From the window of an airplane, metropolitan Cairo seems to stretch into infinity, a truly ancient city that keeps adding onto itself, year after year. A handful of cities occupy a greater land area, but fewer appear to be as impossibly intricate and dense, its overwhelming breadth a dreamed thing. The next thing you notice is that Cairo wears its history on its sleeve. Very little fails to carry signification of events and people, past and present. Does your town have a bridge named after an historic date? The river island of Zamalek connects with Tahrir Square and points east using the “6th of October Bridge,” named for a successful show of force against Israeli occupiers in 1967. Even the hotel where most guests of the Cairo International Film Festival stayed, the Cairo Marriott, has thick roots in the 19th century, as related by a short documentary preloaded in each room’s television set, explaining the colocation of a sleek, modern hotel within the 150-year-old Gezirah Palace. The Marriott, by the virtue of its dual structure, symbolizes the city’s relentless, incremental layering of the new upon or within the old, the way a very old cathedral might be built over the ruins of an ancient one.
You can experience the festival from beginning to end without leaving the island of Zamalek, which sits in the Nile River the same way as Roosevelt Island sits lodged between Manhattan and Queens on the East River. A 20-minute walk or—at peak times—a 30-minute drive conveys festival attendees to the Cairo Opera House, where, at each individual screening, you to pass through up to four metal detectors. The cadre of security personnel at each juncture carry out their duties without panic or fuss, occasionally taking a drag off a cigarette or a sip of koshary tea. Breaking up the landscape outside the Opera House is a solitary figure holding an assault rifle and standing at perfect attention for hours on end; in his 100% black outfit, kevlar accoutrements, and totally concealed face, he looks like none other than Kylo Ren from The Force Awakens. One doesn’t talk to him.
Every screening observes assigned seating protocol. When I took my seat for This Life of Mine, the usher led me, with the grave precision of a funeral director, to my exact chosen seat in an auditorium that remained empty but for one other attendee. Dozens of ticket-holders enter any given screening up to half an hour late, the insidious maglights that are now a standard feature on smartphones bathing the room in errant stabs of piercing light, as if they were volunteers combing the woods for a missing child.
Navigating the festival structure was challenging in some ways, simple in others. The tactic employed by festivalgoers in Toronto and elsewhere, of timing a contingency screening in case something goes wrong with your main choice (projection failure, a shutout, a bad film), staggered by a few minutes to allow for travel between venues, has no play in Cairo, where upward of 10 to 12 films start at exactly the same time, four times a day. If, say, the projection for one film fails, which actually happened to me when the correct media files for the 2003 Chinese film Cell Phone went missing, you’re out of luck for anything else playing during the same timeslot, unless you can suppress your inner Alvy Singer and miss the opening 15 or so minutes.
I’d asked my hosts to recommend an evening film on Saturday, November 19th, from 11 titles sharing that slot, and they picked The Other Land, directed by Ali Edries and starring Muhamed Ali—both of whom are major figures in Egyptian cinema. Movies shown in the Opera House’s main hall invariably had a “gala” feel to them, but The Other Land, as I gathered in retrospect, also happened to be the very film that was being advertised with posters and billboards throughout the festival grounds. I had stumbled quite accidentally into the festival’s main event. Applause greeted the first shot of the star, and, on the whole, the audience behaved with rapt reverence, instead of their usual, WhatsApp-fixated distraction. Had there been an applause meter at The Other Land, you could have pegged the film as a phenomenon as big as Titanic, and, brazenly, the migrant melodrama actually cribs the boat-sinking set piece from James Cameron’s blockbuster, down to the creaking and crashing of the ship’s hull onto hapless swimmers.
Sadly, in spite of good intentions, The Other Land is concocted with a kind of effortless incompetence, with a script consisting almost entirely of shouting and garment-rending. The audience ate it up, leaving me feeling isolated and out of touch, but later I was encouraged by a pan of The Other Land on the Egyptian website Mada, which criticized the film for toadying to the state’s official and less-than-empathetic view of the desperate migrants.
As artistically and emotionally vacant as The Other Land was, the worst film I saw in Cairo also happened to be my first screening, Petr Václav’s agonizing We Are Never Alone. If you aren’t able to sense trouble from the series of screaming matches that make up the film’s opening minutes, the long scene of a hypochondriac father (played by Karl Roden) inspecting his own feces for abnormalities, in close-up, might well drive the point home. A clever filmmaker might have devised We Are Never Alone as a sadistic punishment for intrepid film-festival explorers, but Václav’s film, sort of a Czech Gummo, minus Harmony Korine’s anarchic comic sensibility, still somehow reeks of good, sober intentions gone horribly, horribly wrong. Eschewing even a threadbare plot in favor of a string of miserable vignettes (including a child and his mother, in two different parts of the film, attempting suicide), I might have been able to grudgingly admire Václav saying “fuck you” to the audience, had I not nursed the vague suspicion that I was also supposed to interpret his callousness for bravery, his aimlessness for integrity.
Due to a misheard conversation, I spent many panicked minutes thinking that The Other Land was Egypt’s official submission for the 89th Academy Awards for foreign-language film, until Wikipedia set me on the right path with the more encouraging news that it was Mohamed Diab’s Clash that sought the nomination. Easily the best film I saw at Cairo, Clash makes good on a nifty premise: Tell the story of the 2013 post-coup protests from the inside of an overcrowded police van. It’s to Diab’s great benefit that this obstruction, modeled after Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, hardly ever calls attention to itself.
The film, a recent-history variation on The Poseidon Adventure, sees its credibility slips when its characters start to resemble a little too succinctly a cross-section of Egyptian society, but more than compensates as a horror film where the beast is the chaos, hopelessness, and mistrust that’s been harvested in the wake of the 2013 coup; think Cloverfield if the monster is us. And when the Stanley Kramer dynamic threatens to be a little too on-the-nose, Diab rights the ship (of fools) by focusing on the ordeal itself, ingeniously pivoting to transform the van from an unjust detention center to the characters’ only safe haven, while outside, there’s only annihilation and madness. At a festival where I could scarcely remember the endings of most films, I’ll be haunted for some time by the entropic dissolution of Clash, its final frame bathed in the sickly green of hundreds of laser pens.