Farewell to the BFI London Film Festival 2016: Nahla Ink's Highlights

The past twelve days have been a profound experience attending the 60th edition of the BFI London Film Festival (LFF) and trying to follow as many as possible of the Middle East and North Africa region-inspired productions. With the excellent programming input of the MENA-region strand advisors for the BFI, film producers Elhum Shakerifar and Ali Jaafar, I was touched, moved, inspired, made to laugh, made to cry and made to think by each and every single film that I was able to view, whether it was from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia or Saudi Arabia.

The powerful selection brought to London’s BFI audience – this year the festival in total attracted 184,7000 viewers - the most vivid, wonderful and colourful cinematic proof of a real force to be reckoned with and that which is embodied in the talent of the local filmmakers, producers and actors who are working from within the Arab region; and, whom are all artistically, via film, reflecting on the current realities of political and social upheavals as well as tackling universal human subjects without the use of simplified or over-complicated clichés.​

Shakerifar explained the process of selection: "We view films throughout the year with a view of bringing a diverse and representative mix of cinematic voices from across the region to London for the festival. At a time where the Middle East is often viewed through the superficial prism of news bites and stereotype, I feel a real responsibility to showcase the incredible talent and richness of the region's storytelling, the diversity of voices, the variety of themes - reflections on history, on life and love, on youth, on the role of culture and the value of friendship. I am really delighted with both the breadth of this year's programme and the audience response to the film's we've had the pleasure of screening at the festival this year."

A Day for Women (Egypt)

One of the first highlights was seeing the iconic Egyptian actress Elham Shaheen sitting at a table right in the foyer of Picturehouse Central! The Egyptian glitterati were in full force, excited to see and support her in London. As we watched the world premiere of her latest production, 'A Day for Women', it begs us into the poor village in Cairo where the women get one day a week on a Sunday to play and have a splash in the local swimming pool, courtesy of the municipal council. 

Although at first they are all hesitant - with the exception of Azza (superbly played by Nahed El Sebai) who has a reputation in the village for being super naive and simple - in time the opportunity for them to meet at the local club and to interact as well as learn how to swim and have a bit of innocent fun changes their lives forever in wonderful and unexpected ways.

This is a film that truly celebrates sisterhood as we follow the three main female protagonists go through complex love stories but with the ability of friendship to overcome their joint grief, pain and dire economic situation. We do also see glimpses of the underlying social and political factors currently impacting on Egyptian society, with a clear reference to some of the religious oppressive viewpoints that seem to hold everyone back. Featuring Shaheen in the role of the artists' model Shamiya and Nelly Karim, in the role of the perfume-store owner Lula, this is a great one to keep an eye out for should it return to a UK screen.

Barakah Meets Barakah (Saudi Arabia)

Another great opportunity was to watch the Saudi romantic-comedy ‘Barakah Meets Barakah' and meeting with the young fresh-faced Saudi trio behind it at a BFI Press Afternoon Tea event and getting the opportunity to interview all three. Outspoken, they offer an important message to the world that Saudi Arabia is changing from the inside and especially due to the impact of the new communications technologies and the utilising of online social media.

In fact, they herald a very likely social revolution to be led by their age group, the millennials. Addressing the topic of public space and how life is like in the Kingdom, you can read the full interview article here: http://www.nahlaink.com/interviews/barakah-meets-barakah%E2%80%99-%E2%80...

Hedi (Tunisia)

In a fully packed cinema at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the next film that stood out was the Tunisian feature production of 'Hedi', directed by Mohamed Ben Attia. With its subtle but powerful personal approach, it considers through a love story the pressures on Tunisian youth to conform to the old conservative culture and follow the norms versus their desire to rebel and claim their freedom against these social constraints.

Played by the actor, Majd Mastoura, the introverted and troubled Hedi has to struggle to find his authentic path and speak up without the fear of external control, such as that personified in his domineering mother and hypocritical older brother. With the two very different female characters that he becomes entangled with, we see the forces of tradition set against the hope for liberation. This film was a winner at the Berlinale earlier this year where it premiered and won both the 'Best First Feature' award and the 'Silver Bear for Best Actor' award given to Mastoura.

