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2013 Film Festival: Cairo, Beauty, Folk, Congo and Hentoff

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2013 - Cairo 678 (2010) 9:30 p.m., Saturday Nov. 16 | Plaza Frontenac.

"Cairo 678," directed by Mohamed Diab, could easily >have become a fiery polemic about sexual harassment, given how endemic the problem is in Egypt. Instead, it is a sensitive, complex, riveting look at how pervasive harassment deadens women -- exacting a devastating toll on them and also on their relationships with others, both men and women. 

Harassment is a fact of daily life for Fayza (Boshra), a low-level government worker, who endures men groping her on the bus; for Seba (Nelly Karim), a well-to-do artist and doctor's wife who's assaulted by soccer hooligans after a victorious game; and Nelly (Nahed El Sebaï), a would-be stand-up comic and call-center worker. The women's performances -- nuanced, subtle and heart-wrenching -- give the film its considerable power and humanity.

Their individual stories intersect as each struggles to deal with her harassment. Seba runs a self-defense class; Nelly becomes the first woman in Egypt to file a sexual harassment lawsuit; and the traditional, veiled Fayza takes the law into her own hands. Justice is not something these women can expect from the system although they get some rough measure of it from a a surprising quarter -- a police investigator (Maged El Kedwany).

Ultimately, though, the social victories the women do win are tempered by their personal losses. Their self-respect comes at a cost. (Susan Hegger)

The Great Beauty

4 p.m. Saturday Nov. 16 | Plaza Frontenac.

Also showing at 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 24 at Plaza Frontenac.

Don't worry, you'll be forgiven if you think you stumbled on to a Fellini film. The first few minutes of "The Great Beauty" feature a debauched, raucous party; a gaggle of young nuns in white habits; and a dwarf in a blue suit. In other words, a simple day in the life -- and memories -- of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) as he celebrates his 65th birthday.

From all appearances, Jep is a wealthy magazine writer whose life is a steady stream of glitterrati parties; beautiful, frequently naked women; and pompous art events. From his terrace overlooking the Roman Colisseum, he is the self-proclaimed "king of the high life."

Of course, that's only the superficial reality. In a series of feverish, surreal episodes -- in which memories and realities collide, making it hard sometimes to discern which is which -- Jep takes stock of his life. He's haunted by his failure to write a second novel, to follow up on the first, widely acknowledged as a "masterpiece of Italian literature."

There are some wonderfully caustic scenes, like a Catholic cardinal whose spiritual advice is limited to recipes or a performance artist who literally beats her head against a wall or a palatial botox "clinic." But at 142 minutes, it's at least 20 minutes too long. It may have taken Jep a lifetime to find "The Great Beauty," but the rest of us may not be willing to make that kind of investment. (Susan Hegger)



3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17 | KDHX

Dirk Hamilton is in his 60s now, more than half a life away from his brief period of  modest fame as a Dylanesque singer-songwriter known for "I'm the Thug of Love."

He has trouble getting really good gigs these days, at least in the United States, but he stays on the road and periodically travels to Italy, where he enjoys a modest popularity.

What with living expenses and child-support payments, he would have to go back to teaching if it wasn't for his well-attended Italian gigs.

Hamilton is one of three itinerant folk musicians -- their style falls generally into the broad category of "Americana" -- struggling to support themselves while continuing to make music in "Folk," a moderately engaging documentary. At times, the film can seem repetitive, although director Sara Terry may be making a point about the nature of these musicians' lives on the road.

The other two featured singer-songwriters are younger women, Hilary Claire Adamson and Raina Rose. Both are talented. The best scenes are the folk jams that take place in crowded motel rooms at a musical convention in Memphis and at festivals. In the course of the film, one of the women seeks counseling for her troubled marriage, the other has a baby, but their lives continue to revolve around music. (Harper Barnes)


6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17 | Brown Hall auditorium, Forsyth Boulevard and Chaplin Drive, Washington University

Masika was raped in front of her husband and two daughters. Her daughters were raped. Her husband was killed. Depression, thoughts of suicide followed. Masika's story is unfortunately not unique in Congo. But her resolve to do something is at least rare. 

"Seeds of Hope" captures the efforts of one woman to provide a haven for other women who have become "weapons of war" in Congo, for their children and for children who have been orphaned by the conflicts.

The film is not easy to watch -- the repeated stories of brutality cannot be. But Masika's center, which the film says has helped thousands, provides help and  hope as it rents a plot of land and draws the women together to till, sow and harvest maize and beans from that earth.

Progress is made, but it is not linear. Over the two years of the film, Masika has enough funds coming in to construct an administration building and start a sewing center. During the second year, however, Congolese troops are stationed in a nearby town, and rapes begin again. The hope remains planted. (Donna Korando)


5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17 | KDHX

Also playing 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24 at KDHX

Nat Hentoff has been a hero of mine for half a century or more, first because of his music writings -- who else has written liner notes for both Miles Davis and Bob Dylan? Later I came to appreciate his fervent takes on civil liberties, even after he decided that a fetus had as much right to life as a convicted killer or a drafted soldier. At least he was consistent, he tells us in David L. Lewis' fascinating and thorough profile, "The Pleasures of Being Out of Step."

He not only wrote about jazz, he was often in the middle of creating it. Charles Mingus, who did not suffer white fools gladly, used to call Nat up in the morning and play his most recent composition over the phone, wondering what Nat thought of it.

And I had forgotten that Nat was one of the driving forces behind "The Sound of Jazz," the invaluable 1957 CBS show about jazz. Thankfully, director Lewis is kind enough to show us the segment where Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young, long estranged, shared a blissful moment of reunion on "Fine and Mellow." Nat wrote:

"Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half-smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been — whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways."

In 2008, the Village Voice fired Nat Hentoff, who had written for the original alternative weekly for 50 years. I haven't read it since.

Nat is now in his late 80s. At the screenings, Nat’s daughter, Jessica, founder of St. Louis' "Circus Harmony," will answer questions about her father. See also: "Following the out-fo-step footsteps of my father, Nat Hentoff" by Jessica Hentoff (Harper Barnes)

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.