Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt
29 October - 4 November 2009

Nostalgia


Back from the third round of MEIFF, Hani Mustafa follows a string of
concern with the past in several of the Arab films screened there


Regional film events provide a rare opportunity to assess a large
number of films from a particular part of the world at a particular
point in time, and where possible register a single characteristic
running through a large number of them. At the Middle East
International Film Festival, which closed last Saturday, one idea
informing the Arab films on the programme was concern with time: its
passage, and the effect of its unfolding on people (or characters).
Several films concerned themselves with history, whether to review a
particular episode from the past or to engage with the beauty of times
past. Such over-the-board interest in time might drive the critic to a
rushed judgement to the effect that Arab cinema is digging up old
glories or indulging in nostalgia for its own sake. Yet a fair number
of the films on the MEIFF programme effectively eschewed such shallow
nostalgia, opting for a serious probing of the past to make contact
with their roots or to present an informed and profound view of the
present.

One such film, which dealt with history deeply and with technical
prowess, was The Time that Remains by the Palestinian filmmaker Elia
Suleiman, who managed to skilfully interweave the personal and the
political -- a formula he employed in his previous films, whether
features or shorts. Suleiman's cultural specificity -- his status as
an Arab Israeli -- gives his films a contradictory flavour, a kind of
dialectic present in all his works starting with his first short The
Gulf War... What Next? Screened at the Ismailia Documentary and Short
Film Festival in 1993, it presented a clear view of one Arab Israeli
in exile, and his contradictory feelings on hearing (false) news that
Saddam would be targeting Tel Aviv with Scud missiles. On the one
hand, as a dispossessed Arab, he is excited; on the other, he is
deeply concerned for his mother, who lives in Nazareth (a few
kilometres away from Tel Aviv).

The Palestinian cause is routinely depicted in a clichéd and direct
way by the vast majority of Palestinian directors and thereby makes
for weak films. Yet as Suleiman demonstrated in Divine Intervention
(which received the Grand Jury Award in Cannes 2002), it is possible
to deal with the Palestinian cause in a human and artistic way -- an
approach he also took in The Time that Remains, which featured in the
official competition of the Cannes Film Festival this year and
received the Best Middle East Film Award at MEIFF.

Yet participation in prestigious festivals, and even prizes, is less
important in a film than that film's structural innovation or ability
to present new cinematic values. Suleiman presents an extremely
sensitive political issue with powerful irony and the narrative skill
of Charlie Chaplin. The Time that Remains is especially characterised
by lack of dialogue, so much so that the last quarter of the film is
completely devoid of dialogue. The film opens with Suleiman himself
arriving in Israel from abroad. On his way to his city, Nazareth, rain
and lightning force the taxi driver to stop so that he ends up alone
with the director in the car, surrounded by bad weather.

And as if Suleiman is asking himself how he ended up in this
situation, in a flashback he moves back in time to 1948, when the Arab
armies were first defeated and Palestine occupied. Suleiman employs an
episodic technique, telling his tale through a series of sketches. In
one such episode, an armed man walks briskly with a serious expression
before a group of young men at a café with their weapons on the table.
They ask where he is going, and the armed man answers mechanically,
hand on gun, that he is on his way to liberate Tiberias. Nonchalantly
they tell him it has already been liberated, and surprised he asks
about another Palestinian village, and they point in the opposite
direction. He moves briskly with the same seriousness, and seconds
later they ask him where he is going, he tells them, and they say it
too has been liberated. A very powerful example of Suleiman's sarcasm,
this scene: the director continues to tell the story in this temporal
framework without there being any development on the dramatic front.
The rhythm of the film remains slow and plodding year after year.

