Cairo International Film Festival is the kind of film festival that I like, the kind where you can watch a lot of cutting-edge films- cheap. While many other film festivals concentrate on traipsing in some Holly Woodstars for a photo-op, while sending you to one end of town for this film, another side of town for that, Cairo concentrates its films on just three central venues running simultaneously and continuously, some films playing at multiple venues at different times, so you don’t miss much unless you want to. I’m good for two feature films a day- and that’s what they are, the idea of ‘art film’ or anything less than ninety minutes relegated to the catch-all ‘experimental’ dust-bin somewhere else, as if God invented moving pictures to go on big-ass spools or nothing at all. Tell it to YouTube. Most Indian films don’t even run over two hours anymore, so pervasive is the Hollywood format, India being the country most represented here, in addition to the Arab countries combined. Except for ‘Amelia’ and ‘The Soloist’ Hollywood is not represented at all, and ‘Amelia’ is Indian-born Mira Nair’s film. Jim Jarmush’s latest film ‘The Limits of Control’ is here, but he’s hardly Hollywood. The only thing missing is festivity (‘festival’ right?), which only comes from large crowds in a centralized location… but good price will suffice. Literature is sparse, so I have no idea who won what.
Okay, in Hollywood fashion, I’ll cut to the chase scene- expect more ‘Slumdogs,’ and expect them to be made by real live Indians, not British interpreters. They’re prolific, and they’re good. Some are regional, but most come from the Bollywood system, which itself is in a process of change. The ubiquitous song-and-dance number is rapidly becoming an MTV-style number to the point that the whole film almost becomes an extension of that. Thus it’s as if in Hollywood, instead of MTV becoming advertising trailers for feature films, feature films themselves are becoming collections of MTV-style dance numbers. Some films overdo this dangerously, such as ‘Summer 2007’, a film with an important message that almost gets lost in all the glitz and glissade. That message is about the serial suicides of farmers, particularly in Maharashtra state of India, coincidentally (or not?) the state of which Mumbai (Bombay) itself is the capital. It’s a problem elsewhere in India also, and is a phenomenon without precedent in my study of world history. These deaths occur as a result of the crushing poverty and debt of the rural agricultural population, a kind of slavery to which there is only one way out apparently.
‘Summer 2007’ could be considered a ‘masala’ film I suppose, and you gotta’ love any film that opens with a dealer-like joint-smoking scene, then follows the rich-kid medical students to their classroom, where our hero immediately shows off his Alpha-male behavior and ‘party hearty’ attitude toward life. ‘Easy Rider’ does ‘Scrubs’ maybe, or ‘Animal House’? That and more as the hero ruffles political feathers by running for class president as a joke, then volunteers (with his friends) for rural service to escape the political problems and to get a posting close to the resorts of Goa. Instead they land in a whirl of rural politics and almost get killed in the process, instead finding that their own inherited wealth comes from the same degenerate system of corruption and exploitation as the disgusting one they’ve stumbled upon, one that leads to land expropriation and worse, mass suicides. The film ultimately fails by trying to accomplish too much, running almost two and a half hours and interrupting the narrative flow with repeated MTV-style filler. Re-edit the film and you’ve got a powerful film and Hollywood contender there. ‘The Damned Rain’ deals with the same problem more directly and from the farmer’s point of view, the endlessly downward spiral of poverty and debt from which there is no escape except death.
Many of the Indian films deal with these and other social problems, including the Muslim/Hindu social divide of ‘Gulabi Talkies’, a nice film that plods along a little too slow for its own good. ‘The Man beyond the Bridge’ tells a touching tale of unlikely love and social rejection when a man falls in love with a mentally challenged woman, good story. ‘Haat the Weekly Bazaar’ deals with polygamy and the local Rajasthani practice of parading a woman through town naked if she cannot afford to pay compensation to her husband for a divorce of her choosing, though nothing is expected of the husband, even when he has multiple wives. There are more fundamental issues at stake here, also. The line that “the only independent woman is a prostitute” in Indian society says more than many tome-length treatises on either side of the political fence ever could. You can’t help but cheer at the end when all the town’s women strip down to bras to show solidarity with their beleaguered colleague. Lord help us males when women finally realize it only takes one male to fertilize a hundred females, and that the rest of us are little more than dead weight, our legendary muscles useless in a high-tech society. The Dash Riprock-style penniless consort of our heroine is great comic relief here, too. But all these movies deal with the psychological suffocation and economic exploitation of village society, particularly in India, but it could apply elsewhere, also. Unfortunately very few of these movies show that city life is hardly the easy solution.