As the director Ben Attia has stated: "Purposefully conceived as a love story - or rather as a 'love at first sight' story in which the meeting of the two lovers is instantaneous and suddenly deconstructs the hero’s existence - this story is first and foremost an assessment of Tunisian Youth after the revolution, Ben Ali’s collapse and what the entire world then called 'the Arab spring'.

In this story, there are no weapons, no pickets, no demonstrations. No heroic heroes brandishing banners and climbing over barricades, offering their chests up to take the bullets. My intention is rather to lift the veil on the lives of these young people five years later, young people groping to find their way, moving sometimes forward and sometimes backwards. Where are we today? And what stage is our country at now?"

Tickling Giants (Egypt)

Directed by Sara Taksler, this too was a wonderful documentary that follows the real life story of the Egyptian Bassem Youssef. He was made famous when he left his medical career as a cardiologist to become a host of an online Youtube show – called ‘Al Bernameg’ - that satirised on the political changes that his country was undergoing from the start of the January 2011 Revolution and in the few years that followed.

With a deep admiration for the America presenter Jon Stewart - who features in the film when they both visit each other’s TV studios - Youssef at first succeeds in having his programme broadcast on two official Egyptian channels and has the full support of a loyal creative production team who believe in him and the collective right to make jokes. At its height, each episode was fetching over 30 million viewers across the MENA region.

However, it is when Youssef’s sharp humour continues to scrutinise and tries to hold the newer government officials accountable - that is both Mohamed Morsi and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who came after the humiliating fall of Hosni Mubarak - that he comes to be viewed as a threat to social order and is seen to be provoking political unrest, leading to the compromise of his personal safety and that of his entire team.

Tackling in a very funny way, but also with serious undertones, the subject of the need for freedom of expression in Egypt and the right to an independent media that can challenge and have the ability to poke fun at authority should it wish to, we realise that not so much has changed in the aftermath of the hard-won and fought for revolution.

The ‘Tickling Giants’ documentary is now an active online project that is calling on everyone to take action via Twitter, encouraging all: “to tickle the giants in their own lives, finding non-violent ways to express themselves when power is abused. From a protest against a world leader to standing up to a bully in a school cafeteria, people are encouraged to share their experiences with the hashtag #Tickling Giants.’"

Tramontane (Lebanon)

To top them all, however, it was the screening of 'Tramontane' that deeply touched me by its indescribably beautiful tale and the sheer genius of the directing. Mixed with a traditional-classical Arabic musical score, the Lebanese Vatche Boulghourjian brings us the young blind Rabih - real name Barakat Jabbour – who is on a mission to find out his real birth origins after he is made aware that his family have adopted him in early childhood but had never confessed to it nor explained to him the true circumstances of his disability.

Rabih goes on an earnest quest to piece together the past and find out his biological parents even when the blindness might put him at a disadvantage. The trouble is, the stories he is told by the people he meets and asks questions of don't hold together and someone or all of them appear to be lying to him. Poetically utilising the healing and transformative power of music with Rabih singing and playing a host of instruments, the metaphor of the search for identity is interlinked with the desire to understand the history of Lebanon itself, the country set in the background.

As Boulghourjian has commented: "Rabih’s journey to find the truth about his origins requires him to retrace specific events from the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Instead of the facts he needs to solve his enigma, Rabih is told myths, visions, and outright lies; none of the people he meets can tell the truth. This is a phenomenon that has become common since the end of the war: to protect or exonerate oneself, the past is fabricated, distorted or altogether concealed.

To this day, no single, official narrative of the war exists; each community is left to devise and teach its own narrative of the war, thus entrenching past enmities in future generations. By all accounts, the war did not end; it just took another shape. As multiple narratives have taken root to describe the same event, a crisis of narrative has fragmented Lebanon. This has exacerbated an already volatile situation where even basic facts are in dispute. By following Rabih’s crisis, Tramontane looks inward at a country that cannot face its own history."

I am really sad to bid farewell to this year's BFI LFF but again, I must congratulate the MENA-programme advisors Shakerifar and Jaafar who played a key role in bringing these potent and deeply engaging films to us. I cannot wait until next year!

Images in order: Elham Shaheen (A Day for Women), Bassem Youssef (Tickling Giants), Film Image (Tramontane), Film Image (Hedi), Film Image (Barakah Meets Barakah)