Before funding problems caused an unfortunate hiatus in 2012, The Birds Eye View Film Festival, an annual celebration of female filmmakers, had established itself as one of the key dates in the UK film calendar. On its welcome return this year, the festival has chosen to focus on the work being done by Arab filmmakers, with a number of new features, shorts, documentaries and new scores for silent films being presented in London from April 3rd to 10th. Here is my take on four of the new works being showcased.
One the Edge (Sur la planche)
By day, Badia (Soufia Issami) works a menial job in a shrimp factory, just one of many young women sat in a huge white space mechanically peeling the piles of shrimp dumped in front of them. At night, however, Badia has another life, as she stalks the streets of Tangier with a few companions in search of men that they can pick up and then steal from. As a shrimp factory employee, Badia is regarded as someone on the bottom rung of the social ladder, and one repeated motif shows her violently scrubbing her body with lemon in a desperate attempt to wash off the stench from her day job ("It seeps into your bones" she ruefully observes). She dreams of finding work in the city's Free Zone, and Leila Kilani's screenplay sometimes veers too closely to a familiar "One last big job" template, but her nervy direction and unexpected choices (her use of close-up late in the film is very potent) keep things feeling fresh. If only it was a little bit tighter; On the Edge starts to sag noticeably halfway through as the actions of Badia and her crew start to grow a little repetitive. The writer/director could have sharpened her film by boiling it down to the essentials, and by clarifying some aspects of the story that feel unnecessarily opaque. If the film remains consistently riveting, however, it's largely down to the powerhouse central performance from Soufia Issami. Kilani draws excellent performances from all of her actors, but Issami is such an intense and driven performer it sometimes feels as if the film is struggling to keep up with her. I was reminded of the protagonist from the Dardennes' Rosetta, another girl who lived by her wits and refused to buckle to circumstance, and while On the Edge can't quite hit the same level as that picture, it shares the same riveting pulse in its central performance.
Coming Forth by Day (Al-khoroug lel-nahar)
In her debut feature Coming Forth by Day, Hala Lotfy creates a stifling sense of claustrophobia that is almost overwhelming. The first two-thirds of her 96-minute film take place entirely within the confines of a small Egyptian apartment, where Soad (Donia Maher) tends to her invalid father, with her mother frequently too exhausted by her hospital night shift to be any assistance. Lotfy exposes us to the dull monotony of Soad's routine, as she moves and washes her father and does chores around the flat, and in Maher's touchingly subtle performance we witness a woman utterly defeated. She has sacrificed any semblance of a life of her own in order to perform these domestic duties, and the manner in which Lotfy utilises the space available to her – all narrows corridors and shuttered windows – makes her home seems like a prison. When she finally does leave the flat for some valuable time alone, it feels like an escape. For some viewers, Coming forth by Day will undoubtedly feel like a chore, with its slow pace and deliberate monotony hardly making it sound like the most appetising fare. But Lotfy's hugely impressive control of this material (and her brother's measured, evocative cinematography) establishes an engrossing atmosphere and rhythm that partially recalls Chantal Akerman's masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, and while it may require some effort from the audience to get on the film's wavelength, it is a very rewarding and distinctive work from this young filmmaker.
Habibi (Habibi Rasak Kharban)
Susan Youssef's Habibi is a story of forbidden love, but apart from the novelty of its Gaza setting, there's little to distinguish this slight effort from the many other films that have told such tales. The two central characters – Layla (Maisa Abdelhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashif) – are intelligent and sophisticated students whose meeting of minds at a West Bank college leads to romance. Their burgeoning love is thwarted by politics, when their student visas are revoked forcing the pair to return to Gaza, where they can no longer see each other, and their mutual pining for the romance and poetry that has suddenly disappeared from their lives begins. Habibi is a film full of striking moments that never quite cohere into an engrossing narrative; bursts of passion of violence that just hang in the air and sometimes overshadow the scenes surrounding them. The film also suffers from a crippling lack of focus, with the central story occasionally being disrupted by an awkward subplot in which Layla's brother is courted by Hamas (although this thread does provide one very funny line: "Rocky isn't Zionist, he's Italian" in response to an admonishment for watching American films). It all feels a little too flat and underdeveloped to carry any weight, which is a real shame because Youssef's – especially the disarmingly beautiful Abdelhadi – offer some fine work, and the film is at its best when it intimately details the interaction between two people who only desire one thing: to be together, and to be left alone.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Les trois disparitions de Soad Hosni)
Soad Hosni is one of the biggest stars in the history of Middle Eastern cinema. Between 1959 and 1991 the Egyptian actress appeared in 83 films and became an iconic figure, but mystery surrounds her untimely death in London; an apparent suicide that may have been something more sinister. Her life might be ripe material for a biopic, but Lebanese artist Rania Stephan has taken a far more imaginative approach to bringing her life and work to the screen. The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is a documentary compiled entirely from footage of the star's screen performances, and it emerges as an extraordinary portrait of a woman who grew up on screen. The film is divided into three acts, the first showing her as a winsome young starlet who blossomed in light romantic comedies; Act II shows the girl becoming a woman, with footage from the more daring and seductive roles that she later took on; and Act III presents us with a mature Hosni, now playing in a series of melodramas and tragedies. The images and sound are layered to potent effect; for example, the exchange "Who are you?" "I don't remember" is frequently repeated, almost giving the film the narrative shape of a woman trying to retrieve lost memories. Stephan's editing creates numerous compelling patterns and rhythms, such as the collection of chaste kisses in the first part of the film, which has an unsettling echo with the seemingly never-ending montage of rape sequences that occurs in the film's third portion. The film is visually stimulating too, thanks to the varying stages of deterioration that these films exist in, and the fact that so many of Hosni's pictures are fading or lost is another way in which she can be said to have disappeared. What is indisputable after watching The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is the fact that the woman is celebrates was a true star – a rare beauty whose luminous presence shines through despite the degraded image – and that the film Rania Stephan has made is a worthy tribute. An ingenious idea accomplished with remarkable skill, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is endlessly fascinating, exhilarating and moving.