr (the director’s film school mentor) in which he refers to an Italian film production in Lebanon that included drugs smuggled out in sealed cans of undeveloped film stock. To do this involves a customs certificate awarded to genuine film producers. Ziad decides to be come a real film producer and sets up a shoot for the hapless wannabe director. The filming process pushes the film into a comedy of ineptitude and then into a satire on media and celebrity. Ziad moves quickly to become director as well as producer and when his ideas create incidents on the street he is interviewed on local television, finally emerging as an astute political operator.
The central plot idea is, I now realise, similar to Argo (US 2012), bit this never occurred to me as I watched the film, perhaps because I found it funnier and more interesting than Argo. Or perhaps it was just more ‘exotic’ as a Lebanese film using popular genre elements? There are some gentle digs about the state of the Lebanese film industry as well as some sharp social commentary and the film ends in an open manner which hints at a satire about politics and the media in the context of organised criminal activities. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya was present for a Q & A and his film was warmly received at the Vue West End. This revealed that both the director and his co-writer and lead Alain Saadeh come from families with several brothers so they felt comfortable creating the relationships in the film. The director’s brothers were the producers of the film. The very impressive Saadeh trained as a method actor and the director encouraged this by suggesting that the actors’ interpretations would lead the filming process. The final question asked whether the film had a chance of being shown in other ‘Arab speaking’ (sic) countries and the answer got a round of laughter when the director suggested that it would depend on whether governments would accept the film’s open ending (i.e. the criminal who becomes a politician). Several reviewers have suggested that local audiences would actually get a lot more from the film but I think it could also work well in international distribution.
I’ve recently posted two reviews on The Global Film Book Blog of films that are officially on release in the UK but which are very difficult to find. Theeb (Jordan/Qatar/UAE/UK 2014) is one of my films of the year but on 30th August, after three weeks on release, it had taken only £35,000 and was playing on just 5 screens.
The Forgotten Kingdom (Lesotho/South Africa/US 2013) opened on just one screen on 21st August, taking a respectable £2,137. Those are the BFI’s figures. The film’s own website suggests a couple more venues, but even so this film, which I found enjoyable and worthwhile and informative about a country I knew very little about, is unlikely to play more than a few dates a week over the next few months.
I don’t blame the distributors, New Wave and Munro Film, but rather the exhibitors and the lack of ambition to bring films like these to audiences. I can’t blame audiences if the films are not there to watch. Here in the North of England we are lucky that a handful of independent cinemas such as HOME in Manchester, Showroom in Sheffield, the Hyde Park in Leeds and Hebden Bridge Picturehouse are willing to screen titles like these. I’m also pleased to see The Station in Richmond, North Yorkshire on the list for The Forgotten Kingdom. But it’s depressing to see that there are more dates for Ireland (North and South) than there are for England and Scotland.
Please have a look at the reviews and see if they sound interesting to you. Then look out and see if they are showing near you (why not ask your local cinema why they aren’t on offer?). No doubt they will appear on DVD soon. I hope to see them booked in for community cinema showings in West Yorkshire in the Autumn.
Undoubtedly one of the most important global films of the last twelve months, Wadjda is highly entertaining and very well-made but also raises a number of questions for film culture and film studies.
Viewed simply as a ‘festival film’ that has ‘broken out’ into wider distribution, Wadjda comes across as a familiar feelgood narrative utilising a neo-realist approach – i.e. taking a simple narrative premise familiar to audiences the world over and locating it in a recognisable ‘real world’ setting. The writer-director is also canny enough to pick up on the success of other recent films in terms of specific story elements. Wadjda is a ten (or possibly twelve) year-old girl who decides that the only way to compete with her neighbour Abdullah is to get hold of a bicycle and race him. Spotting a new bicycle being delivered to a local store in her neighbourhood in the Saudi capital Riyadh she quickly determines that she must somehow acquire the 800 ryals (about £140 or $215) to buy it. Although her family is relatively wealthy, problems between her parents means that they are unlikely to produce the money for her, so she ends up entering a ‘religious competition’ at school in the hope of winning the prize which would be just enough for the purchase. Even though she has no obvious interest in her religion she applies herself to learning to read and recite sura (chapters) of the Koran.
Any story about young people and bicycles has already got a headstart on the opposition. The bicycle offers that sense of freedom for a young person without the means to ride taxis (Riyadh being seemingly without public transport). There are few scenes in cinema as liberating as those featuring boys and girls on bicycles, whether they are Truffaut’s Les Mistons, the messenger in Beijing Bicycle or the Dardennes Brothers’ Kid With a Bike. Wadjda has the two essential ingredients to exploit the the story potential – a winning performance by Waad Mohammed as the girl and a talented creative team with a skilled crew to fully utilise the location and settings. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour then fills out the story with two main sub-plots that arguably act metaphorically to reveal the social conditions and opportunities that face Wadjda (and all other Saudi girls) in the future.
