Lebanese doc takes treasure at CIFF

CAIRO: The curtain fell upon the 41st edition of the Cairo International Film Festival Saturday evening with a gala ceremony at the city’s historic Opera House Theater.

In the Arab Film category, a Lebanese filmmaker emerged with the prize for best nonfiction work, but it was Tunis and Iraq that were the big winners in CIFF’s Arab Film contest. The sole Egyptian filmmaker to be honored at the ceremony was Marianne Khoury, for her feature-length doc “Let’s Talk.”

Intimate and broadly autobiographical, “Let’s Talk” reflects upon four generations of Khoury’s family, from her grandmother to her daughter. It draws upon archival resources and fresh footage that the film’s writer, director and producer shot over several years.

A central figure in the film is Khoury’s late mother, a well-known socialite, and her informants include her uncle, renowned Egyptian auteur Youssef Chahine, so “Let’s Talk” was a shoe-in for CIFF’s Audience Award, whose winner is determined by viewers’ ballots.

In past years, it was standard practice for Egyptian titles to be well-represented in CIFF’s several competitions. That practice ended during CIFF’s 40th edition, when film producer and screenwriter Mohamed Hefzy was named festival director. The decision has proved a judicious one, given that the country’s film industry has been in flux since 2011, if not earlier.

Of the three Arab films in CIFF’s international competition, only Palestine’s Najwa Najjar emerged with treasure. Her third feature “Between Heaven and Earth” walked away with the Naguib Mahfouz Award for Best Screenplay.

The film tells the story of Tamer and Rachel, a young couple from the Palestine territories who, after five years of marriage, are calling it quits. Divorce requires Tamer to cross to the Israeli side of the line, where unpleasant surprises await him.

Unpleasant family secrets are also at the center of Tunisian writer-director Mehdi Barsaoui’s debut feature, “A Son,” which was awarded the Best Film prize in CIFF’s Arab Competition.

While driving in rural Tunisia, Fares and Meriem’s car is ambushed by gunmen and their little boy Aziz is hit by a stray bullet. In the anxious hours that follow, as doctors try to find an organ donor to save Aziz’s life, the film ponders the entrenched social and legal realities of postrevolutionary Tunisia.

“A Son” also took the Salah Abu Sheif Award, the Arab Competition’s Special Jury Prize, and the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) Award.

The Saad Eldin Wahba Award for Best Director in the Arab Competition went to Iraq’s Mohanad Hayal for “Haifa Street.” Hayal’s debut feature is set in Baghdad in 2006, while the city’s was in the throes of sectarian violence, and the titular street was at the heart of that conflict.

The plot revolves around the circumstances surrounding the decision of Salam, a neighborhood sniper, to target Ahmad, who carries vital evidence of American human rights violations in its Iraq detention facilities. The film captures the extreme claustrophobia that marks the experience of those undergoing a civil conflict.

Ali Thamer, who plays Salam in “Haifa Street,” took the Arab contest’s Best Acting prize.

Last but not least, the Arab Competition’s Prize for Best Nonfiction Feature went to Lebanon’s Elie Kamal for his nicely shot debut, “Beirut Terminus.”

The film’s writer, director and cinematographer, Kamal made a film that uses the rise and decline of Lebanon’s Ottoman-era rail system as a peg for his own wistful reflections upon his relationship to his family village, and his country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 02, 2019, on page 8.




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