Of Egyptian horror movies

This is the best movie review I have read in the English-language Egyptian press in years — Egyptian horror movies: Laser goats and chicken blood | Al-Masry Al-Youm:

“Anyab” ("Fangs") makes the most of the “horror-as-social-commentary” ideology, taking it to a literal sense when the film’s narrator breaks the fourth wall to inform the audience that the “vampires” represent the more unscrupulous individuals in our society, those who greedily feed off of the weak for a quick reward. The film then turns into a 30-minute montage of public service announcements, where the lead couple, in a series of separate vignettes, falls prey to a doctor, plumber, cab driver, butcher, private tutor and realtor, all played by the main vampire, ending every scene by turning to the camera and smiling to reveal his fangs.

Best of all, the vampire is played by Ahmad Adawiya. I have to get hold of this.

Very much looking forward to reading more of Ali Abdel Mohsen's funny and informative reviews.

What the al-Sauds don't want you to see

As the al-Saud dynasty engages over a mega-production over the death of Prince Sultan — one of the most profligate of the gerontocracy that rules Saudi Arabia — it might be good to remember that making films like the ones, above, on poverty in the kingdom, get you arrested. 22% of Saudis are defined as poor, according to the film, despite the vast oil wealth controlled by the al-Sauds.

Tahrir, the movie

At Ferrara's international journalism festival (put on by the excellent Italian paper Internazionale) I saw the film Tahrir this afternoon. I was afraid it might be too familiar, or sentimental, or iconographic, but it was lovely. Italian film-maker Stefano Savona spent days in Tahrir Square and got some amazing footage. Here for example is a clip of the protesters fighting to defend the square from pro-Mubarak thugs:

And here is a completely different side of Tahrir: the funny, moving, poeting chants that inspired protesters came up with on the spot:

What's just as interesting are the long conversations between the young Egyptias the film-maker followed around the square, discussing (with remarkably clarity and insight) all the questions and difficulties of the coming transitional period. It was quite emotional for me to watch this film, at this moment, when the revolution's promises are so far from realized and when the aims and sacrifices of those involved in it have been (despite official lip service paid to the "glorious revolution") distorted and disparaged by the army, the security services, former regime elements and a disturbing number of media outlets. It's a good reminder of all the outrage, courage, and optimism on display during those 18 days, and of their continued potential. The film is playing in New York on October 2 and 4. And I really hope it will be showing in Egypt soon. 

Voices in the crowd

 Yassin Kobtan & The Skateboarders Still from "MICROPHONE" © Film Clinic - Egypt - 2010

I just reviewed young Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla's new film, Microphone, over at the National (I also wrote on the blog about Abadallah's first feature, Heliopolis, last year). The film is an exploration of youth culture and underground music in Alexandria--and more generally, of the difficulties that young people in Egypt have finding a voice--and very enjoyable. It will be playing in the upcoming Cairo and Dubai film festivals. 

Here's a bit of the review:

Microphone started out as a documentary about Aya, an 18-year-old female graffiti artist in Alexandria, whose work had come to Abdalla's attention.

Through Aya, he discovered the city's lively collection of bands, in particular its burgeoning hip-hop scene, and decided to make a documentary about youth culture in Egypt's second city, featuring musicians, filmmakers, artists and skateboarders. Because documentary films are rarely shown in Egyptian theatres, Abdalla gave a fictional framework to his footage of musicians and kids hanging out.

Thus, the character of Khaled - played by the well-loved actor Khaled Abol-Naga, who is also a producer of the film - returns to Alexandria after a seven-year absence, only to find that the woman he has been longing to see again is about to leave town.

While he mopes over his bad timing, Abol-Naga comes into contact with the film's young characters, who are busy rehearsing, falling in and out of love, hanging out and trying to land gigs.

Microphone is best appreciated as a documentary about music and youth culture in contemporary Egypt, bolstered by a slim fictional frame. In fact, Abdalla says, "we kept trying to be true to the first idea: to give artists the microphone to speak their minds." The artists and kids play themselves, and their storylines are often inspired by their own lives.

(For the rest, see here).

Garbage Dreams

Last night, Ursula and I went to see Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander's documentary about Cairo's trash collectors (and recyclers), the Zabbaleen. I had wanted to see this movie for months, but it was impossible to obtain on DVD, there were no screenings in Cairo and no one had put it up online — even though it won over 22 awards and, judging from the overflow crowd at Darb 1718, the great cultural center in Old Cairo where it was being shown outdoors in stifling weather, there is much demand for it.

