Egyptian film in the Gulf: Dispatch from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, part II

Egyptian cinema is a quite significant presence at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival. "Messages from the Sea," Dawood Abdel-Sayed's poetic drama (released earlier this year in Cairo) about a young man looking for real tenderness in Alexandria, is set to be screened in the Emirates Palace with its two leading actors, Asser Yassin and Basma, in attendance.

A long art video called "Domestic Tourism II" (Siyaha Dakhiliyya II) by visual artist Maha Maamoun was also screened as part of the festival’s special programming. The video, a collage of Egyptian film footage that features the Great Pyramid as an iconic backdrop, took first prize at the 2009 Sharjah Art Biennial.  The video presents its scenes from newest to oldest, like an inverted pyramid, as Maamoun put it.

In the New Horizons competition (for new directors), Egypt is represented by "Live Skin," the debut from director Fawzi Saleh. A documentary, "Live Skin" depicts the physical and mental futures of young children driven to work in tanneries. It was produced by Eygptian film star Mahmoud Hemmeda.

Most promising is a new Egyptian documentary called "In/Out of the Room" from rising writer-director Dina Hamza. Hamza, who studied at the Arab Film Institute in Amman, has written and directed several award-winning documentaries. Her short narrative "Eyeliner" (2004) was featured at the Berlinale Talent Campus and "Voices" (2008), a short documentary, won a prize at the Cairo Film Festival. In 2009 she collaborated with three other directors on "But Something Is Missing," which received a special mention at the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival. She was also an assistant director of "Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story" (Yousry Nousrallah, 2009). "In/Out of the Room" was produced by the Egyptian National Film Center.

"In/Out of the Room" tells the story of Am Hussein, an Egyptian hangman in his sixties. Over the course of his thirty-year career, Am Hussein has conducted a thousand executions. The camera follows him through a normal day, which begins with a commute on public buses and office paperwork, and ends with a new death sentence being carried out. A proud father and dutiful husband, Am Hussein confesses that he could not marry the woman he loved because of class disparity.

Am Hussein justifies his interest in the job because, following his military service, he was in need of some additional income to support his family and the work of an executioner promises a bonus of 5LE per head. At first, Am Hussein had nightmares, but after five executions, the job became routine, like any other. Throughout the years, Am Hussein has learned how to deal with tough criminals as well as obese ones, whose execution requires a special technique. “Sometimes, their head is decapitated from the bodies when I hang them,” he remembers.

After the film, Hamza explained that her interest in the character of Am Hussein stems from her thoughts about death and the afterlife. The film shows Am Hussein at home, inside the death chamber, and smoking sheesha and watching a football game in the coffeeshop in his poor neighborhood.  

The festival shows a growing interest from the Gulf in becoming a destination for the arts in the region. American actress Julianne Moore, who was visiting the UAE for the first time, was astonished by the interest of film and culture in Abu Dhabi. In her talk held yesterday in the festival’s tent, Moore said she would love to shoot a film in the Gulf if she found the right script.

The festival in Abu Dhabi is, along with other regional festivals like the Doha Tribeca in Qatar and the Dubai Festival, supporting new filmmakers from the region and beyond, with a particular focus on Gulf cinema. Egyptian producers in attendance noted the festival’s Gulf oriented themes and focus on Gulf filmmakers, all seemingly in the aim of creating a new UAE cinema.

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