NZIFF 2021: سعاد Souad (2021)

Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival showcased films from plenty of countries, and among the films from the Islamic world that I saw, Souad may not have been the finest (the films from Iran were, as usual, far richer and more accomplished) but this showcases a different side of Egyptian filmmaking from what I’m familiar with, perhaps something more akin to a little indie film in its sensibilities.


I don’t think this film is perfect by any means, but it does feel like something a bit different from the Egyptian films I’ve seen, a bit more naturalistic and less reliant on melodrama to carry its story. It deals largely with two sisters, and the guy who (in some ways) comes between them but also is largely unseen for much of the film, and thematically it’s dealing with what is already now a hoary old chestnut of the dangerous effects of social media. However, given the strict conservatism that exists for interpersonal relationships in the milieu this is set in, there’s an implicit critique of the orthodoxy that’s driving young people to popular social media sites that encourage toxic and self-destructive behaviour. In a sense though that’s just in the background, albeit rather powerfully at times, and mostly I enjoyed this as a story of two sisters that takes a surprising turn part of the way through, but is carried ultimately by those performances. Like many modern films, it ends on an unresolved note that feels a bit abrupt but also suggests the story goes on, and who knows what it will bring for any of the characters we see.

Souad (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Ayten Amin آيتن أمين; Writers Amin and Mahmoud Ezzat محمود عزت;
Cinematographer Maged Nader ماجد نادر; Starring Bassant Ahmed بسنت أحمد, Basmala Elghaiesh بسملة الغيش, Hussein Ghanem حسين غانم; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.

Sous le ciel d’Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)

Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.


I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.

Sous le ciel d'Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)CREDITS
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Talking About Trees (2019)

One of my favourite films of last year was a documentary about filmmaking, and about film culture, in a place where it’s been allowed to die. Four elderly men try to revive cinemagoing in Sudan, and it’s a film about life and the difficulty of living in certain political conditions, but the drive to keep on going anyway.


Although it’s a documentary, fairly straightforward as these things go, there’s something of a deeper resonance to it. Partly that’s the style, the way it unfolds at a leisurely pace. After all, it’s about four elderly filmmakers trying to bring back the cinema to their country of Sudan, trying to find a suitable space, getting the screen and cameras and sound sorted, looking for the right title, and getting the official permissions in order. And so if it feels unhurried, that’s partly because these are all men who don’t have anywhere else to be going, or so it seems. The passion, though, is real and very evident as they try to get their project going. As it moves along, the documentary also hints at some of the promise of Sudanese cinema, which died back when these men were young, and about the political state of their country. In one memorable scene, one of the men counts off all the times they lived through: “colonialism, the first democracy, the first dictatorship, the second democracy, the second dictatorship…” So in fact the film is not really talking about trees or insubstantial subjects, but dealing with something that feels more tragic in its hue. You hope for their success, but it seems to recede further the more the film plays.

Talking About Trees film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Suhaib Gasmelbari صهيب الباري; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 February 2020.

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Well it’s been a few weeks since my last themed week, and now that I’m settled in Wellington (albeit in a temporary rented accommodation in Lower Hutt), I’ve been able to return to seeing films. Therefore this week will be loosely themed as ‘films I’ve seen in the cinema since arriving in New Zealand’. I can’t therefore promise any consistency, but it will be a fairly loose collection of random films that have been on release here recently, along with some one-off screenings (there has been an African Film Festival this past weekend, and there’s an Italian one ongoing, though it tempts me less).


Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman has written, directed and starred in a number of deadpan comedy films over the years, of which I’ve only previously caught up with one (2002’s Divine Intervention, which I appear to have liked only somewhat). However, if this film is typical, there’s a strong connection with the tradition of Jacques Tati, if not the mordant satire of late Buñuel (via a filmmaker like Otar Iosseliani, who is brought to my mind during the Parisian section particularly).

Suleiman silently observes those around him in three sections, in his home of Nazareth, in Paris and then in New York, in a series of setpieces that suggest a certain critical view of Palestinian life, and which become retrospectively clearer in a film producer’s office during the Parisian section, as the producer tells Suleiman that his work isn’t specific enough, being about the Palestinian experience but in a way that could be set anywhere — which indeed he has done with this very film. Paris is eerily quiet, but with an undertone of militaristic threat (police officers chasing a lone suspect on segways is particularly amusing, or the tanks rolling along a boulevard in the background). There’s this constant play with his themes that is often rather hilarious, if in a muted way, and the precise framing and fine acting from Suleiman in just reacting to the absurdist events around him lends his film a real piquancy.

