A great film is one that captures the mood of the times, spinning stories out of societal joys and sorrows, the highs and lows of a community, upheavals, revolutions and wars.
A great movie festival is one that enriches its programme with such cinema. The third edition of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival has been smart enough to weave into its selections movies on or inspired by the Arab Spring.
On the Road to Downtown is one. Its director, Sherif El Bendary, was one demonstrator among the hundreds of thousands of people who marched on the streets of Cairo in January, demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
Bendary and others shouted slogans till their voices grew hoarse. But some of them, like Bendary, also carried their camcorders to record a revolution that changed people’s lives in bewildering ways.
Bendary’s documentary is part of the Festival Competition, and is a moving portrait of several characters who live in one of Cairo’s neighbourhoods. Though no direct footage of the uprising can be found in the film, the characters talk about it.
Bendary, who started work on his documentary four months before trouble erupted in Egypt, began the actual shoot only after Mubarak went. And with the region in a political flux, there is a tendency to look for answers -- not from the rulers, but the ruled, and On the Road to Downtown presents an engaging exchange with the man on the street.
In the feature, Normal, Helmer Merzak, an Algerian by birth, also uses the people as a springboard for a debate on the revolution. Two years before Tunisia and Egypt were caught in a political tsunami, Merzak was documenting the frustration of the youth that could not channel its enormous energy into artistic avenues. There was really no freedom.
In his 100-minute fiction, Merzak tells the story of how a group of actors is shown a documentary on the Arab Spring. What do they feel? How do they react? The questions and their answers mix and mingle with the story.
Elyes Baccar also uses the fiction format in his Rouge Parole to take us into the political storm. The movie is an emotional look at the heroes of the Tunisian revolt that led to dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster.
Obviously, there is a wealth of material lying there that can give us exciting insight into people’s restlessness and anger arising from the fettered lives they have been leading for decades. Surely, we are bound to see many, many more features and documentaries on the tumultuous days in the Arab world.
However, some time has to elapse before scriptwriters and directors can actually focus on the issues concerned – to gain a fair perspective and churn out reels of memorable movies.
For the moment, there is much too excitement to savour. Bendary summed up this mood well in an interview: Freedom from dictators is great, but the freedom to express one is greater.