Garbage Dreams follows the lives of a few boys from Mokattam, the hill East of Cairo near which many of Cairo's 60,000 Zabbaleen live and work handling the city's prodigious garbage output. The story of the Zabbaleen is a familiar one, so I'll just briefly repeat here for those who won't know it: they are a mostly Coptic Christian community of dispossessed peasants from Upper Egypt who settled in Cairo in the late nineteenth century and, as a community, became the trash collectors for about 60% of the city. Originally, contracts for trash collection were actually controlled by Bedouins who subcontracted the work to the Zabbaleen. In recent years, not only have they continued to collect trash, but they have also made additional cash from recycling what they collect, impressively reusing about 80% of the trash after sorting it. They live in filthy conditions, amidst their work, but with dignity and, until recently, regular income.

In recent years, the government began contracting foreign companies to use modern trash collection methods. These take Cairo's garbage to landfills and recycle much less of it — only 20% according to the film. This has eaten into the income of the Zabbaleen and is threatening their community, even if some of the workers for the company have been recruited from it. This is an interesting story, but unfortunately Iskander does not tackle it with sufficient diligence: we are given plenty of the Zabbaleen's side of things, but no explanation from the government or the companies about their strategy (which, I'm fairly sure, would have been even more incriminating — the ridiculousness of needing foreign expertise for trash collection is pretty self-evident.)

But perhaps this doesn't matter that much. The heart of the story are the lives of Adham, Nabil and Osama in the context of this threat to the community. They give poignant testimony about their awareness that they are at the bottom of the social ladder, there desire for both mundane and grandiose improvements to their lives, their attachment to their community and pride in its essential work. There are some pretty hilarious scenes, too, such as when the boys are taken to Wales in a NGO-funded trip to look at recycling methods in Europe. In their almost cruel exposure to a clean, green and prosperous Wales (hardly the reputation the country has, say, in London) they see ideas to take back home, but also great waste — there's a great scene in which Nabil lectures the operators of recycling center that they need to be more thorough about separation — essentially by doing the type of manual sorting done in Cairo that is simply impossible under European labor and safety regulations. "Here they have technology, but they don't have precision," he finally scoffs.

The greatest laugh of all for the Cairene audience came when one boy turns to the other at a road crossing, and says with wonder: "Did you see that car? It stopped to let people cross!" That is one other meditation on why Cairo came to be such a badly run city, saved from the total chaos by the hard work and good humor of its underclass.

You can now get the DVD on the film's site or soon on Amazon — highly recommended.

 

The Time That Remains

Le-temps-qu'il-reste Yesterday I saw Elia Suleiman's latest, "The Time that Remains," at the European Film Festival at CityStars (the festival runs through Tuesday), and really enjoyed it--better than his last, "Divine Intervention." The film chronicles Suleiman's own family's experience of the Nakbah and the Israeli occupation of Nazareth, up to the present. It's largely filmed in the house he grew up in, and based on interviews he conducted with his dying father. It is a very touching tribute to his parents, among other things. The film has Suleiman's typically deadpan humour (a foul-mouthed, alcoholic neighbour who--ever since getting a job at a gas station, and hence access to copious amounts of gasoline--regularly threatens to set himself on fire; a school principle who scolds the young Suleiman: "Who told you America is Imperialist?"). But it's dominated by sounds and silence, more than dialogue, by wittily orchestrated scenes, poignant and hilarious visual gags. Rendering Palestinian history as a stripped down, stylized tragi-comedy, a series of personal/historical vignettes, turns out to be particularly effective. There is a great attention to visual and auditory details, which accumulate to create increasingly moving patterns and rhythms. For me the film faltered a little in its third half, when Suleiman himself entered the scene. The way he acts--as a cardboard cutout of himself, basically--suggests his total alienation, his current position as a "mute observer," as one critic observes, but is also so disaffected it drains the scenes of any emotion. His take on contemporary Palestine--as opposed to that of his childhood--also seemed less specific and original. But it is a fascinating, moving, witty film. Here is a nice round-up of critical reactions. Suleiman was also on hand afterwards for a question and answer session. He noted that for him every time he can remove dialogue from the story it's a "victory," because silence is the most troubling thing for power--"even words of opposition comfort power," whereas "silence frightens it." He also mentioned that he had to get permission to use an Israeli tank for the film and that, ironically, the the only part of the film the Israeli authorities objected to was the scene in which Israeli soldiers rob a Palestinian house (there are more serious crimes committed). They also wanted a thanks in the film credits for letting him use the tank--now that sounds like something out of one of his films.
Read More

Film festivals

The sixth Dubai International Film Festival has just started, with much star-wattage and fanfare. It will host the premier of the film Nine, a musical starring Daniel Day Lewis and Nicole Kidman, and of James Cameron's new sci-fi film Avatar. Meanwhile, here in Cairo, the Goethe Institute is putting on a more modest film festival of short independent work from the region. It starts today, and you can get the program here. The schedule I have only been able to find in German online, but Egyptian films are showing today at 1pm, followed the Algerian and Lebanese selection.
Read More

