Both films reviewed below will be screened at the upcoming Safar Arab Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London, September 14-18
Before the Summer Crowds, Egypt, 2015, directed by Mohamed Khan
Opening night film for Safar, Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, 14th September 2016, http://www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/event/summer-crowds-qabl-zahmet-al-saif/.
In Arabic with English subtitles.
Reviewed by Professor Robert Abrams, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York.
The first thing one can say about Mohamed Khan’s acidly satiric film Before the Summer Crowds is that, notwithstanding its title, it is uncommon summer fare. It is neither light nor breezy, and there’s not much of a plot. The principal characters comprise a trio of clueless, seemingly harmless upper-class individuals who have moved into their “chateaux” in the Egyptian beach vacation community of ‘Blue Beach’ before the regular season has begun. But the viewer is not allowed to retain this initial impression of their harmless existence for long; we are soon let in on the shockingly extensive roster of evils that lies beneath their casual banality: Infidelity, gluttony, corruption, spiritual emptiness, indifference to life, and even a taste for carnage.
First, there’s the pudgy Dr. Yehia (Maged El Kedwany), a man preoccupied with food and sex, whose private hospital scandalously reaps profits by understaffing its medical ranks and hiring inexperienced physicians. Even when he performs a supposedly life-saving cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a beautiful young woman, it is clear that his own sexual gratification is being addressed simultaneously. Yehia’s wife Magda (Lana Mushtaq) is the very personification of emptiness, attempting to sate that void by gorging herself on peanut butter. Magda owns an inherited chateau—a facetiously pretentious name for a beach cottage–in the ‘first row’ of the seaside community, a distinction of which she is inordinately proud and one that she believes places her apart from the ordinary parvenus who arrived at ‘Blue Beach’ more recently. Magda tolerates Yehia, but there is no sense of love between them, not even lust. We see Magda meditating, but there’s nothing spiritually meaningful about what she does—her mind is already empty.
In the course of the film, Yehia becomes involved in a mutual attraction with Hala (Hana Shiha), a young mother who is uninterested in her children and uses her chateau as a trysting place for a rendezvous with Hesham (Hani El Metennawy), her narcissistic B-movie actor-lover. (This fact gives a rather smarmy double meaning to the name ‘Blue Beach’). When Hala learns that Hesham has been unfaithful—no great surprise—she finds common ground, albeit on very shallow soil, with Yehia. They flirt with the idea of having an affair unbound by any conscience or moral codes.
Yehia is at once grotesque and immature, but one is gradually made to understand that his immaturity is far from victimless. His patients are cheated, a court case of medical negligence case is underway; his wife is cheated on; and he sleeps drunkenly as Magda’s pet parrot—the only creature she seems to love—is set upon by cats. It is not the feline hunting instinct that is highlighted in that scene of carnage but Yehia’s indifference. Even Yehia’s preparations for a festive dinner with freshly caught fish seem more like a bloody massacre and an extravagant waste of marine life than a demonstration of his culinary skills.
The working-class young man, Gom’aa (Ahmed Dawood), the resort bell-boy, is seen by Yehia, Magda and Hala as a dispensable entity to be treated with barely hidden condescension. Gom’aa is mainly useful for errands, watering the garden when Yehia doesn’t feel like doing it himself, and fetching things for Hala.
Not a great deal happens in Before the Summer Crowds; but it somehow leaves the viewer with a surprisingly strong impression of sadness and regret. All of the characters are presented as prisoners in different ways of this gated community, unable to move beyond its strictures. The only exception is Gom’aa, a young man who comes from another world looking for his ‘Shangri-La’ in ‘Blue Beach’. Yehia, Magda and Hala have material abundance, sex and food, but are utterly bereft of passion or purpose. The lives of these principals—again save for Gom’aa—are so pathetically empty and loveless that the compassion of the viewer for these otherwise contemptible individuals is paradoxically elicited. How? The key is in the extraordinary acting, where we are unwittingly induced to experience emotions that should belong to the characters but do not; in a way, it might be said that this is the hallmark of all excellent acting. Here, in the subtly played role of Dr. Yehia, Maged El Kedwany (http://gb.imdb.com/name/nm0444324/) demonstrates why he is considered one of the finest contemporary character actors in the Arab world. Although I have been told that Before the Summer Crowds is not typical of the films of the late Mohamed Khan (http://blogs.bmj.com/medical-humanities/2016/08/01/mohamed-khan-a-tribute/), this deceptively non-action film skillfully not only skewers the bourgeois vacationers of Blue Beach for their corruption and emptiness, but it also lets us feel the sadness of their lives.
