With ability to tackle sensitive issues head on through a bold and provocative approach, Arab cinema has come of age, helping movies from the region enter some of the most important festivals the world over – By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Incredible as it may sound, Arab cinema has taken off to dizzying heights in the past five years or so. And one of the singularly most important reason for this is the cinema’s ability to stay focussed. In about 90 to 110 minutes, an Arab movie grips us with its story, which, I dare say, can be bold and provocative, raising sensitive issues and getting into them head on – which Indian films have not been allowed to do, either by the administration or political groups.
It is this approach of Arab cinema that has helped it to enter some of the most important festivals the world over. While India has not had a title in either Cannes or Venice Competition for many years, Arab works have scored here. Last year, two movies from the Middle East – Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum and first-timer Abu Bakr Shawky’s Yomeddine – ran for one of the most prestigious awards in the world of cinema, the Palm d’Or at the Canes Film Festival. And as Arab cinema programmer Intishal Al Timimi, who heads Egypt’s two-edition-old El Gouna Film Festival, points out,”2018 turned out to be a great year for the region’s cinema, and in recent years 70% of the winning works by Arab directors at international movie festivals are first or second features, which bodes well for the future of Arab cinema.”
Indeed so. Capernaum won the Jury Prize at Cannes 2018, and is now one of the five competing for the Foreign Language Oscar. Probably, it will walk away with the trophy. For, the other important contender, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, in this section is also listed under the Best Picture category in the general list, and it has an excellent chance of winning. This leaves Capernaum as a clincher, the other three including Poland’s Cold War, are not in the same league as Labaki’s creation.
The other 2018 Cannes Competition entry, Yomeddine, is a brutal, unflinching look at the life of a leper, an actual leper, who soon after the death of his wife gets on to his donkey cart and goes in search of his long estranged family in Egypt’s Luxor. The trip from Cairo, where he had been living, to Luxor is extremely eventful with some sad and some happy incidents. What is most significant, the helmer does not make his work a celebration of disfigurement, and underlines the cruelty of a society towards lepers. We saw this long, long ago in the 1960s Ben-Hur, where people afflicted with this disease were shut away in a cave!
Societal unfeeling attitude is also brought out most starkly in the Tunisian drama, Beauty and the Dogs, by Kaouther Ben Hania (who earlier gave us Imams Go To School and Zaineb Hates The Snow). Hania’s latest adventure is based on a real-life incident in 2012, and looks at a young woman, who is raped when she gets out of a party at night. Her nightmare continues when she walks into a police station to file a complaint, but she meets a wall. For, the perpetrators of the crime are the cops themselves, the guardians of the community. The film is fearless in the way it attacks and exposes not only the men in uniform, but also hospital staff and doctors – all of whom turn monstrously unsympathetic to the woman’s horrific plight.
(Compare this with India, where we refused to let Indo-Canadian moviemaker, Richie Mehta, to shoot Delhi Crime Story on the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape in Delhi. I do not know how Mehta managed to put the movie together, but it is now premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.)
Community’s indifference – even rank neglect towards – those men and women who are down is also magnified in Tunisian writer-director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s latest outing, Fatwa, which won the Best Movie award at the Carthage Film Festival and also the Saad Eldin Wahba Prize for Best Arab Movie at the Cairo International Film Festival.
Fatwaexplores extremism in Tunisia, and how it hits the families of those involved. The work is a deeply disturbing look at the radicalization of Tunisian youth and sheds light on a system that offers little in the way of reformation — even for former extremists who have had a change of heart, but are thrown into jail with little hope for the future.
Conflict has been a favourite theme of Middle-Eastern writers and directors, and they have talked it most animatedly in their cinema, and how it destroys hope (like we see in Fatwa) and peace – as in Syrian moviemaker Soudade Kaadan’s feature debut, The Day I Lost My Shadow, screened at El Gouna last year. It narrates the horrors of the internecine strife in her country, filtered through a simple story of a mother’s desire to give her son a hot meal. Partly folklore and partly magic realism, based on the idea that those who lose their shadows lose their souls, the director weaves a distressing account of disruption and disappointment.
Guiding us through some of the most tension-ridden situations imaginable, as the mother walks through forests, dodges sniper fire and hides from trigger-happy rebels fighting government forces, Kadan conveys most profoundly how such bloody wars can rob people of their souls, if not their lives. Venice artistic chief Alberto Barbera called the movie “an impressive depiction of one of the most tragic realities of the past decades.”
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author of a biography on Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and a leading cinema writer who has covered Cannes, Venice, Tokyo, Cairo and other movie festivals for years – tracing their journeys through fascinating films. He may be e-mailed at email@example.com, and he tweets at @gautamanb
The Main Competition of the 71st Cannes Film Festival holds tremendous promise. Expect a wide spectrum of cinematic riches
By Saibal Chatterjee
Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film, Le livre d’image (The Image of Book), is his eighth entry in the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition. The 87-year-old French director who began making films when many of the 20 other filmmakers in contention this year were not even born.
Godard hasn’t ever won the Palme d’Or. He made his first film in 1960, broke into the festival only in 1980 with Every Man for Himself and had to wait until 2013 to bag a Cannes award – the Jury Prize for Goodbye to Language, which he shared with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Will the tide turn this year? Not much is known about The Image Book, so any guesswork would be completely misplaced.
