The 38th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival began at the gorgeously decorated Opera House on Tuesday evening with an Egyptian work, Kamla Abuzekri’s A Day for Women.
Exploring the social, emotional and psychological consequences of opening up a swimming pool exclusively for women every Sunday in a disadvantaged Egyptian neighbourhood, Abuzekri takes us inside the psyche of a nation still steeped in male chauvinism. Seen through the eyes of three women -- each fighting her own demons -- the society seems like a harsh bargain for their sex -- with men even resenting a wee bit of independence that the local coach at the swimming pool offers to the ladies.
While one of the women has been pushed by economic depravation into modelling in the buff (”Yet I have remained a virgin in all these years with men refusing to even touch me”, she rues), the second is ill-treated by her brother-in-law even as she grapples with the heart-rending tragedy of having lost her husband and child in a ferry accident. And when she finds peace and solace in the warm embrace of a man, all hell breaks loose. The third is a young girl -- teased and taunted by the locals as one with a low IQ, but she is determined to chase her dream. And what is that? To get into a swimming costume and splash about in the pool -- and she does precisely that, eventually swimming like a professional.
And the men there go to nasty extent to stop what they perceive as women’s liberation that comes floating in the waters of the pool. The men sneak into the changing room as the women are out frolicking in the water and escape with their clothes -- leading to embarrassing moments in a nation where a woman’s modesty is equated with her chastity.
A Day for Women is part of the eight titles that make up a new section in the festival this year. Much like the International Film Festival of India, which constitutes a large selection panel to pick the best of the country’s cinema to be showcased in the Indian Panorama, the Cairo festival, has put together an exciting section of Egyptian cinema -- also called Panorama.
As the festival’s artistic director, Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, told this writer over dinner on Monday night, “there have been complaints about the lack of good Egyptian movies in our annual event. So, we decided to set this right, and we would be proud to display our wonderful cinema to the world. Many foreign journalists and guests would be here to savour our cinema.”
True enough, A Day for Women saw a full house with the audience thunderously clapping every time the women scored points -- perhaps conveying that winds of change were blowing over Egypt.
Another psychological reading will be Mohamed Khan’s Before the Summer Crowds that examines how some men and women gathered in a remote Egyptian resort run away from one another, each having something to hide.
The Egyptian Panorama seems like a basket of psychological films Hadi El Bagoury’s Hepta: The Last Lecture zooms in on a celebrated professor of social psychology who wants to give his students one last lesson before he dies. His topic: how do we love!
We have yet another psychological story, this time a thriller called, Out of Order by Mahmoud Kamel -- which traces a twisted relationship between two very different kind of people, a male hustler who leads a nomadic existence and a woman leading a lonely life.
Veering away from matters of the mind, the festival will offer Sin of the Flesh by Khaled El Hagar, who tells us how four characters living on a remote farm are affected by the revolution taking place far away.
Apart from the Panorama, the festival this time has another new development. After years of confining the screenings to the five auditoriums in the Opera House, the festival will have shows also in the downtown area of the city. Security considerations had halted these screenings.
The festival runs till November 24.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cairo International Film Festival.)