The first of the two sub-plots involves Wadjda’s mother Reema who was married as a schoolgirl but whose husband is now looking for a second wife because Reema is unable to provide him with a son. At the same time, Reema faces problems as a working woman (in a society where women are not supposed to drive cars or be ‘exposed’ to men outside the home). The second sub-plot involves Ms Hussa, the principal of the school, an attractive younger woman (just like Reema) who appears to be a hard disciplinarian with a softer interior and who at one point tells Wadjda that she reminds her of her younger self.
The combination of the three narratives is reminiscent of another film featuring a young woman and a bicycle – Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (Iran 2000). The school/home axis also refers to the first half of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France/US 2006). These are both films featuring girls and women growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran is not an Arab country but girls and women in Saudi Arabia face similar problems created by the restrictions of a highly conservative form of Islam. Herein lies the problem for Western film critics and scholars who have little exposure to the range of Arab film production. Popular Arab films from Egypt are not easily accessible. The films that do reach the West from Lebanon and Palestine often have different concerns with the effects of war and occupation often displacing the kinds of cultural issues central to Wadjda. Missing also is production coming from the affluent Gulf States where film culture in terms of consumption of mainly American movies in new multiplexes is growing quickly.
The result is that a film like Wadjda is singled out and praised as the first Saudi feature film – and a notable film by an Arab woman. The film narrative is then examined primarily in terms of its resistance to the representation of women in Saudi Arabian society. My feeling is that this in fact misrepresents the film itself and the filmmaker – who carries ‘the burden of representation’, being expected to fulfil the role assigned to her by Western media. Wadjda is properly described as a global film. Ironically, its Saudi base is the media company Rotana, arguably the biggest media corporation in the Middle East, which is majority owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal with an 18% stake held by News Corporation. Rotana is the biggest music company in the region and also produces television series for the Arab world. Reem Abdullah who plays the mother is a leading star of Saudi television. The film is officially a Saudi-German co-production. The department heads and the producers are from the German industry. Haifaa Al Mansour herself was born in Saudi Arabia but educated at the American University in Cairo and then completed a Masters in Film at the University of Sydney. She now lives in Bahrain. This background is important in placing the film’s production in context. It does mean that there is a contradiction between the image of the ‘guerilla filmmaker’ who had to hide from view as she directed scenes on the streets of Riyadh (so as not to offend religious sensibilities) and a production backed by one of the most powerful media interests in the region.
Much of the coverage of the film’s appearance at festivals and now on release in the West focuses on the idea that this is the first film to be shot in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it was directed by a woman is then taken to be even more astounding. My point here is not intended as an attempt to downgrade the achievement of the director, but instead to expose the rather simplistic view of film and TV in the region as taken by many in the West. I’m not sure if the film is genuinely a ‘first’. I’ve seen claims that as many as 300 films have been identified in some way with Saudi Arabia and in his useful Guardian piece, Phil Hoad cites two recent examples. Since the 1980s cinemas have been banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but they existed for a shortish period before the 1980s and cinema is accessible via satellite and DVD in homes – or over the border in the Emirates or Qatar. In 2009 Rotana did manage to screen one of their films in several Saudi cities. Does it really matter where the film is shot, who financed it or whether it is a co-production? The important point, as Hoad insists, is for Arab filmmakers generally and Saudis in particular, to create stories about themselves and to circulate them so that they can contribute to the creation of identities for Arabs and by Arabs – rather than through a lens controlled by Hollywood studios or constructed by Western critics.
Haifaa Al Mansour has created an entertaining and engaging story which contributes towards the ongoing debate about how women can gain more control over their lives under a regime informed by conservative religious interests. In this sense, the film is similar to those family melodramas that have delved into the changing mores of societies in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas. Here’s the director in the Press Notes commenting on the gender representations:
“Maybe it is a women‘s film! But I really didn‘t intend it that way. I wanted to make a film about things I know and experienced. A story that spoke to my experiences, but also to average Saudis. It was important for me that the male characters in the film were not portrayed just as simple stereotypes or villains. Both the men and the women in the film are in the same boat, both pressured by the system to act and behave in certain ways, and then forced to deal with the system’s consequences for whatever action they take. I do really like the scenes of the mother and the daughter together, and I think that a lot of love and emotion comes through in their relationship, when they are cooking or singing together, there is something very beautiful about it.”
This is certainly how I read the film. The performances are very good and the narrative is very accessible. I hope it gets the wider audiences it deserves. In the UK it is still showing in some cinemas and will appear on DVD in January 2014. Here’s an extract on the Doha Film Institute site:
And here are some useful links:
http://www.allreadable.com/baf0D5vj (extended English subtitles with song lyrics)
http://www.readwithtajweed.com/tajweed_Intro.htm (explanation of some of the Arabic dialogue referring to the recitation of the Koran)
http://salwanajd.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/traditional-food-from-najd-region/ (recipe for ‘Margoog’, the popular local dish eaten in the film)