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Borders of Heaven, Tunisia, France, United Arab Emirates, 2015, directed by Fares Naanaa
ICA, London, Saturday 17th September 2016
In Arabic with English subtitles
Reviewed by Dr Khalid Ali, Screening Room editor, Medical Humanities
Recently, Tunisian cinema has become an artistic force to be reckoned with, As I open my eyes winning best director for Leyla Bouzid in Dubai International Film Festival 2015 (http://www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/event/safar-2016-open-eyes/), and Hedi opening Berlin Film Festival in 2016 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5011242/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1a). Borders of Heaven is another compelling story from Tunisia written and directed by Fares Naanaa.
Samy (Lotfi Abdelli) and Sara (Anisaa Daoud) are a happily married couple with their little daughter Yasmine (Sophie Ghodhbane). Their blissful existence is shattered when Yasmine dies in a drowning accident. Samy is consumed with guilt as he blames himself for Yasmine’s death. Losing the will to live, he wanders aimlessly seeking solace in illicit affairs with random women he meets in the streets.
On the other hand, Sara is determined to fight for survival and a meaningful life in spite of her inconsolable grief. She continues to work daytime and rehearses singing every night with a music group. Sadly, Samy and Sara have become strangers in their household; she wants to re-build their married life, while he is entrapped in his world of anger and hopelessness.
Josephine Jacobsen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Jacobsen) described the devastating effect of a child’s death in one of her poems: ‘’It is a fearful thing to love, what death can touch’’. Borders of Heaven revisits the universal themes of isolation, grief and bereavement after losing a child; themes that were explored in Don’t Look Now, UK, Italy, 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_Look_Now), and Rabbit Hole, USA, 2010, directed by John Cameron Mitchell (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit_Hole_(film)). In Don’t Look Now the bereaved couple indulge in an intense sexual relationship to distract their minds from grief, while Samy indulges in alcohol and one-night stands. The estrangement and bitterness that Samy and Sara experience are reminiscent of another bereaved couple’s ordeal (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole).
Fares Naanaa reminds us of the Kübler-Ross model of the ‘Five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance’ (1, 2). While Samy is stuck in depression, Sara has accepted the reality of losing her daughter using music and singing as a means to restore her well-being; a form of ‘personalized music therapy’. Echoing themes of Song for Marion, (UK, Germany, 2012, directed by Paul Andrew Williams, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_for_Marion), where salvation for a widowed husband came from his engagement in a community music group, Borders of Heaven emphasises the role of music in healing after loss (3, 4). Sara demonstrates what mental health professionals call ‘psychological resilience’ (5, 6); she channels emotions and words into a creative outlet. Her identity is one of ‘normalizers’; individuals who focus on connecting with friends and community to re-create meaning in their lives after bereavement, while Samy belongs to the ‘nomads; people who are stuck in anger, depression, and loneliness’ (7). Coping with grief after losing a child calls for desperate measures, which can take the form of ‘disinvestment’ in traumatic memories, and moving on with life, which Samy cannot muster.
Both lead actors, Lotfi Abdelli and Anisaa Daoud, give heartfelt performances displaying raw intense emotions that are rewarded by the viewers fully empathising with their tragedy. It is no wonder that Lotfi Abdelli won best actor award in Dubai International Film Festival, 2015, https://dubaifilmfest.com/en/films/41666/borders_of_heaven.html. Borders of Heaven is a universal story of loss, hope and survival.
- Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge
- Kübler-Ross, E. (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, Simon & Schuster Ltd
- Khan W U, et al 2016. Perceptions of music therapy among healthcare professionals. Med Humanit 42: 52-6. http://mh.bmj.com/content/early/2015/12/11/medhum-2015-010778
- Moss H, Donnellan C, O’Neill D, 2012. A review of qualitative methodologies used to explore patient perceptions of arts and healthcare. Med Humanit 38: 106-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22893595
- Bonanno, George A. Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after externally aversive events? American Psychologist 2004; 59 (1): 20-8.
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