When the city became a cinema | Valletta Film Festival – 2016

With the second edition of the Valletta Film Festival celebrating its closing ceremony last Saturday, we look over some of the highlights of what continues to be a key appointment in Malta’s cultural calendar

Majd Mastoura and Rym Ben Messaoud in Inhebbek Hedi
Majd Mastoura and Rym Ben Messaoud in Inhebbek Hedi

Inhebbek Hedi (Tunisia)

Majd Mastoura and Rym Ben Messaoud, the actors portraying the thwarted romantic protagonists of Mohamed Ben Attia’s slow-burning drama, opened the Valletta Film Festival on June 3 prior to its screening, welcoming the audience to partake in a discussion about the film and its implications in a scheduled discussion organised by the festival.

The film certainly plunges viewers into the daily foibles of its characters – chiefly Hedi, days away from his wedding but psychologically adrift – but any overt political discussion points are thin on the ground. Instead, the primary source of the drama – Hedi finding true love in Rym days before his wedding – is universal in a lot of ways, but also particular to the Tunisian family dynamic.

Our lovers do chat about the Tunisian revolution at one point, but Hedi is no revolutionary, and it’s suggested that his struggles stem from his comparative passivity. Opening the door onto a foreign culture that is nonetheless geographically close to us, and doing it through the blossoming of a potentially doomed relationship was the right way to set the tone for the Valletta Film Festival, which this year boasted a ‘Without Borders’ sub-programme. 

Hotel Dallas (Romania)

Writer-director-star of Hotel Dallas Livia Ungur
Writer-director-star of Hotel Dallas Livia Ungur

Hotel Dallas tells the true story of Romania’s fraught relationship with its communist past, but it does so through the most unreal kaleidoscope imaginable: the people’s collective memory of the time they were allowed to watch the benchmark American soap Dallas.
A mockumentary built on a quirky historical factoid – Ceausescu allowed Dallas as the only American broadcast on Romanian TV for the express purpose of showing how decadent and corrupt American society was – its weaving together of musical, road trip and an overarching quest narrative never felt forced, pretentious or weird-for-weird’s-sake.
The reason for this is simple: the film’s inherent – sometimes cartoony – strangeness is implicit in the topsy-turvy political situation it seeks to dissect. But it’s the dissection of a trickster, not a surgeon.
Director and protagonist Livia Ungur leads this surrealist fable-cum-historical investigation with the help of Dallas’ ‘Bobby’ himself, Patrick Duffy (would love to have been a fly on the wall for his first meeting with Ungur and her team) and it’s a hilarious, inspired journey. 

Sand Storm (Israel)

Just like Inhebbek Hedi, the main plot engine for writer-director Elite Zexer’s feature-length debut is a socially illicit romantic liaison. But unlike the other film, Sand Storm gives only a glancing look at the prospective couple’s intimate life, with barely a scene dedicated to the young Layla’s (Lamis Ammar) beloved – a young man of presumably Palestinian origin whose roots render their romance an impossibility. Instead, the focus falls more heavily on Layla and her put-upon mother Jalila (Ruba Blal), who is placed in the awkward position of having to oversee her husband, Suliman’s (Hitham Omari), second wedding preparations. As tensions related both to social imposition and personal history come to a boil, it looks as though it’s Layla and Jalila that will come out worse for it whatever happens.
Impeccably photographed by Shai Peleg and just as sensitively acted, Sand Storm is a coming-of-age story that doesn’t exactly lack humanity and humour, but whose presentation of a gridlocked social order for women is sure to inspire righteous anger. Unlike the deflated climax meted out to her character, the beautiful and versatile actress Lamis Ammar can likely look forward to a bright future.

The Valletta Film Festival took place across various venues in Valletta from June 3 to 11