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Egypt’s first edition of El Gouna Film Festival screens sparkling fare

El Gouna Film Festival have an interesting collection of films like Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, which talks about the unusual cult following that Michael Jackson enjoyed in the Arab world.

world cinema Updated: Sep 29, 2017 16:59 IST
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Hindustan Times, El Gouna (Egypt)
Egypt,El Gouna Film Festival,Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson
A scene from Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson.

The ongoing first edition of the El Gouna Film Festival on Egypt’s Red Sea Coast threw up some interesting works. The opening title, Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, had an amazingly novel plotline and talks about the unusual and intense cult following that Michael Jackson enjoyed in the Arab world. His songs and albums were passed around in utmost secrecy even as some of the regimes in the region looked down upon and banned pop music. The ghost of Jackson, who had toyed with the idea of converting to Islam, permeates every frame of the movie, deliriously drama created by Saudi-born Egyptian auteur, Salama. The film is Egypt’s official submission for the 2018 foreign-language Oscars.

Sheikh Jackson uses its canvas to talk about compassion, passion, friction between generations and family dysfunctionality. Sheikh Khaled Hani (a gripping performance by Ahmad Alfishawy) leads a joyless life - sleeping on the floor to remind himself of the inevitability of death, insisting that his wife wear full veil, and rebuking his daughter, Beyonce, about the perils of diabolic music and other forms of pop culture.

But then the news of Michael Jackson’s death shocks Sheikh beyond imagination, and in a flashback we are told that he was an almost obsessive fan of the pop star. Though, Sheikh was mocked by his classmates for copying Jackson’s hairstyle and dance steps, though he was admonished by his father for following the “drag queen”, the boy happily found himself at the centre of female attention because of his likeness to Jackson.

Strangely, Jackson’s death pushes the adult Sheikh to ponder over his faith and beliefs. It also brings back memories of his mother’s death, his father’s arrogance and his own failed school romance. Sheikh begins to hallucinate and finds himself being visited by Jackson’s ghost - till he walks into a counselling session to rid himself of the nightmare.

An interesting movie, Sheikh Jackson layers itself with some of today’s dilemmas, especially those that relate to religion and the way it causes animosity and angst. Often, presented in a lighthearted vein, but carrying a meaningful message, Sheikh Jackson seemed like an apt work to push eight-days of cinema in a little town called El Gouna - which has till now been a haven for mostly European tourists flocking for the sun and sand in an attempt to forget the woes of the world.

Another work that was riveting was Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope. The cinema of Kaurismaki despite its deadpan imagery has always sparkled. It may not have a joy-di-vivre, but has a soul that is magically captivating. And, yes, so addictive. But Kaurismaki’s latest, a Berlin Competition title, The Other Side of Hope, goes beyond this. Here in this work, he focuses on refugees - still an uneasy subject for a movie plot and an even greater discomfort for politicians.

Kaurismaki plots his narrative with his usual candid absurdity, but this in no way undermines the humungous seriousness of the problem of the all those millions displaced from their homes. And he takes us through the tale with disarming simplicity and unbelievable ease.

A scene from Annarita Zambrano’s After the War.

The film is basically about two men: a travelling salesman, Wikström, from Finland who quarrels with his wife and walks out of home. And he decides to make a clean cut of his life by throwing away his job and taking up gambling. With the money he earns at poker, he buys a dowdy restaurant - where a Syrian refugee, Khaled, who has made his way into Finland as a stowaway in a coal ship, is hired. He is searching for his sister, and in what seems like a wonderful camaraderie, the men at the restaurant come together to help Khaled. Set in Helsinki, Kaurismaki paints the gloom of the times all right, but lifts the movie out of the morose with a dash of hope and positiveness. In fact, this writer found this to be one of the director’s most humorous, most breezy titles.

A French drama, After the War comes from Annarita Zambrano. In her debut feature, she gives a smart, affecting account of how a former Italian terrorist stripped of his safe haven status in France, plans to escape Europe with his school-going teenage daughter. The film is a powerful look at how the violence of political resistance takes a toll on the lives of men and their families.

In 2002, France did away with the Mitterrand policy of allowing convicted terrorists from Italy to remain in France without the fear of extradition. That year, a Bologna jurist, Marco Biagi, was assassinated by a group calling itself the New Red Brigade. Zambrano uses these two incidents to weave a fictional story of Marco Lamberti - who had been a member of the Armed Formation for the Revolution and who had fled from Italy to France in 1981 after killing a judge.

Afraid that he would be deported, now that the Mitterrand doctrine is gone, Lamberti and his daughter, Viola, seek the help of an old friend for passports which will help them travel to Nicaragua. In the meantime, Biagi’s murder prompts the Italian police to reopen its case against Lamberti, and the cops and journalists go calling on his mother and sister - opening up wounds of a painful past which the two women had hoped was buried for good.

Zambrano’s sympathies lie not with Lamberti, and she skillfully states that such terror crimes, whatever be their motivation, insidiously affect and even harm the present. Viola is upset that she has been dragged out of a great life at school and is going to be taken to Central America. But she gets even more angry and confused when she sees a newspaper heading on her father, “Intellectual or Criminal?” And we begun to understand that Lamberti’s arguments - which he spells out in an interview with a journalist - are a fundamentally flawed rationale.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran is now covering the first edition of the El Gouna Film Festival.)

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First Published: Sep 29, 2017 16:53 IST