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Mirroring Egypt’s recent strife across a 60-year gap, the 1950 Chinese film This Life of Mine might doubly serve as a portent for the American dystopia now in progress. The film, directed by Shi Hui, also goes by Life of a Beijing Policeman, telling the story of the turbulent first half of China’s 20th century as a kind of proto-Forrest Gump. Somehow managing to locate its humble protagonist amid the key ruptures in that country’s social fabric, no matter how inconsequential—and often adverse—his presence may have been, This Life of Mine is certainly not a happy tale, and bravely takes a dim view of each sociopolitical shift, carefully observing the human and spiritual toll in contrast to whatever nominal advances may have otherwise been achieved. While the film has gravity and significance in spades, ultimately that’s all it has. Stifled by its reductive, restrictive soundstage approach and done in by its aimless, episodic structure, transmitting history through monologues and cries of woe, This Life of Mine contains few surprises, save for its unflinching depiction of violence and torture, startling for a film from 1950.

Not exactly a remarkable film concealed by an unremarkable title, the Kosovar-Macedonian melodrama Home Sweet Home nevertheless exudes a quiet discipline and a light touch. Reminding me less of Showtime’s Homeland and more of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s mellow existential fantasy License to Live, the film, directed by Faton Bajraktari, tells of a presumed dead soldier (played by Shkumbin Istrefi) returning home after a long absence, hoping to resume his old life. He finds that not only has the world moved on without him, but that there are real, adverse financial consequences to his “coming back to life.” In short, he’s worth more dead than alive.

Despite the hectoring, darkly comic business the above summary might suggest, Bajraktari plucks no low-hanging fruit. While there’s some very dry comedy in the bizarre indignity suffered by the protagonist, who must hide from prying eyes in his own home, scampering shoelessly from room to room to remain unseen, Home Sweet Home is free of bitterness, as quiet as a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film, and emphasizes above all the ex-soldier’s loving family. It asks for little and acquits itself admirably.

A concept film of a different stripe than Clash, the Hungarian Kills on Wheels takes a page from the 1984 Cloak & Dagger playbook. While the degree to which the story—two disabled teens who team up with a paraplegic ex-fireman (Szabolcs Thuróczy) to do some crime—is a therapeutic fantasy isn’t fully revealed until the coda, hints are sprinkled liberally throughout. The film earns points for its earnest bid for diversity (the two young stars bring to the film their real-life disabilities: a degenerative spinal condition and cerebral palsy, respectively), without pulling its punches as a crime fantasy.

On the other hand, Kills on Wheels is marred by indecisiveness, playing coy when it should go hard, or trying to solve for uncertainty by filling the void with endless chitchat. Disappointing as film are when they’re unable to answer “and then what?” after laying out their concept, the high point of Kills on Wheels is a McMansion heist wherein the trio are challenged by ostentatious design disasters, like a needlessly curved cobblestone driveway, or an ornate security gate, all while distant police sirens grow louder.

There’s not a champagne flute in sight in or around Mimosas, a Spanish-Moroccan art film of Tarkovsky-esque aspirations, but that omission is the film’s least strange aspect. Directed by Oliver Laxe, who enjoyed a blip on the international radar with 2010’s You Are All Captains, a FIPRESCI prize recipient at the Cannes Critics Week that year, Mimosas labors hard for parable cred, unafraid to let viewers tip off the side of the wagon along its rocky, treacherous path. A story in vague outline: A dying sheikh guides a band of migrants across a hilly landscape. Aware that he’s going to die, his destination is a resting place chosen for its ancient but unclear significance.

Miles away, a young, itinerant laborer, an eccentric misfit given to proselytizing before an audience of apathetic co-workers, is tasked to relieve the beleaguered sheikh. Upon arrival, the youngster shames two would-be thieves into becoming his right-hand men. What ensues, apart from hazardous terrain challenges and murderous, roving bandits, bears not a little resemblance to Gus Van Sant’s 2003 landscape poem Gerry, right down to that film’s atmosphere of despair, indistinguishable from its lyrical abstraction.

As is the case with every other international film festivals, Cairo sorts its massive catalogue into various panels and sidebars, to ease attendee digestion. This year, apart from its main competition slate, various tributes to luminaries departed or otherwise, and documentary sections, the fest shined its spotlight on new and classic Chinese cinema, Shakespeare on film, as well as a tiny, intriguing group called “Films From Behind the Berlin Wall.” It was out of that section that I took a chance on Solo Sunny, a musical drama co-directed by Konrad Wolf and Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and was glad I did. If there’s one net benefit of attending festivals outside your home city, it’s the experiences that lead you out of your comfort zone, whether that zone is mental or geographical. For cinephiles like myself—who know little about contemporary German cinema apart from Fassbinder or Herzog, and nothing at all about East German cinema—even a film of modest ambitions like Solo Sunny can be a window into a strange world.

Powered by a charismatic lead performance by Renate Krößner, the film is not unlike a rock n’ roll variation on the old Sternberg/Dietrich template, in which a sexually (and musically) empowered woman must fight to keep herself from being hogtied by the greedy men that surround her. Almost incidentally set in East Germany, Solo Sunny casually defies any expectations the viewer might bring that life behind the Iron Curtain was dominated by authoritarian interference and John le Carré-style skullduggery. Instead, the film illuminates the daily drudgery of life with a traveling variety act—sort of an Almost Famous without the childlike wonderment.

Grounded in the cement, leather, and lipstick of everyday life, mixed with the mild bed-hopping reminiscent of any number of 1970s sex comedies, Solo Sunny walks a careful line between the banality and the thrill of personal independence. Not unlike Nomi Malone at the end of Showgirls, Sunny’s choice to go solo means losing everything, but winning herself. In a festival that boasted no shortage of politically significant narratives, this personal story from a country that no longer exists overpowered them all.

The Cairo International Film Festival ran from November 15 —24.


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