A MAGIC-LANTERN JOURNEY [Archives:1998/22/Culture]

June 1 1998

With words in six European languages as well as Arabic, the Second European Film Festival was launched in Sanaa. “It has become a tradition,” announced the Deputy Minister of Culture. As traditions go, this one is a certainly a most welcome addition. It gives a breath of fresh cultural air to the inhabitants of Sanaa.
Cultural Treat
The opportunity to watch top European films, including Character – the Dutch film that won the 1998 ‘Best Foreign Picture’ Oscar, does not always present itself, no matter where you are in the world. The American cinema dominates, even in Europe.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism along with the cultural representatives of six European nations – Holland, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, and Britain – have brought to Sanaa some of the best films produced in Europe during the last few years.
Altogether, 7 films were shown during this festival, which opened to huge audiences on Tuesday, 26 May. Yemeni and expatriate spectators packed the auditorium at the Sanaa Cultural Center every evening, hungry for the more refined form of cinema art that does not necessarily have fast-paced action, violence and obscenities. The festival’s were truly shows for the whole family to enjoy, and get Yemeni audiences better acquainted with the subtle charms of European movies.
Film Brief
The films took their Yemeni audiences from the gray and depressing atmosphere of 1930s Rotterdam, to rural Poland in the 1950s, to the nostalgia for a lost youth in Italy, to a journey through a unified Germany, to London’s suburbia and finally on an adventure through the City of Light. It was truly an enchanted journey.
The Dutch film Character tells the story of an eager and ambitious young man, on whom his biological father vents his anger for being rejected by the boy’s mother. The father’s war against the his bastard son makes the latter more determined. The film’s finale and the bloody confrontation between father and son leave the spectators on the edge of their seats. This excellent film was actually chosen by the European Film Festival’s organizing committee before it won the Oscar.
The second film took us In Full Gallop on a autobiographical journey with a 10-year-old boy, Hubert, through a post-war Poland penetrated by the communist regime and its fearsome instrument – the secret police. School children are encouraged to squeal on each other in the name of uncovering “bourgeois and reactionary activity.” The strength and unbroken will of the people and their longing for freedom were represented throughout the film by the horses’ exuberance and vitality.
The film maker’s light-hearted approach to the subject matter presented itself in many instances such as the scene when Hubert and his school chum burst out laughing while keeping a vigil by the bust of the recently expired Soviet dictator – Joseph Stalin.
The Italian Voices in Time ‘is a film about the stages of life – the games of childhood, the wonder and torment of adolescence, dating, disappointment, love, marriage and, in the prime of life, nostalgia to one’s lost youth. We move into tranquil summer evening conversations, then perhaps a solitary life with perhaps only a television set for company and finally the wistful beauty of the autumnal countryside.’
In a special Friday matinee for families and children, another delightful Dutch film – The Bag Snatcher – was shown. More lively and light-hearted than Character, The Bag Snatcher tells the story of a 12-year-old boy, who gets entangled with a duo of pickpockets in order to help his grandmother!
Although presented previously as part of the regular monthly German film shows at the British Council in Sanaa, No More Mr. Nice Guy is worth seeing again on the big screen. It tells the story of two brothers and a Soviet army deserter, who take an adventurous journey from the West to the East of the unified ‘new German state’ to receive what the two brothers’ late grandmother had bequeathed.
As this article goes to press before the showing of the British and French films – the latter was moved from Saturday to Monday – it suffices to say that both films are in keep with the good standards of the festival.
Secrets and Lies is ‘set in and around London, but it could conceivably be anywhere in Britain.’
An Indian in the City tells the story of a 13-year-old boy brought from the Amazon rain forest to live with his stock broker father in Paris. “It is difficult to look after a child who has never seen a city.’ This film is like a more humorous remake of L’EnfantSauvage, directed by Frnaois Truffaut in 1969.
Big New Screen
The state-owned Polish Cinematography organization has donated a big panavision screen to the Yemeni Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Made of PVC, the screen is about 4X10m. Gone now is the old roll-down little screen which was used at the center.
“The Polish Embassy in Sanaa which arranged this donation expresses its deep satisfaction that this screen can be used for the first time during this festival,” said Mr. Kazimierz Romanski, the First Secretary at the Polish Embassy.
Alas, nothing is perfect in this world. The people who hitched up the new screen did not do a good job, its surface is not stretched enough. Creases and folds show clearly when the screen is lit by the film image. Also, the projectionist did not take advantage of the new big surface – the film image is still as small as when the old screen was used. Fortunately, the above problems were later rectified half-way through the festival.
As the big efforts and positive points should be commended, the negative aspects must also be underlined so that they can be avoided in the future. In addition to the badly hung screen mentioned above, other faults in the films’ presentation included lack of synchronization between the two projectors used to show a film. When the first reel nears its end on the first projector, the second projector should start automatically to show the second reel. This does not happen; instead, the audience are shown the trailer – the blank piece of film at the end of the reel – with all the numbers and rubbish printed on it.
Bad framing was also prevalent. The black line separating two successive frames on the film comes into the middle of the screen, and the subtitles go out of frame leaving the audience unable to understand the dialogue. The projectionist is sometimes not at hand to rectify the situation.
Showing a film is an essential part of the process of movie production. There is no point in spending millions on a film that is going to be badly presented to the cinema audience.
No Arabic Subtitles!
All shortcomings aside, the biggest drawback is the absence of Arabic subtitles. Except for the French film, all other films in the festival were shown in the languages of their countries of origin with English subtitles. Unlike American movies, European films are generally known for their art-house features, slow-moving action, rather complicated plot and a dialogue that is full of subtle innuendoes and carefully chosen and placed words. Much of this is unfortunately lost to the general, Arab-speaking Yemeni audiences due to the absence of Arabic subtitles.
The excuse given is that it is very difficult to find a European film with Arabic subtitles. Surely, is it not worth it to get one of the many subtitling companies in Beirut and elsewhere in the Middle East to do a translation of these films?
Winning Formula
Only the French seem to have hit upon a winning formula: action, humor and Arabic subtitles. In last year’s festival and during the recently held French Film Festival, Yemeni audiences responded enthusiastically to the French films. However, the Yemeni spectators should also be treated to the more high-brow or intellectual auteur films for which the French cinema is renowned worldwide.
The Franco-Arab film festival, due to open in mid-June, is eagerly awaited, especially so if the great Arab director – Yousuf Shaheen – can be invited to attend the showing of his latest award-winning film – Le Destin.
All in all, the European Film Festival remains an excellent opportunity for watching excellent films, which are otherwise not possible to see.
Adel J. Moqbil,
Yemen Times