Heliopolis

Hanan Motawe' in Heliopolis Hanan Motawe On Thursday evening, I went to the (very crowded) premiere of the new film Heliopolis--the Egyptian entry in the Arab film competition at the Cairo International Film Festival. The film is the first feature by Ahmad Abdalla, who was the editor on Ibrahim Al Battout's Ain Shems. Like Battout's film, Heliopolis is independent, in the sense that it was made on a shoestring, with actors and crew volunteering their time (unlike Ain Shems, it did get the Censor's approval before starting to shoot). My impressions after the jump... The film stars some well-known actors like Khaled Abul Naga and some relative unknowns. It follows five parallel stories in contemporary Heliopolis. There is a university student doing research on the neighborhood; an engaged couple looking for appliances and an apartment; a Christian man thinking about emigrating to join his mother and brother; a hotel receptionist whose family thinks she's working abroad; and a conscript sitting all day in his guard box. When I spoke to him last week, Abdalla told me the film was about people "whose lives don't change." None of the characters advance towards their goals, and several of them describe their day as "wasted." The conscript--whose name we never learn, who never says a line, and who managers nonetheless to elicit our interest and our sympathy--is a particularly affecting example of this. (How many times have you walked past these poor kids scattered around official buildings like so much human baggage, dropped off from police trucks in the morning, and picked up late at night?) The theme of emigration, of wanting to be somewhere else, is linked to this sense of waste and present throughout--particularly in a surprising but effective dream sequence. I was pleasantly surprised by Heliopolis. It's a slow film, and it doesn't try to do anything ground-breaking. But I appreciated the naturalistic dialogue, the smooth editing and plotting, the slow accumulation of details, and the mostly subtle treatment of its points. (There were a few good jokes, too). Heliopolis is a cautious but polished effort by a first-time director. Some of the friends I saw the film with disagreed with me, but I thought it struck a convincing balance between its larger point about the stasis of Egyptian society and the need, nonetheless, for a narrative framework. I'd like to see Abdalla keep his understated style but tell a story where things do happen next time.
Read More

Cairo Film Festival

The Cairo International Film Festival kicked off yesterday, after the usual round of arguments and recriminations. You can find information about the films being shown if you look under the "cinemas" tab on the festival website. Of course the (only available at the last minute) schedule doesn't specify where the theaters are, or give any information about the films, whose titles have been translated quite sloppily into English. Par for the course: I tried dealing with the festival administration for my article and met with the usual combination of high-handedness and disorganization that characterizes so many state-run cultural events. The festival is always nice and a great opportunity to see interesting work. But it's also always marred by strange unprofessionalism: from asking participants and foreign journalists to pay sometimes ridiculous amounts for their festival access cards (and making them go through multiple time-wasting steps to get them); to being unable to guarantee saved seats to the director of a film premiering in the festival. No wonder they had to browbeat local directors into participating.
Read More

Links for 10.26.09 to 10.27.09

LRB · Nicolas Pelham: Diary | Nic Pelham's diary about Gaza. ✪ Almasry Alyoum | NDP Talks Youth | Second in a series on youth and the NDP in Egypt: “We have to use the Internet, especially with so many people trying to turn our achievements into failures and to tarnish the reputation of public symbols. We have to be present online to correct those misconceptions.” Now who could they be talking about? ✪ Almasry Alyoum| Gamal Mubarak: Nepotism "Unknown To Private Sector" | In this story, Gamal says nepotism "is part of Egyptian culture." You don't say. ✪ Chomsky Receives Highest Pentagon Honor | Chomsky book "Interventions" banned in Gitmo. ✪ YouTube - Slackistan Trailer | This is a good and funny idea - you could do it in the Arab world, too. ✪ Inanities: The Gamal Show | About Gamal's Sharek event: "The Gamal Show is Gamal Mubarak’s attempt to convince us that he’s Barack Obama." ✪ Bakchich: Interroger des… interrogatoires | Accounts of police interrogations of non-fasters in Morocco, interrogates them about Abou Bakr Jamai (prominent editor forced into exile), and more. Thoroughly depressing. ✪ Arab Media & Society | The end of the beginning: The failure of April 6th and the future of electronic activism in Egypt | About online activism, its failure so far, and how to move beyond cynicism. ✪ Almasry Alyoum | Gamal Mubarak And The Power Of Web 2.0 | First in a series of articles about the NDP's efforts to attract young Egyptians to politics. This one focuses on Gamal Mubarak's "Sharek" (Participate) online Q&A event. ✪ J Street's Ben-Ami On Zionism and Military Aid to Israel - Jeffrey Goldberg | A very revealing interview of J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami which conirms my doubts about the whole project. ✪ Morocco press freedom on the decline, RSF study shows (Magharebia.com) | A marked increase in fines, imprisonement and intimidation of the press. ✪ Dar Al Hayat - A Presidential Battle without Candidates | Muhammad Salah on the Egyptian presidency.
Read More

