[Editor’s Note: Although the São Paulo International Film Festival (Mostra) officially concluded November 3, the festival extended its programming until November 10. This is the second of two concluding pieces about this year’s Mostra.]
The programming at the Mostra was remarkable, yet by festival’s end I preferred five films above all. They take place within the Egyptian slum of Mafrouza, in Alexandria, where the French filmmaker Emmanuelle Demoris stayed between 2002 and 2004. The series forms a documentary record of the neighborhood’s residents, relocated after the government demolished Mafrouza in 2007 to expand an industrial port. But the films also work with the density and complexity of great fiction, offering people with nuanced, self-aware, self-contradictory, always-evolving inner lives.
The five Mafrouza films, with their short, poetic subtitles—Oh Night!, Heart, What Is to Be Done?, The Hand of the Butterfly, and The Art of Speaking—unfold chronologically, though can be watched in any order. They’re never once boring, nor solemn. In fact, they’re often full of spectacle, as a large chunk of their running time consists of exhilarating song and dance. It’s what young people of both sexes do here often, after the day ends. They take to the streets together, in a large circle, clapping, beating drums, and calling out in refrain, “Oh, the night!”
These scenes are caught with a two-person crew of Demoris and a translator. Yet though the films are by definition Western renderings of the Orient, they’re also much more complex. Demoris (in full disclosure, a friend) becomes part of the community, earning the nickname “Iman,” while never losing her place as an off-screen outsider. People constantly call attention to her filming them, in ways both star-struck (“Dad, Dad, I brought the foreigners to film you!”) and more reflective (“What I’m afraid is that people will look at this film abroad and say, ’This is Egypt’”). In many shots, her small Panasonic camera simply travels down narrow alleyways to see what everyone’s doing; when someone appears in front, leading her, it emphasizes her need to be led, her unfamiliarity with the place and people, and her desire to know them all better.
The films set this theme of kinship from the start of Mafrouza—Oh Night!, which opens in daylight, with a French archeologist and a Mafrouza native in an ancient home together examining a 2,000-year-old brick. West meets East, and past turns present. The Frenchman soon exits, leaving us with Adel, a short, shy, mustachioed man who brings in another of the series’s prominent themes: love. In Adel’s case, a tension lies between idealized romance and the everyday ways in which the real thing appears. At night he takes Demoris into his home, opens a notebook, points to a drawing of a woman in red, and says, “She was my first love.”
He chose his wife, Ghada, over this other woman, and reads love poems aloud until Ghada arrives. He offers to help make dinner, and she says he can’t cook; she complains that he hits her, and they argue over how to raise their two daughters. As we look back and forth between them, she standing over the oven, he sitting against the wall, we see a marriage that’s moved from mutual passion to mutual acceptance. “Everyone dreams of a better life,” Adel says softly. Each partner’s image of the relationship conflicts with the other’s, but they maintain the home together regardless. A color drawing of a couple holding each other appears, and near them words read, “If you have to choose between dying in my arms and reading these verses of poetry, choose between love and no love, with no in-between, as though between Heaven and Hell.”
Strong words, though fitting for these films. Love is a choice that people make constantly in them, discovering the consequences afterward, and the marriage between Adel and Ghada becomes a test case. For all the grief they give each other, they also give each other joy. They do so in large ways; after she gives birth to a new baby, she exalts in a room full of other women while Adel wanders outside, touched by having a son. But the gestures are also smaller, and gentler: one day they decide to go to the beach together; the woman yelling across a small room at her husband now dribbles wet sand on his chest.
Their married life contrasts with the films’ frequent weddings, occurring so often that they become structuring devices. We usually don’t know the newlyweds beforehand. A memorable wedding scene only shows them once, briefly, sitting awkwardly together in the center of the room. Our place at these ceremonies, like the filmmaker’s, is that of an outsider’s, another person swept up within the celebrating larger group. On one hand, the displacement feels like a move towards de-sentimentality, the films showing the commitment to love another person less a choice that these specific characters make and more a choice that anyone could make, and inevitably does, love being as basic a need as food and water. But love is also a social need, in addition to an individual one; a wedding, after all, is an event that gathers the community, and the decision to marry another person becomes a choice to expand two families and potentially build a third. When two people love, in any fashion (between spouses and other family members, or between friends), everyone around them is affected. We take this image of love with us back to the individuals on whom the films do focus, watching them as they engage with other people or choose not to, joining the larger community or staying within themselves.
One focus is on the single Hassan, who gives the second film its name when he draws a heart in the sand. The Army deserter listens quietly as his father talks about the potential jail time he faces; the singer of almost impossible charisma leads the group during the musical sequences, shaking his shirtless shoulders and freestyling with delight. He’s closest with old friends during these revels; he’s closest with new ones at other times, when, alone with Demoris and with us, he performs impromptu songs. He builds a serenade out of an offer to buy coffee. Sometimes his eyes meet ours during the music; sometimes they look off at an imaginary other’s.
Demoris presents his songs in unbroken close shots, respecting them as full gestures. She cuts within other scenes, following the emotion of the moment. Sometimes people choose to disclose their thoughts, other times keep them private. Heart’s last scene shows Hassan on a bed in a close medium shot, cradling a gold-and-green glittering hat. He says, “My fiancée had bought it,” pauses a few seconds, and then adds, as though remembering, “My fiancée who passed away.” An immediate close-up of the hat hides his face, and keeps his secrets. We return a little later to him in medium, regarding the hat again, before ending with it in close-up once more.
No one is ever alone in these films. Their thoughts are always with others, their work is always done for others, and Demoris, her translator, and we are always present, communing with them. They imbue their public work with as much care as they do their more private efforts. We never see people in factories; Demoris didn’t film them in subordinate offices, and instead we see them at work over which they have control. Mohamed Khattab, the self-appointed town authority (someone says that facing him “is like standing in front of the pyramids”), discourses on politics while selling candy from his newsstand, then preaches at the local mosque; Abu Hosny, an old man devoted to building a house (“I either have my own, or I have nothing”), carries a bucket back and forth to dump out the floods in the floor; Om Bassiouni, an old woman, sits near an oven in a dump, rolling dough and baking bread. As the people face new problems and find new solutions within these long scenes, the films cut from one movement to another. We grow aware of the work’s duration, but focus on the creativity of its performer.
Mafrouza’s residents are innately performers, in ways the camera highlights. Hassan’s dances spawn preteen imitators, as we watch little girls singing and beating on a can. They’re showing off for us, just as Om Bassiouni is, the old woman not just baking bread for herself and for her family, but also teaching how to do it well. Midway through What Is to Be Done? (in other words, at about the midpoint of the series), a woman walks through the street to greet her teen son, and tells Demoris, “Good morning. Stop filming.” She repeats herself, then, upon seeing that the filmmaker won’t, laughs and says, “Okay, film me with Nader.” She and her young man hold each other, forming a perfect pose.
Is the moment truth or fiction? Or do we make fiction reality each time we act on a thought? In this scene, as throughout the films, the people onscreen do the directing. Each second of these films shows a community making a movie together, and growing closer for it. A movie, after all, is a filmed vision of life.
The São Paulo International Film Festival ran through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here. The writer thanks his wife, Mariana Shellard, for her extraordinary help throughout.