First, Suleiman documents the signing of his city's surrender to the
Israeli army, then the escape of many of its people to Jordan. As for
the director's own father, who is part of the resistance and
manufactures weaponry, stops doing so after he is tortured. The film
depicts the state of depression into which the father then falls, with
his life reduced to sitting idly in the house or fishing with a
friend. Dramatic succession is not essential to The Time that Remains.
The importance of the film derives from the poetic state of mind it
induces through repetition and subtle cross referencing. Suleiman
however seems to have lost much of the humour with which Divine
Intervention was infused -- which made the film seem, to many of those
who have followed his work, a purely black comedy full of a sense of
defeat.

***

The element of time is equally important in Heliopolis by the young
filmmaker Ahmed Abdallah, named after the Cairo neighbourhood (also
known as Masr Al-Gedida) -- even though time in this film is almost
constantly at a standstill due to the static state in which the film's
ordinary heroes find themselves as they face -- or rather fail to face
-- their tedious lives. They have desires and ambitions, but there are
no major dramatic shifts in their lives. The screenplay progresses
along a number of intersecting rather than interwoven lines: a
distinctive style not so alien to Egyptian cinema. Many Egyptian films
in recent times have employed this technique -- Cabaret (2008) and
Al-Farah (The Wedding, 2009), for example, both written by
screenwriter Ahmed Abdallah, to be distinguished from the present
director.

The film, which takes place in the course of a single day, opens with
the young academic Ibrahim (Khaled Abul-Naga), who appears to be
extremely exhausted on the morning of a new day as he rushes to his
meeting with an elderly woman (Aida Abdel-Aziz) whom he is to
interview as one of a few members of Jewish families left in Egypt.
She lives in an old flat in one of Heliopolis's distinctive buildings.
This line of drama is unclear and raises a number of questions: What
is the object of Ibrahim's research? Is he exploring minorities in
Egypt (as he tells the lady) or the architecture of Heliopolis (as he
tells the officer who stops him while he shoots video in Korba)? Or is
it that he simply feels emotional about Heliopolis? The film does not
answer this question before it ends, but simply tells of Ibrahim's
tragedy when the girl he loves leaves him to marry another. The film
does not seek to explain Ibrahim's emotional state even though it ends
with an emotionally charged answering-machine message in his beloved's
voice (the voice over is by Hind Sabri) in which she apologises for
leaving him.

Another line in the film concerns a young woman (Hanan Mutawi') who
works at the Heliopolis Hotel while telling her family that she works
in Paris. In the third, a young couple are trying to find a flat in
which to live. The man they phone with a view to buying his flat, Dr
Hani (Hani Adel), makes up yet another dramatic line: his entire
family have immigrated to Canada and while he waits to obtain the visa
and harbours an implicit love for his neighbour (Yossra El-Lozi). In
addition to these juxtapositions, there is another altogether
different drama that feels as though it is a separate, short film
included in the script. It concerns a police guard whose service is in
the vicinity of a church who practises his usual rituals listening to
old songs, eating bread and cheese, smoking. His intense loneliness is
broken only by friendship with a small street dog whom he feeds and
plays with.

Remarkable in this film is the director's attempt to provide drama
that intentionally eschews development and concentrates on stillness.
Time alone moves forward, with the film ending as the day ends. Yet
structurally such films require much effort and effective story
telling. It also requires that the film should have aesthetic values
other than dramatic development as such: stand-alone situations or
powerful characterisation, for example, with their expression and
dialogue revealing their detail. Sadly Heliopolis has no such values.
More accurately, it does -- but only incompletely. It may indeed be
that the film was cut too harshly in the editing for the narrative to
remain whole. There is a huge difference between what might be missing
on purpose -- to let the viewer complete in her own head -- and what
is missing due to faulty craftsmanship. I feel that the director, who
is also the screenwriter, attempted a new experiment in film. He has
said that since the beginning he sought to write a script with very
little or no dialogue, drafting the dialogue together with the actors
before filming. As a result the film seems like the result of team
work, emerging from the actors themselves. Technically, some of the
footage Ibrahim collects of the streets of Heliopolis resembles
documentary film -- not a fault in itself. Yet this documentary drive
seems to have involved the director a little more than necessary, and
he was so involved in it that he seems to have succumbed to the
pleasure of chronicling to the point of neglecting narrative.