Amreeka

A film about the Arab-American immigrant experience is getting some attention, but unfortunately it seems from reviewsthat "Amreeka" (about a Palestinian single mom who moves from the West Bank to Illinois) isn't a very nuanced portrayal. I've been disappointed so far by the work I've seen focusing on the lives of Arab Americans--whether it's stand-up comedy like the Axis of Evil Tour (which pulled way too many punches) or the film "TowelHead" (which was voyeuristic and pointless). It's surprising because the subjects seems like such rich terrain right now, for both drama and comedy.
Read More

Links for 08.04.09

AFP: Maroc : Mohammed VI très populaire, selon un sondage interdit dans son pays | Great headline - "Morocco: Muhammad VI very popular, according to poll banned in his country." FT.com / Middle East / Economy - Egypt’s cotton kingdom cut down to size | Good story on Egyptian textile industry: "Egypt is likely this year to produce its smallest cotton crop in a century." FT.com / Comment / Editorial - The cost of Arab peace concessions | Bravo FT: "In 1992-96, at the height of the peace process, Israel reaped a peace dividend without concluding a peace. Diplomatic recognition of Israel doubled, from 85 to 161 countries, exports doubled and foreign investment increased sixfold. Per capita income in the occupied territories fell in the same period by more than a third, while the number of settlers expanded by half. A broad-looking avenue led quickly to a road-block. The Arabs have not forgotten, and Mr Obama will have to get more than a settlement freeze out of Israel to lure them down that road again." Newsweek Steps Up Effort to Free Reporter in Iran - NYTimes.com | On Maziar Bahari's detention in Iran. Venezuela : Chavez suspend 34 médias d'opposition | Hugo Chavez bans 34 independent media outlets. In the Sahara, a Film Festival Complete With Camels - NYTimes.com | On a film festival in Sahrawi refugee camps. Blog: Middle East Diary | Hannah is back. Hugh Miles and CCTV Arabic | The author of a book on al-Jazeera on the new Chinese channel. 'VALIS and Later Novels,' by Philip K. Dick | VALIS, which I am now reading, enters Library of America. Someone should write a PKD-ish novel set in the Arab world. Then again, I've always found Cairo highly reminiscent of the world of Bladerunner. 10,000 Uighur disappear in China, U.S. silent | Spero News | Shocking link from Angry Arab, although I'm not sure about the source - this site has a lot of religious agit-prop. Liam Stack, Greek Club Civil War, and Developing Developments | Boi boi Liam...
Read More

Links for 08.03.09 to 08.04.09

In the Sahara, a Film Festival Complete With Camels - NYTimes.com | On a film festival in Sahrawi refugee camps. Blog: Middle East Diary | Hannah is back. Hugh Miles and CCTV Arabic | The author of a book on al-Jazeera on the new Chinese channel. 'VALIS and Later Novels,' by Philip K. Dick | VALIS, which I am now reading, enters Library of America. Someone should write a PKD-ish novel set in the Arab world. Then again, I've always found Cairo highly reminiscent of the world of Bladerunner. 10,000 Uighur disappear in China, U.S. silent | Spero News | Shocking link from Angry Arab, although I'm not sure about the source - this site has a lot of religious agit-prop. 500 Internal Server Error | 500 Internal Server Error Liam Stack, Greek Club Civil War, and Developing Developments | Boi boi Liam...
Read More

Links for 07.21.09 to 07.22.09

جريدة الراية -مجرد سؤال .. ماذا تريد القاهرة من دارفور المنتدى | Qatari columnist complains "what does Egypt want from Darfur?", says Egypt is trying to start a separate track for negotiations even though Qatar's track working well. The Egyptians certainly hate seeing Qatar getting busy in their near-abroad. The List: The Middle East's Most Powerful Spooks | Foreign Policy | It's missing a few... will try to work on a complete list. Also not sure whether Assef Shakwat is still at the top of his game in Damascus. Facebook | Protest Facebook's categorisation of Israeli settlements as "Israel" | Tell Facebook to correct itself. From gods to garbage dwellers | GlobalPost | On Egypt's cats. Israeli funding angers filmmaker | "ENGLISH filmmaker Ken Loach has withdrawn his film Looking for Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival because the festival receives funding from the Israeli Government."
Read More

Links for November 28th

Automatically posted links for November 27-28th:
Read More

Links for November 24th

Automatically posted links for November 24th:

Read More

Del.icio.us links for November 21st

Automatically posted links for November 21st:

Read More