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Encounters 2019 Arab selection

Sunday 13 October 2019, by judy

Strange Cities Are Familiar, Dir. Saeed Taji Farouky

At once lyrical and political, this film centres on a beautifully understated performance by Mohammad Bakri as Ashraf, a refugee living in London who is unable to return to Palestine to be with his dying son. Ashraf is both stern and tender as the London landscape around him transforms into scenes from his past life and the imagined sufferings of his son in the present. Featuring a brilliant use of sound from the outset the film is atmospheric and rarely overplays the tragedy of Ashraf’s plight. The brutal bureaucracy he is up against in his quest to return to his son is given a kindly though impotent human form in the hapless travel agent who cannot find Palestine on his ‘drop down list’. The awkward exchange between the two men is utterly convincing. An assured and well paced film which conveys Ashraf’s inner turbulence without too many sentimental turns.

Magic Boat, Dir. Naaman Azhari 

'The Magic Boat | Trailer from Naaman Azhari on Vimeo.

In this animated short a mother attempts to persuade her son Khaled to flee their homeland on a ‘magic’ boat, using stories of beautiful fish, coloured ships and feasts. The tension between the reality of their situation and the unconvincing stories she conjures to lure Khaled into taking this life threatening journey deepens as her desperation erupts and she utters meaningless pleas, reassuring him that he is a hero while maintaining that there is nothing to be scared of. The film is never still, each line quivers and tilts evoking the experience of both sea travel and the mother’s inner turmoil. Interspersed with scenes from the present are fragments of intimate moments between the two laughing, playing, hugging and tugging at one another. The visual and aural effects are so powerful that the melancholy piano soundtrack is unnecessary and slightly takes away from the gravitas of the story. A memorable and heartbreaking work.

Makr, Dir. Hana Kazim

In this horror film a man invites an exorcist into his home to expel a demon from his wife’s body. However the trickster exorcist (who enlivens the bodies of the possessed with electrical currents to convince his clients of his efficacy), is himself being tricked as it turns out the couple are not what they seem. While Mansoor Alfeeli gives a strong performance as the exorcist, this film doesn’t quite pull off the muddling of faith, deception, reality and delirium that it hopes to. The return to the pendulum clock swinging menacingly in the hallway feels tired and uninspired (by now a clichéd technique used way back in 1915 by D.W. Griffith in his Poe adaptation The Avenging Conscience). Well shot and with some unexpected twists, unfortunately the stakes feel low throughout.

Run (a) Way Arab, Dir. Amrou Al Kadhi

While preparing for his drag performance as an Egyptian deity Queen Za Dream reflects on his mother’s own performative femininity, remembering the times he witnessed her adorning herself with eyeshadow, bracelets and belts. After applying her makeup before her dressing table mirror young Nazeem helped her pick out handbags and outfits, witnessing his mother turn her gaze upon herself, admiring herself as her own creation and anticipating the gaze of others. When Nazeem mimics his mother by dressing in her clothes and applying makeup, she is terrified and furious and her response shatters their relationship (the mother is brilliantly played by Ahd whose response could easily have descended into melodrama). Unfortunately the use of music to underscore the story’s sensuality and emotion is overplayed and the dreamy flashbacks of young Nazeem putting on his mother’s clothes and rubbing her fur coats against his cheek aren’t as convincing as the contemporary drag scenes. The film is strongest when it shows how Queen Za Dream (Amrou Al-Kadhi) has turned conflicting memories of his mother into a powerful performative impetus.

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