DAMASCUS: A Japanese film about love, loss, loyalty and regret took top honors at the 2003 Damascus International Film Festival, which addressed inter-cultural and inter-gender understanding as it sought to “embrace the world.”
The deliberate pace and sparse dialogue of Dolls, by Takeshi Kitano, was difficult for some audience members to take during the festival week screening, but the film’s exquisite cinematography and images, which would suddenly sum up an individual’s entire capacity to love in a moment, won admirers in the end.
A nine-member, all-woman jury gave the Silver Prize to Morocco’s Faouzi Bin Saidi for A Thousand and One Months, which also picked up the Best Arab Film Prize. The bronze award went to Argentina’s Historical Miniatures, and a Special Jury Prize went to Syria’s Abdullatif Abdulhamid for his Our Listeners’ Request, a light comedy about love, life and popular music in a coastal village in Syria in the late 1960s.
The Prize for Acting went to the talented Egyptian ensemble cast (four women and four men) of Hani Khalifa’s Sleepless Nights (Sahr al-Layali) and in the short film competition, Chile, Norway, and a Syrian entry, in which the residents of an old age home tell their stories, finished in first, second and third place respectively.
Special Mention for skillfully tackling a sensitive subject went to Egypt’s Mounir Radi, for his Film Hindi (Indian Movie), in which the two central characters are a Muslim and a Christian pair of buddies whose different faiths are the farthest things from their minds.
To secure official status as an international festival, which started in the previous round two years ago, the festival has opened the competitions to all countries, with 26 films in the official, feature-film competition. Festival director Mohammed al-Ahmed brought in 450 movies as part of various retrospectives, with the festival’s slogan this year “Damascus Embraces the World.” For every person who complained that so many films mean frustration at missing many of them, there seemed to be another grateful for the overload, and the chance to see films that are either rare or a pleasure to see in an actual theater.
Near brawls erupting over the lack of seating for some screenings, and the people who sat in all available aisle space, were proof of the thirst for good movies and quality theaters.
When American films were shown either in competition or as special midnight surprise screenings, a small number of young people staged short, impromptu protests at showing movies made in the US.
Most people ignored the commotion and observers said it was a case of creating even more publicity for American films.
It was no surprise that a festival with the motif of international dialogue and understanding tackled the connection between politics and art.
Tunisian director Rida Behi (Box of Wonders) was criticized for using “exotic” scenes, supposedly to please European financiers or publics. In a seminar organized by the festival, Behi defended his beautifully shot autobiographical film by arguing that he was merely detailing his own personal experience and denied that foreign producers demanded changes to scripts.
Syria’s Nahla Kamel, a jury member and film critic, told The Daily Star that one problem involved non-Arabs often being unfamiliar with the meanings of local symbols and devices used in movie-making, meaning that they were left unmoved or misunderstood certain components of an artistic work from this part of the region.
But many Arabs, she said, are familiar with Western music and major historical events, which gives them an advantage when dealing with Western culture in the form of movies.
The process of getting films made and what they say about a country anxious about its public image seemed just as important as whether an all-woman jury would see things differently than the male of the species.
Jury member Aissatou Diop is a 20-something from Senegal who has made educational films, acted in four feature films and organized film weeks in her native country.
She described the difficulty of getting proper films made – only a few a year, like in Syria – with foreigners arriving in Senegal to finance films that show the “negative” side of Africa.
Diop, a first-time visitor to Syria who knew nothing about the country before arriving, praised being selected for the jury in Damascus, saying: “I think women have more feelings and are very sensitive about a lot of things, and I think they will find some things differently.”
“I was very sad to see that there was only one Senegalese movie out of 450 films,” Diop continued, smiling graciously. “Before, you could find Senegalese movies everywhere because they made films for festivals, but not now,” she added.
“No one wants to make films for festivals now because this means showing the poor side of Africa. We don’t want to show this side anymore and foreign producers don’t like this.”
The director of the Egyptian film Sahr al-Layali told The Daily Star that he was fortunate to not worry about foreign financing, coming from a country with a huge cinema-going public.
Hani Khalifa, a 24-year old whose debut feature film saw him directing young stars like Mona Zaki, Sharif Mounir and Hanan Turk, also mentioned the advantage of having the four-year old production company Arabiya behind him. Interested in making films that do not always fit conventional molds, his film touches on themes like sexual dissatisfaction and unfaithfulness, without being maudlin.
As for the “big” issues like trying to relay a certain portrait of a country, Khalifa said the topic was important but should not be treated through art.
“I don’t think the Arab cinema’s mission should be about presenting a certain image … although I know the West wants to see us in a certain (negative) way,” he said.
“In Egypt we have a wide audience base and are strong enough to compete with American films, so we don’t have such pressures – we usually make films for ourselves, and depend on ourselves.”
As for the future of cinema in Syria, critics and those familiar with the National Film Organization, which organizes the festival and produces films, say that production has increased.
However, a critical mass of good scripts and the mechanism to get them made still remain lacking. The country’s theaters are also still in bad shape because owners have yet to take advantage of tax and investment incentives to spend money modernizing the facilities.