It Must Be Heaven film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Cinematographer Sofian El Fani سفيان الفاني; Starring Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 3 November 2020.

LFF 2020: 200 Meters (2020) ٢٠٠ متر

The Middle Eastern and North African films are always a highlight at each London Film Festival, and the one I saw this year was this one, a tense thriller set in a contested area of fragmented borders in the State of Palestine. (PS Do excuse the way I’ve written the title; it turns out having two languages read in different directions plus numbers creates havoc for WordPress.)


This Palestinian film is a pretty tense thriller in which a Palestinian father (Ali Suliman) — who, for reasons, lives in a different home from his wife and children — has to get to his son at short notice. The only problem is an Israeli wall built between their two homes, only 200m apart, and an expired ID card meaning he isn’t able to get across. So he enlists the help of a people smuggler, and that’s where the drama starts as it’s hardly a straightforward process and involves a long drive to a mountainous area, a change of cars, and an enormous amount of paranoia from just about everyone. But in utilising this generic format of a tense thriller, it effectively shows up the daily struggle of those trying to navigate these borders in what is a hugely fractured territory, and the way that bureaucracy keeps people apart as much as (or indeed more than) it helps to ensure security.

200 Meters film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ameen Nayfeh أمين نايفة; Cinematographer Elin Kirschfink; Starring Ali Suliman علي سليمان, Anna Unterberger; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.

بابيشة Papicha (2019)

A fiction feature debut film for its Algerian French director, and a fine one at that, is Papicha, whose title is taken from an Algerian French phrase used about a young woman, and its star Lyna Khoudri is clearly destined for great things (I believe she already has a role in the latest Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch, though who knows when that’s going to get a release). This is a fine film, though it rather takes aim at Islamic fundamentalism in a fairly direct way.


There are a number of recent French co-productions that deal with religious intolerance in traditionally patriarchal societies; I think of the Turkish-French film Mustang as perhaps the most notable example, and perhaps closest to this one. In each case, the filmmaking is strong and the performances the director gets from her (in this case) French-Algerian cast, constantly switching between Arabic and French in their scenes, are really believable. The setting is the Algerian Civil War of the late-1990s, and a creeping Islamic fundamentalism that expresses itself particularly (as these things seem to do) in restricting the liberties afforded to women. And so we have aspiring fashion student Nedjma (the riveting Lyna Khoudri), who really wants to put on a fashion show and really doesn’t want to put on the hijab, negotiating the way these social standards seem to be evolving at a breakneck pace around her and her friends, all of whom are students at the university at a time when learning itself is under threat. I do wonder a little at a French-funded film dealing with hijab as such a central issue, given that country’s own views on the practice, but the drama as presented here is galvanising and, very swiftly, rather traumatic in the way that it unfolds. Nedjma has no desire to leave Algeria, but at the same time the conflicts taking place at this period (which were already apparently winding down by the late-1990s) put her and her friends’ lives in danger just for the freedoms that they take for granted. Like Mustang it harnesses a lot of the same female ensemble energy, though the camera here often stays far closer in to its protagonists, who move about in a blur at times. It’s a fine film, and one that suggests promise for her feature directing career, and especially for its standout star.

Papicha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mounia Meddour مونيا مدور; Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre; Starring Lyna Khoudri لينا خودري, Shirine Boutella شرين بوتيلا, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Marwan Zeghbib مروان زغبيب; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.

Dreamaway (2018)

A recent film from Egypt (co-produced by Germany, with a German co-director and cinematographer) is this piece which sits somewhere between an evocatively artful documentary and something fictionalised, though quite where the boundaries between the two lie is open to interpretation. It was one of my favourite films of the London Film Festival in 2018, so I’m saddened there hasn’t been much distribution of it since then because I think it’s really interesting and beautiful, and I wonder if holiday resorts in the age of Covid-19 look somewhat similar right now?


