Personal filmmaking on the fly doesn’t get more charming than “A Present From the Past,” Kawthar Younis’ delightful autobiographical essay whose rough, largely hidden-camera visuals somehow add to its appeal. Thirty years ago, Younis’ father broke off a relationship with a woman he met while studying in Italy; as a birthday present, Kawthar buys tickets to Rome so they can find his former love together. The father and daughter’s playful relationship, along with the delicious anticipation of whether they locate his ex, should make “Present” a winning fest item anywhere.
Mokhtar Younis, a cinema professor in Cairo, doesn’t know his daughter is filming when she presents him with two tickets to Rome as a gift for his 75th. (Presumably) happily married for nearly three decades, Mokhtar never hid his past relationship with a certain Patrizia, the Italian he romanced and abandoned years earlier in Rome. He’s dutifully kept a ring of hers he always wanted to return, though now that Kawthar is giving him the chance, he gets cold feet.
His wife is encouraging — she probably thinks it will finally get Patrizia out of his system — so Mokhtar finally agrees, and he and Kawthar fly off to Rome with only a name and an address from 30 years earlier. Miraculously, outside the apartment building they meet a longtime resident who remembers the woman and informs them she moved two decades earlier to Rovigo. Disappointed, Kawthar hits the Internet and finds Patrizia is running a B&B in that northern city, so she and Dad make the journey, hoping to find the woman who symbolizes Mokhtar’s dreams of the past.
Though the concept is whisper-thin and could be mistaken for any number of reality-TV sob-stories, “A Present From the Past” is a genuine heart-warmer, thanks to the utter guilelessness of everyone involved. The helmer’s tender filial devotion and emotional commitment to finding Patrizia will disarm the most cynical viewer, while Mokhtar’s trip down memory lane is sure to strike sympathetic chords with everyone nostalgic for salad days and the might-have-been.
Only hidden recorders such as an iPhone could have captured reality so potently: It’s a pleasure to finally not wonder whether a documentary subject is performing for the camera. It means of course that the lensing is jerky, sometimes tilted and poorly framed. Never mind: audiences will be forgiving. Kawthar submitted the film as her graduation project from the High Cinema Institute of Cairo; hopefully, she passed with flying colors.