A tale of happier endings by the Nile

Tharaa Goubil’s Amal left the old neighborhood to study medicine. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn International Film Festival

BEIRUT: The Karama Human Rights Film Festival opened its fourth edition at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Monday evening with a projection of Anas Tolba’s 2019 debut “Between Two Seas.”

Tolba’s feature is a contemporary morality tale located within the post-Arab Spring ambit. The film is set along the Nile, in a district of Cairo that seems neither urban nor rural, where folks are likely to live poor and services are improvised.

The story’s protagonist is Zahra (Fatma Adel) who, with her family, shares a house with her widowed mother Zakiyya. The principal household conflict revolves around how Zahra’s raising her kids, Shahd and Shams. While she wants to send them to school, Zakiyya pressures her to marry off the pre-teen Shahd as soon as possible.

Zahra’s husband Hassan (Mahmoud Fares) is an affable but weak-willed fellow who wants to strike a compromise between his wife and the scheming Zakiyya.

Her sister Sumayya (Yara Goubran) has been less lucky in marriage. The nephew of the local mosque’s old school imam, her husband Mohammad is a wife-beating stereotype. His violent outbursts compel her to pack up her kids and flee, first to the imam (who tells her clean his house), then to Zakiyya, who offers little consolation.

Zakiyya too conforms to certain tropes. While she has little time for her daughters, she dotes over her absent son Said, who’s migrated to Kuwait, married and, she boasts, will one day return to shower her with money.

For her part, Zahra emulates Amal (Tharaa Goubil), a childhood friend who’s left the old neighborhood to study medicine. Presumably it’s thanks to Amal’s encouragement that Zahra is working to earn her high school diploma.

The quarter’s voice of reasonable Muslim moderation - contrary to the narrow minded and ignorant imam - is Amal’s Uncle Fathi. He has two younger counterparts. One is a young Al-Azhar graduate who, though licenced to himself preach at the mosque, has not displaced the current imam, lest he cause a fuss. The other is the moustachioed cop investigating Shahd’s death, who takes a fancy to Amal.

The architecture of Zahra’s life collapses when Zakiyya convinces Hassan to collude with her to have Shahd’s genitals mutilated according to custom. An unlicenced nurse named Sayyed is paid for the job. The girl bleeds to death.

Screenwriters Mariam Naoum and Karim Dalil resolve the plot according to the crowd-pleasing conventions of Egyptian cinematic modernism, with the moderate forces of Al-Azhar, the Egyptian police and education winning the day.

As its name signals, Karama is among those film-centred Beirut events - like Almost There and the newly launched Cinema al-Fouad - that are premised on cinema’s social and cultural utility. Led by director Haytham Chamass, its team programs fiction and nonfiction films, master classes and panel discussions with activism in mind.

For its fourth edition, the programing centers on women’s rights issues, as alluded to in this year’s motto, “Talk to Her.” Actor-filmmaker Rania Rafei has already led a master class on the hybridity of fiction and nonfiction in contemporary film practice. A panel on Lebanon’s personal status law and its effect on women will be staged Wednesday evening.

The film selection is comprised of fiction and nonfiction shorts and features from Lebanon, the Arab region and beyond, not all of which are concerned exclusively with womens’ rights.

Students of MENA region cinema may be interested in Mamhoud Ben Mahmoud’s “Fatwa.” Among the more successful recent films to address parents coming to terms with their young children drifting toward Daesh-flavored Islamist militancy (ISIS), “Fatwa” took prizes at the international film festivals of Cairo and Carthage in 2018.

Another title of interest from 2018 is Soudad Kaadan’s 2018 feature debut “The Day I Lost My Shadow,” which premiered in the Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti section, where it won the Luigi De Laurentiis Venice Award for a Debut Film. Karama’s closing film, “Shadow” recounts an episode in the life of a young widowed mother struggling to cope with the abrupt escalation of violence in her Damascus neighborhood. Karama promises five days of thoughtful and engaged cinema and discussion, in an air conditioned environment.

The Karama Human Rights Film Festival runs through Feb. 5 at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2019, on page 12.




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