***

The problematic relation between time and place is central to
filmmaking in general and it becomes perhaps more intense in
documentaries -- as evidenced by the many possible responses to the
documentary Giran (Neighbours) by Tahani Rashed. At one level, the
problematic relation between place and time can be seen as a
historical, political conflict played out in the Cairo neighbourhood
of Garden City between the state of affairs prior to and after the
July Revolution. At the outset of the film the nationalist-inclined
viewer might feel that Rashed is critiquing Nasser and the Revolution
-- since Garden City was aesthetically destroyed under Nasser.
Likewise the interviews with the son of the Wafd Party official Fouad
Serageddin -- a symbol of pre-July politics -- as well as with Mursi
Saad El-Din and other members of the aristocracy: all suggest that
Rashed is critiquing the Revolution. By the end of the film, however,
the position on the Revolution has changed as the novelist-dentist
Alaa El-Aswani and the late Marxist philosopher Mahmoud Amin El-Alim
express support for it.

By the time the film ended Arab critics felt they had seen a film not
only about Garden City or politics but also a film about Egyptian
society as a whole. Some even felt the film had adequately registered
the humanity of Arab societies and how horribly time has managed to
crush that humanity on several grounds. The director employs a range
of instruments, moving through a series of smooth and enjoyable
scenes. The viewer encounters cats sleeping on top of cars in the
shaded avenues of Garden City, long shots of children playing football
there, and every aspect of life in that neighbourhood in a holistic
and effective mould. It presents the complex class formation that
makes up the neighbourhood, including the remains of expatriates who
made up the long- gone cosmopolitanism of Cairo. It also touches on
the presence in Garden City of, first, the British Embassy (which was
the political pivot of the Middle East until the middle of the 20th
century) and, later, the American Embassy (which has performed the
same function since) -- and the intense state of security associated
with it, a troubled connection with the political Other inducing much
fear and concern with the future.

While Abdallah offers in Heliopolis a static state, Rashed presents an
extremely fast-paced dynamism in depicting the deterioration of the
quality of life in Cairo's prestigious neighbourhoods. Yet in both
cases nostalgia was a driving force, with the one slow and exhausted,
the other brisk and strong.

***

Time is of course an essential element in cinematic structure, but few
films manage to approach history without being drawn into the
sanctimoniousness and rhetorical flourish with which history is
usually presented. This is something Ahmed Maher manages to achieve in
Al-Musafir (The Traveller), which opened MEIFF and in which the
director uses history as a completely empty grid on which to travel
back in a purely philosophical way to the genesis of the main
character: the anti- or rather a-hero, Hassan (Khaled El-Nabawi, Omar
Sharif), the earliest manifestation of which genesis takes place on an
autumn day in 1948. It is a year that has its own significance, which
the director nonetheless brushes aside. He is merely searching for the
formative elements of generations that result from the union of
Hassan, an Egyptian young man, and Nora, an Armenian young woman.

Yet Maher takes this idea to the extreme, not only avoiding historical
references but also sticking with the implied and the uncertain where
his characters' fate is concerned. Opening in 1948, the script does
not even mention the Nakba but attempts rather to document the
development of a particular family in Egyptian history, following the
same method in the autumn of 1973 and again in the autumn of 2001. But
in so doing it does not rest content with avoiding any reference to
the events in question -- the October War, 9/11 -- but also places the
viewer in a state of uncertainty regarding what happens to the
characters themselves. This seems to be yet another, uniquely
cinematic use of time. The Arab story, it seems, is still driven by
history -- but judging by the variety and power of the films on offer
in MEIFF, Arab directors are finally approaching history in new and
interesting ways, using it to tell their stories of all that is human
rather than letting it control and tell its stories through them.

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/970/cu3.htm