The film ‘New York’ follows the Indian diaspora overseas, and attempts to tackle the terrorism issue. It tells the tale of an all-American Indian Muslim who is mistakenly jailed after 9-11, and who subsequently becomes a terrorist as a result. As realistic as that part of the premiss is, the part where the FBI frames his long-lost best friend in order to enlist him to spy on the suspected terrorist is pushing it. And while anti-terrorist actions and rhetoric have certainly unwittingly created many terrorists in the process- a worthy message btw- to reduce our villain’s actions to one of revenge on the FBI to restore his dignity is a bit of an over-simplification of a complex issue. Dignity is certainly an issue I’m sure, but I imagine most ‘terrorists’ think a whole lot more about Israel than they do the FBI. Thus for all its pretensions and Hollywood-style savvy, its high concept fails by the very flaws in that concept.
The film that scores big on my list, though, is a non-Bollywood-style film called ‘Kanchivaram’, a ‘Communist film’ in which a silk-weaver is persecuted for trying to better living conditions for his fellow weavers at the same time that he himself is resorting to thievery to keep a boastful promise that he never should have made in the first place. Director S. Priyadarshan creates moody Bunuelian images that manage to be both lush and stark at the same time, all in a context that conjures up the best of Italian neo-realism, a tale of remembrance, as the main character returns home on parole to deal with his daughter’s sudden paralysis. I couldn’t give away the ending if I wanted to. You wouldn’t ‘get it.’ The one musical number in the film hypnotically re-inforces, rather than distracts from, the narrative flow. Catch it if you can.
Cairo International Film Festival had more than Indian films of course, but those were what caught my attention the most, as remaining faithful to their native realities while striving for universality in their narratives. The Arab films I saw were of mixed quality, ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’ maybe the best, a very realistic ‘terrorism’ film about Palestinians whose land is in the process of being expropriated for new settlements by Israelis, and whose heir apparent is jailed for assault in the process. But the secondary theme is one of my favorites, i.e. love in the ruins. ‘Season of the Machouichi’ is a period piece about wrestlers fighting for the hand of a woman, the style going back even further than the 1900’s setting, exaggerated and stagey. ‘Casanegra’ goes into the dark seamy underbelly of Casablanca, but almost goes too far, depicting a place far more sinister than anything I can remember, almost ‘Mean Streets’ in its rudeness and barbarity, but significant shock value for an Arab Muslim film about an Arab Muslim place to an Arab Muslim audience, more like a Mexico to Europe’s US than a member of the Islamic Brotherhood.
Beside the Arab and Indian films, there were an assortment of other nationalities, particularly East European and East Asian. The one that stands out to me is ‘Twilight Dancing’ by Joshua Tong, a film with absolutely no dialogue that attempts to tell a story, through pictures, of an old man and a young attractive deaf girl with a problematic life. Parallels to ‘The Bow’ are obvious and likewise the meaning is as elusive as the images are attractive. Whether he succeeds or not is an open question, but the movie is certainly worth watching. Considering that Tong’s own written explanations reveal things that I couldn’t surmise visually, I’d say let’s keep language for the time being, uh huh.
It’s a whole new world out there, cinematically speaking. The golden age of Hollywood indie films has been supplanted by indie films from the rest of the world. Hollywood is left with its action movies, high-tech thrillers, and high-budget epics. Unfortunately these aren’t always the best movies. But it’ll survive. Meanwhile let’s feast on what the rest of the world has to offer. It’s a big world out there. Go see it.