|Marrakech film fest offers a sprawling mix of the old and (sort of) new
|Tribute to Egyptian cineaste Tawfiq Saleh offers rare overview of an exceptionally rich oeuvre
From Carthage to Cairo, Beirut, and Dubai - the Arab world has no shortage of international film festivals, all jostling for a bit of the glitz and glamour of Venice and Cannes.
Where the Marrakech International Film Festival - which opened with a red-carpet affair at the Palais des Congres on Saturday night - fits into the regional or international pecking order is anyone's guess.
It has grown in size and stature since its inception six years ago, an indication, perhaps, of Morocco's booming economy along with its usefulness as a shooting location. Like many young festivals vying to make a mark and guarantee a celebrity-studded guest list, the festival has introduced a number of industry events for professionals to meet and greet. It has also ushered in the establishment of a local audio-visual school to train the next generation of home-grown talent.
Otherwise, the Marrakech film festival, spread across seven different cinemas in the older and newer quarters of the so-called red city, is as big as it is random, as sprawling as it is scatterbrained.
In one corner, you have Roman Polanski, who is heading up this year's jury. In another, you have Susan Sarandon, who is the subject of a 10-film tribute. In yet another corner, you have an homage to the Bollywood acting team of Ajay and Kajol Devgan. In still another, you have a special section devoted to the complete works of Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke, whose film "Still Life" won the Golden Lion at Venice this year.
If all that doesn't make for a weird enough room already, throw in tributes to veteran Moroccan actor Mohamed Majd and Egyptian cineaste Tawfiq Saleh and decorate abundantly with "The Italian Preference" - a 42-film romp through the history of Italian cinema selected by last year's jury chief, Martin Scorsese - and "Taj Mahal" - a 14-film recap on a decade's worth of Indian film. For good measure, add as a centerpiece Laurence Fishburne hosting a run-through of the Matrix trilogy.
We're still only in the wings. The main action at Marrakech concerns the 15-film competition, plus eight films screening under the banner "Coup de Coeur" (as in "stuff we like") and another 10 films screening out of competition. And of course there are prizes, too.
Amid this madness, if any serious criticism may be leveled at Marrakech, it is that the films are stale. The opener was the Scorsese stinker "The Departed"- already in general release and available on street corners the world over as a pirated DVD. Ditto Marwan Hamed's Egyptian epic "The Yacoubian Building," Emilio Estevez's Robert F. Kennedy biopic "Bobby" and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's multilingual gut-wrencher "Babel."
That said, the paucity of world premieres (two) is more than sufficiently balanced out by the wealth of material that holds no pretense of freshness whatsoever. Gorgeously composed black-and-white gems, some of them rarely retrieved from the trunk of history, embellish the screening schedule at Marrakech.
Film buffs will always salivate at the opportunity to watch Vittorio de Sica's "The Bicycle Thief," Federico Fellini's "La Strada " or Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura" on the big screen. But the chance to see such a sizable chunk of Tawfiq Saleh's output is nearly unprecedented.
Born in 1926, Tawfiq Saleh studied literature in the late 1940s in Cairo. He did his cinema training in the early 1950s in Paris where - appropriately enough for this festival - he fell in love with the work of the Italian neo-realists. Never prolific, his entire oeuvre amounts to just seven shorts and seven features, four of which are screening at Marrakech. Saleh hasn't made a new movie since 1980.
His feature debut, "Fool's Alley" (1955), is based on a story by Naguib Mahfouz and chronicles the misadventures of a working-class Cairo enclave whose inhabitants go crazy when the neighborhood nut wins the lottery. The film drapes searing social commentary - the destructive power of money over the simple and unschooled - onto the frame of a fairly traditional love story between Taha and Khadija.
Film historians consider Saleh one of the chief pillars of Egyptian cinema, alongside Youssef Chahine and Salah Abu Seif. But his renown pales in comparison to that of his peers, in part because his films are aesthetically heavier and ideologically harder. Tough nuggets of injustice, corruption, class warfare and underdevelopment lie at the heart of his films, which his characters endeavor to pry open and work through, even as their efforts end most often in bleak failure.