Not only is the maverick French New Wave pioneer in the Competition, a strikingly vivid image from a film that he made 53 years ago (Pierrot Le Fou, 1965) – it shows Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in a passionate and playful kiss – is at the heart of the festival’s official poster. A rare occurrence indeed! It is an acknowledgement of Godard’s importance in the history of world cinema.
Cannes Classics The Cannes Classics 2018 to screen heritage films in restored 2k and 4k versions. It explores the history of cinema with documentaries produced in 2018.
The main competition of the 71st Cannes Film Festival has several other rarities, not the least of which is the fact that two of the contending filmmakers – Iran’s Jafar Panahi (Three Faces) and Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov (Leto) – may not be at hand to present their entries. Politics would be the culprit.
Panahi has been under house arrest in Tehran and barred from filmmaking since 2010 but he has kept going. Serebrennikov, director of the Gogol Centre in Moscow and a bitter critic of Vladimir Putin, has been charged by the Russian authorities with embezzlement of government funds. Both men might be prevented from making the trip to the Croisette.
Serebrennikov, who is also a celebrated theatre director and producer, made his Cannes bow in 2016 with the Un certain regard title The Student. His new film is about the life of Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi and the Leningrad rock underground of the 1980s.
Panahi, on his part, has seen steady action in Cannes – as well as in the world’s other major festivals – since winning the Camera d’Or in 1995 for his debut film White Balloon. If the Iranian wins the Palme d’Or, he would be completing a rare “Grand Slam”. He already has Berlin’s Golden Bear (for Taxi, 2015) and the Venice Golden Lion (for The Circle, 2000) under his belt. Will the jury headed by Australian actress Cate Blanchett give Panahi the one prize that is missing from his mantelpiece?
Panahi’s Three Faces is about three Iranian actresses of different vintage. It would be tempting to think that a panel of nine jurors that includes five women, three of them actresses (besides Blanchett, Lea Seydoux and Kristen Stewart), would take more than keen interest in the latest film of Iran’s most awarded director, who, surprisingly, is in the festival’s Main Competition for the first time ever.
Among the other contenders is only one Palme d’Or winner – Nuri Bilge Ceylan whose Winter Sleep fetched him the festival’s top prize in 2014. He is competing this year with The Wild Pear Tree, which sees the director return to his pet themes via the story of an aspiring writer who returns to his native village to realise his ambition only to find his father’s mounting debts becoming an obstacle.
That certainly does not mean that the contest will be any less stiff. As many as eight other directors in the lineup, half of them from Asia, have been closing night honorees in past editions. It will take some doing for any of the world cinema leading lights in Competition this year to surge ahead of the others when the jury sits down for its final deliberations.
An interesting duo in the Competition is made up of Polish-British filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War) and Kazakh director Sergey Dvortsevoy (Ayka). The former, who has been making films for three decades, taught in the mid-1990s at the film school in Moscow where Dvortsevoy, a remarkable documentary filmmaker who won the Prix Un Certain Regard in 2008 for his first fiction feature Tulpan, was a student.
It is, of course, not known if a teacher and his pupil have ever competed against each other in Cannes. This is Pawlikowski’s first trip to Cannes, while Ayka marks Dvortsevoy’s maiden Competition appearance. Also noteworthy is the presence of a pair of Arab directors in the Main Competition, the first such instance in recent memory. One of the two, Egyptian Abu Bakr Shawky (Yomeddine), is also the only debutant among the 21 filmmakers in the section. He has never been to Cannes before.
Yomeddine is about a man raised in a leper colony who sets out with an orphan boy and a donkey to look for the family that abandoned him as a child. The plot stems from The Colony, a short film Shawky made chronicling tales of residents of the Abu Zaabal leper colony in Egypt. No first-time filmmaker has won the Palme d’Or since 1989, when Steven Soderbergh bagged the award for sex, lies and videotape. That apart, no Egyptian director has ever won the top prize here although the nation has been represented in the Cannes Competition as many as 14 times. So, Shawky has history against him.
Lebanese actress-turned-director Nadine Labaki (Capernaum), on the other hand, has deep, long links with the festival. Her first film, Caramel (2007), emerged from a screenplay that she developed during a Cannes Film Festival Residence programme in 2005. The film premiered in Directors’ Fortnight. In 2011, Labaki was back on the Croisette with Where Do We Go Now?, which played in Un certain regard. Capernaum, her third directorial venture, has catapulted her to the Main Competition.
The 71st edition of Cannes kicks off with Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s Spanish-language Competition entry Everybody Knows, starring Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Ricardo Darin. Three other key figures in Asian cinema – Jia Zhangke (Ash is Purest White), Lee Chang-Dong (Burning, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) – will lead the charge, with Competition first-timer Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Asaki I & II) completing a strong quartet.
Besides Godard, France is represented in the Main Competition by Stephane Brize (At War), Christophe Honore (Sorry Angel), Yann Gonzalez (Knife + Heart) and Eva Husson (Girls of the Sun), starring Emmanuelle Bercot and GolshiftehFarahani.
Italy has two films in the running – Matteo Garrone’s Dogman and Alice Rohrwacher’sLazzaro Felice. The notable European countries missing from the Competition action this year are Germany and Spain.
The two Americans in the Competition are Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), who is competing in Cannes for the third time, and David Robert Mitchell (Under the Silver Lake), who is visiting the Croisette for the third time but is vying for the Palme d’Or for the first time.
Saibal Chatterjee is an independent New Delhi-based film critic and writer who has worked on the staff of several leading publications, served on the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s volume on Hindi cinema and authored a biography of poet-filmmaker Gulzar.