Cairo is perhaps the most chaotic city I’ve ever been to.
Chaos is good, chaos is constructive.
I dislike people from elsewhere who think they know a place after they’ve been there for a few days. I was there for ten days; I don’t know Cairo. But a friend of mine I met there told me over a drink:
“The first time I came to Cairo, it was a shock. I couldn’t look beyond the dirt on the ground. And then my eyes started lifting. Eventually, I saw trees. There’s a lot of green in Cairo. You just don’t see it right away.”
Cairo is, therefore, a cinematic city.
The best thing about the cinema is its ability to make you see things you look at everyday life and may walk past without noticing. Looking is, of course, not the same as seeing. But if you walk around Cairo (or any other place) enough, you are bound to see something. Even if you spend the whole time looking at the ground, making sure you don’t step over dogshit.
(Although who am I to say that the meaning of life is not dogshit.)
Perhaps it was my sensibility to this reality about Cairo that made me realize one thing about the films I watched at the Cairo International Film Festival: their eagerness to show what is there but remains unseen.
In Treat Me Like Fire, Marie Monge looks at a side of Paris that is far from the bourgeoisie or dinner parties and the romance of lovers sharing a kiss by the Eiffel Tower – or the hipsters wearing stripey shirts and reading Gilles Deleuze drinking glasses of vin and smoking a cigarette at a café. It is the city of organized underground gambling joints… which incidentally disappeared shortly after the film premiered in Cannes earlier this year.
In the case of Treat Me Like Fire, the film is an incubator not only for something that was there and was unseen: it was also an incubator of something that was there, unseen, and is there no longer.
**”Why make films? Bloody stupid question,” Wim Wenders would say.**
Then there are crime-ridden Cape Flats of Cape Town in South Africa. The irony of a man who wants to “get rich or die trying,” blackmailing a dangerous thug to give pay his debt to another thug (there’s nothing easy about easy money). Can anybody name a film set in Cape Flat without Googling it?
In Nosipho Dumisa’s film, Number 37, the lead character ends up in a wheelchair and in a delightful Hitchcockian reference, is given a pair of binoculars. Sure, this is the prop that facilitates the thriller narrative. But it also allows our accattone to look into people’s homes, and sees the violence that takes place within it – people get shot, women get beaten.
Whether he sees it or not, that’s questionable…
EXT. Night was my favorite film of this festival. Three people – two men and a lady – from different social backgrounds and classes challenge power structures and spend a night together. The experience will also challenge their perspectives on the world around them, showing them a side of Cairo, the place they live, they have never seen…
But the real challenge of seeing vs. looking lies with the audience – particularly a Western audience watching a film that they would not classify as typically “Middle Eastern.” The real challenge is to look beyond such categorization, look beyond preconceived notions that stand in the way of one really seeing a film.
But then the film ends. Now what??
When was the last time you walked around the city just to see?
What if what you wanted to see was in the past – a past no one had visually recorded?
On their documentary, The State Against Mandela and the Others, Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte tell the story of the 1963 Mandela trials. They make use of a wealth of audio material, recordings of the trial itself. But there are no images to go with them – and cinema is, mainly a visual art (although no film, including a silent film, is ever silent).
Nought left to do but imagine it, and represent it via a chalk-on-a-blackboard style of animation. Too surrealist perhaps, borderline cartoonish. Some may say, not appropriate for talking about apartheid. What a naive, presumptuous and boring evaluation!
Some would be naive, presumptuous and quite boring. Do you think you know the history of something just because you read a book about it?
Do you know Mandela? Perhaps. But do you know Ahmed Kathrada? Denis Goldberg? Andrew Mlangeni? etc.
Int. Cairo Opera House Small Hall. Night.
The screen fades to black. The lights come up. There are twenty people seated in the screening room. Matt puts on his suit jacket and gets up from his seat. He quickly looks around the room and walks out. Femi, a young man wearing jeans and a black jumper with two white vertical stripes stops him.
Did you like the film, Matt?
Matt is surprised and slightly annoyed that he was stopped. But he smiles politely.
Hey! Yeah, it was pretty good. I loved the animation. Very Kafkaesque.
Are you walking back to the hotel? Or do you need a car?
Yes. I’m very tired. I think I’ll take a car. Are they waiting outside the gates?
Marie Monge said to me that one of the things she loves about being a filmmaker is that it allows her to open doors and look at things, and see them and then make a movie about them. Maybe we should all be film directors, seeing things, collecting images for films we may or may not ever make.
Or maybe we should make those movies. Maybe that’s the real future of cinema.