In terms of singing and dancing and women playfully smacking their own cheeks, "Fool's Alley" abides closely to the old-fashioned codes of conventional Egyptian film. "Diary of a Country Prosecutor," made in 1968 and based on a novel by Tawfiq Hakim, likewise obeys the cinematic rules of melodrama. But it also carries the elements of allegory that Saleh developed into an overall architecture in "The Rebels" (1966) and "The Dupes" (1972).
"The Rebels" is set in a desert sanatorium for patients suffering from tuberculosis. Those in the non-paying ward are agitating because they don't get regular food, water or medical treatment while those in the paying ward do. This haves and have-nots story explodes into a full-on epic of class struggle and revolution when the young doctor Aziz arrives on the scene.
Aziz has made his way in the world but he is also, like his poor brethren, afflicted with the illness. As doctor and patient at once, he leads a revolt in which the sick take over the sanatorium. However, as with all revolutionary narratives, overthrowing the old regime turns out to be a lot easier than establishing a new one. The sanatorium experiment goes horribly wrong as Saleh pokes and prods the "what now" question until it bleeds.
If "The Rebels" subtly criticized the revolutionary impulse and all its obvious implications for mid 20th-century Egypt, then "The Dupes" unflinchingly damned the entire enterprise of Arab solidarity vis-a-vis Palestine. It remains one of the very few artistic documents to express unabashed doubt about the actual support of Arab states for the Palestinians.
Based on Ghassan Kanafani's first novella "Men in the Sun," "The Dupes" brings together three men - Abu Kais, Assad and Marwan - who represent three generations, or rather half-generations, of the Palestinian experience. All decide to seek out money and freedom in the Gulf.
Abu Kais is a middle-aged man with a young family to feed. Assad is a young adult who can't but be regarded as a trouble-maker. Marwan is an adolescent who has been made the man of the house by his father's abandonment.
The three men meet in Basra after a harrowing journey across the desert of Iraq. To cross the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border without papers, a man named Abu Kheizarane offers to smuggle them inside his water truck - for a fee. The men must hide inside the sealed tank - an air-tight oven - as the truck crosses the frontier. Desperate and with no other options, the men agree.
All goes well on the Iraqi side of the border cross. On the Kuwaiti side, however, the border guards will have none of Abu Kheizarane's haste. They delay him with questions and demand he show fealty. They stall, prattle and preen. When Abu Kheizarane finally procures their approval to pass, it is too late. In the end, he dumps the three dead bodies on a trash heap in Kuwait.
The film's allegorical power can't be overstated. Three Palestinian men are offered a container - an emblem, if you will, of a refugee camp, a rump state, Gaza. That container is promised as a temporary conduit to lasting freedom but it turns out to be hell, an inferno, a death trap.
The artist Fareed Armaly has previously pointed out the key difference between the film and the novella on which it is based. Kanafani's text was published before the stunning Arab losses of 1967. The film was shot in Syria in 1972.
In Kanafani's text, the men do not knock on the sides of tanks before they die. The story ends with Abu Kheizarane agonizing: "Why didn't they knock? Why?" In Saleh's film, however, the men do knock, and loudly, but the air-conditioning buzzing in the border office drowns out the sounds of their distress. The final shot in "The Dupes" is of Abu Kais' dead hand, fingers curled into knocking position.
"The Dupes" is the only one of Saleh's films to be picked up regularly as festival fare, usually in the context of Syrian or Palestinian cinema. Seeing in it the context of his own oeuvre, one understands that "The Dupes" isn't a one-off. Rather, it is the crowning achievement of a career worth reviving much more often.
The Marrakech International Film Festival continues through December 9. For more information, please call +212 24 432 494 or check out www.festival-marrakech.com
The Daily Star