Although billed as a documentary, Dreamaway (as it’s styled on screen, though often referred to as Dream Away) lies somewhere just between that and fiction, presenting stories of real people in a real place, but with just a slight hint that these are fictionalised versions, or reconstructions, workshopped with a non-professional cast (albeit people who have done and experienced the real life depicted). There are all these hints throughout that what we’re seeing is at one stage removed from pure observational documentary filmmaking — a sage-like man in a monkey costume asking questions from the back of a truck, or all the key characters trudging through the desert in search of nothing like the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Partly this may be to stay on the right side of the censors, for after all it’s hardly the rosiest portrait of the Egyptian tourist industry at Sharm-el-Shaikh (we barely see any tourists at all, as all these service workers turn down beds, DJ music, and do fitness routines for an audience of no one). But it’s a canny move in a film that has much of the same feeling as Alma Har’el’s films (Bombay Beach or LoveTrue), somewhere at the interstices of reality and make-believe — then again, a lot of the world it depicts could be said to inhabit that same duality, creating this fake English-speaking zone of no conflict in a country consumed by it in recent years.

Dreamaway film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Marouan Omara مروان عمارة and Johanna Domke; Cinematographer Jakob Beurle; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 19 October 2018.

الميدان Al Midan (The Square, 2013)

Taking us back a few years to a time when it seemed the world could change for the better. I think the full accounting of the cause and effects of the Arab Spring are probably still quite far away, and this film was made in the ferment of the initial action, at least as it took place in Egypt. It’s a great piece of documentary work, urgent and compelling. Even almost 10 years on, it’s still not clear the direction things have taken, but it’s always useful to show that the people are not entirely without voice in such moments.


There are a lot of documentaries and films about protest (plenty indeed just about the Arab Spring, like the Tunisian film A Revolution in Four Seasons), but The Square — which comes quite soon after the initial events — really seems to capture something of what this means, both in practice, with the immediacy of reportage from sites of revolutionary insurrection and activist struggle, and also in thought. This latter is served by a number of individuals, who perhaps represent a wider cross-section, if not of the full range of society, but of its most reflective participants. Egypt is still working through the legacy of 2011, and the documentary acknowledges that at the end, but the couple of years we see here are pretty compelling.

The Square film posterCREDITS
Director Jehane Noujaim چيهان نچيم; Cinematographers Noujaim, Muhammad Hamdy محمد حمدي, Ahmed Hassan أحمد حسن and Cressida Trew; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 7 December 2016.

الشرقي El Chergui (The East Wind, 1975)

North African Cinema (or indeed, cinema in any of Africa) never really gets the attention it deserves in the West, and films from the 1970s and earlier seem to be especially rare, but from the 1950s onwards in particular a lot of filmmaking started to spark off across the continent. This Moroccan film is set in this period, the 1950s, when independence was something that started to become a tangible hope for the country (it gained independence in 1956). I saw it at a rare screening at the Barbican, but one can only hope that this and other films of the period don’t disappear entirely.


There are of course various ways and various traditions of making films, even fictional narrative films, and not all of them involve tight pacing and clear character arcs. Moroccan director Moumen Smihi clearly prefers to have his characters almost intrude upon what otherwise seems like ethnographic documentary, languidly paced scenes of a city, albeit focused on its customs, particularly at the more mystical end of things. When we do get plot, it transpires that a young woman’s husband is looking for a second wife, and so she turns to various magical rites to try and dissuade him — but all of that wouldn’t fill up five minutes of time. Instead there’s a real eye, in sparkling black-and-white, for the life of the city (Tangier), apparently on the cusp of some tumultuous events (made in 1975, it was set some twenty years earlier), all of which comes in little snippets. It also features one of the great subtitles: when Aïcha (Chaïri), our lead character, is observing some frightfully English diplomats nattering away at a garden party, the French subtitlers resort to “(Colonial gossip)” to cover it, which is now, in my heart, the subtitle to everything any posh upper-class twit ever says.

The East Wind film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Moumen Smihi مومن السميحي; Cinematographer Mohamed Sekkat محمد سقات; Starring Aïcha Chaïri عيشه شعيري, Ahmed Boda أحمد بودا, Abdelkader Moutaa عبدالقادر مطاع, Leila Shenna ليلى شنّا; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barbican, London, Wednesday 23 May 2018.