This year’s Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, will be like no other. The pandemic has caused the 71st version of one of the world’s biggest cinematic celebrations to be split in two – beginning with an online-only event that will span five days from Monday, March 1. This will be geared towards the international film industry, and a public event will be held for Berlin audiences in June, when, hopefully, crowds will be able to gather safely in cinemas.
Among the official titles selected are six by Arab filmmakers, four of them women. It's a real indication of how strong film from the region is right now – the festival calls it “critical new cinema from the Middle East”.
Here, we take a closer look at are the titles selected from the Arab world, and highlight a multimedia installation from an artist born in Beirut.
Receiving its world premiere with a competition slot is Memory Box, the fifth feature by Beirut-born duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (A Perfect Day, Je veux voir). These filmmakers have already seen their work play in Cannes and Toronto sidebars, though vying for the prestigious Golden Bear is a real step up.
Set, initially, in Montreal, the film follows a mother, Maia, and her daughter, Alex, who receive a box of letters and photos that the teenage Maia had sent years earlier to her best friend, who fled to Paris to escape the civil war in Beirut. Starring Rim Turkhi (Munich, The English Patient) and Manal Issa (Nocturama), the story unfolds as Maia refuses to open up the Pandora’s box into her past, but her daughter feels otherwise.
Originally selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival that was cancelled owing to the pandemic, Souad, directed by Egyptian filmmaker Ayten Amin, is now appearing in the Panorama section of the Berlinale. It's the first Egyptian-Tunisian co-production since the 1970s, and Amin has been working on the film for five years.
The story deals with the impact of social media on young girls and follows two sisters who live in the small delta city of Zagazig in Lower Egypt. The title character, Souad (Bassant Ahmed), leads a double life; outwardly conservative to her family and society at large, she secretly enjoys virtual relationships with men. Meanwhile, her 13-year-old sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh) becomes embroiled in her own journey after a tragic incident.
With Amin investing the drama with documentary-style realism, aided by casting many first-time actors, c-star Sarah Shedid recently called it “an intimate portrait of young women in Egypt today and their struggles and dreams”.
'As I Want'
Director Samaher Alqadi is one of the rising voices of documentary cinema in the Arab world and her film As I Want – playing in the Encounters strand of the festival – is a combative study of sexual assault in contemporary Egypt and an examination of the self.
Alqadi's film begins in January 2013, with Egypt in turmoil two years after the revolution. The inspiration for it was born out of tragedy – the public rape of Alqadi's friend on the night an explosion of violence against women rippled through Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
As the Palestinian-raised Alqadi begins to document protests and anti-rape patrols in the city, she also turns the camera on herself after she becomes pregnant, exploring what it means to be a woman in the Middle East. As she notes in her director’s statement, her hope for the film is to “open a wider debate that can encourage women to show their power, demand their rights and change their lives for the better”.
'Death of a Virgin and The Sin of Not Living'
This is Argentinian-Lebanese filmmaker George Peter Barbari's directorial debut, and another Panorama entry. Barbari was born in Orange County, California, but was raised in Batroun, Lebanon, and his film is drawn from personal experience.
The story follows four young Lebanese men as they travel to visit a sex worker for the first time. Barbari worked with the four newcomer actors – Etienne Assal, Adnan Khannaz, Jean Paul Franjieh and Saad Elle Dankoura – for three years, rehearsing, while he tried to secure funding.
“This is a film that has been through so much,” Barbari says, but it’s unveiling in Berlin marks a fitting reward for his efforts.
'Saba' Sanawat Hawl Delta Al-Neel' (Seven Years Around the Nile Delta)
The Berlinale’s Forum section tends to lean towards the experimental end of cinema, with brave programming, and this five-and-a-half-hour documentary from Sharief Zohairy, playing in Forum Expanded, is no exception.
It was shot over a period of seven years, beginning when Zohairy picked up his camera to record his travels through the Nile Delta at the start of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, capturing everyday life through his lens. While it will take some endurance from viewers, given the protracted running time and the online format, Zohairy has unquestionably conjured an epic travelogue. It feels destined to take on greater resonance in the pandemic when so many of us are restricted in our movements.
Playing in Panorama, this docudrama comes from Lebanese director Eliane Raheb, whose earlier films include the multi-award-winning Sleepless Nights and Those Who Remain. Raheb grew up during the Lebanese civil war, and as she once stated: “The war lingers in my head and I always search for it.” So it’s little wonder she found herself drawn to the subject for her latest film.
Raheb accompanies Miguel – described as a sensitive but self-destructive man – on a life-changing journey. After fighting in the civil war in 1982, an attempt to prove something to his family, Miguel flees the oppressive society he was reared in for the hedonistic climes of Madrid in the post-Franco era. Traumatised by his early experiences, only now – 37 years later – does he muster the courage to return to his homeland to confront the ghosts of his past and seek the emotional balance he’s been craving.
'All of Your Stars are but Dust on my Shoes'
The Berlinale’s Forum Expanded strand is also a platform for artists to showcase multimedia work. The title of this year’s collection is The Days Float Through My Eyes, a line taken from David Bowie’s seminal record Changes.
Among the eight installations – which will be shown to the public in June – is this latest piece by Beirut-born artist Haig Aivazian. Although little has been revealed about it, Aivazian’s past work has explored performance, drawing and sculpture.
The Berlinale runs from Monday to Friday, March 1 to 5, with the public event from Wednesday, June 9 to Sunday, June 20
More information is at www.berlinale.de