The global phenomenon of enlightening the world through instant pontification on sundry matters – AKA blogging – has not escaped those with access to the internet in Egypt: the Egyptian Blog Ring, an inexhaustive directory of Egyptian blogs, lists 1481 sites of which 874 are written in Arabic and 590 in English (http://www.egybloggers.com/). Of this total 320 blog authors categorise their musings as political. It is impossible to exaggerate the critical importance of the role which political bloggers have cut out for themselves in Egypt: the French Resistance of the information age, they exploit the speed and anonymity of the Internet to bear witness to, and publicise, the transgressions which the mainstream media – emasculated by draconian laws and self-imposed red lines – can or will not touch. Hyperbole? Not when one considers that this role has rendered them something of a Fifth Column in the eyes of the powers that be and blogger arrests have become sadly and inevitably routine: only last week blogger Omar el Sharqawy was arrested while covering the Shura Council elections in Mansoura and, according to Manalaa.net, (a blog at the frontline of the battle for freedom of expression, one of whose authors has himself been previously imprisoned) his whereabouts remain unknown.
Downtown Cairo’s Goethe Institute sought to build alliances between bloggers and another marginalised group in Egypt, independent film makers on Sunday evening. Bloggers were invited to a screening of one hour-long, and four short films by Egyptian independent film-makers with a question and answer session with the film makers themselves afterwards. The organisers explained the rationale behind an event aimed uniquely at bloggers: both bloggers and independent film-makers are concerned with artistic self-expression, and address (intentionally or not) an alternative audience to that drawn by mainstream artists, writers and production companies – thus it is logical that bloggers will want to watch films other than those belched out onto the conveyor belt of mainstream cinema. This deduction seemed somewhat shaky given the low numbers who turned up to the event, which is a shame, given the excellence of nearly all the films shown, and may be attributable to the low-key nature of the event’s publicity.
Amr Khaled’s ten-minute Path of the Young was a spirited, if somewhat oblique, look at children’s lives in Cairo’s omnipresent slums. We watch a frenetic game of street football which comes to an abrupt halt when the ball lands on the balcony of a curmudgeon old Scrooge who slits the ball open in order to stop their incessant noise and clamour. In revenge the boys acquire a new football which they fill with plastic bags of their own freshly produced urine before binding the ball with a black stocking and sending it to its inevitable messy death on the balcony. Vituperative recriminations (primly rendered in the English subtitles as scoundrels!) ensue from behind the shutters as we watch the boys running away, laughing and triumphant, before the film inexplicably cuts to a young kite-flyer who falls off a ledge. The film’s message was not entirely clear – the film’s kite motif particularly confused and confusing beside the football game – but it compensated for this with lively and enjoyable acting (by non-actors).
Can Bassem Samra do no wrong? After his excellent portrayal of the unwitting gay lover in the Yacoubian Building he was once again in top-form in Mahmoud Suleiman’s Blue and Red. Samra plays Hema, who fears that he may have got his girlfriend in the club after not being as careful as he should have been during their coital relations. The entire film takes place in one room, and the sense of claustrophobic desperation is therefore intensified as we watch Hema and his girlfriend desperately ringing around their friends in their quest to find the morning after pill (“a friend of mine needs it cos the bed broke at exactly the wrong moment”). The girl also rings a family-planning clinic pretending to be married and tells the woman who answers that she and her husband do not wish to add to Egypt’s over-population problem in the form of another child. She is met with mocking guffaws by the woman who informs her that “one more child won’t do any harm – I myself have seven!” All this is punctuated by frequent mobile phone calls from the girl’s mother, enquiring where she is and warning that her father has got home, during which Hema plays taped street-sounds on a cassette recorder in order to fool her parents into thinking that the girl is outside, and on her way home.
Having failed to get the morning-after pill they meet in the room ten days later in order to carry out a pregnancy test. Hema sits on the bed, smoking and wracked with anxiety, calling out to his girlfriend, “what are you doing? Giving birth??” While he waits he has a mental image of the girl coming out and announcing that the result is blue – negative – before leaping into his arms, both of them spinning around the room joyfully. This is contrasted with their reactions when she does eventually emerge and inform him that the test is in fact negative: they are subdued and disappointed. Blue and Red is a brilliant and frank study of a theme – extra-marital sexual relations and the consequences thereof – rarely presented in this manner in mainstream Egyptian cinema as well as being a touching exploration of the dynamics and complexities of love within the framework of the demands of society.
The excellent Boutros Ghali appeared in both Ibrahim el Batout’s superb Ithaki and Tamer el Said’s Monday, a touching tale about a woman who remembers how to whistle and in the process re-ignites passion for her pipe smoking enthusiast husband. Ithaki, which takes its name from the verses composed by Greek Alexandrian poet Cavafy (and whose lines are a motif running throughout the film) is a complex semi-autobiographical drama in which actors appear next to people playing themselves (both famous and not, and including director el Batout’s father). The plot loosely revolves around a war cameraman (el Batout is himself a cameraman who has spent many years in war zones) who is planning a film in which several characters will appear, including Ghali’s reformed alcoholic, a white witch and a classical music enthusiast. Musician Fathy Salama makes an appearance as himself, and drew an involuntary laugh from the Goethe crowd when, during a moving speech by Algerian singer Karima Nite about a film director friend killed by Islamists in Algeria, the film cuts to an extreme close-up on Salama who says nothing and looks as if he is about to fall asleep.
The film’s themes are war: both personal and global, and the impossibility of comparing and quantifying human suffering. The work is outstanding on numerous levels: the freshness of the acting, the innovative and unusual non-sequential approach to the storyline and above all the score, a haunting soundtrack sung by Karima Nite whose pathos perfectly evoked the sadness in these ordinary lives but also reflects the hope in Cavafy’s Ithaca: Arriving there is what you’re destined for/But don’t hurry the journey at all…so [that] you’re old by the time you reach the island/wealthy with all that you’ve gained on the way.
During one of the Q & A sessions with the director one member of the audience urged film makers in the Middle East to carry on making films such as these in order to present the richness of Arab culture to the West and highlight all the good things the region has to offer. This prompted another member of the audience to comment that actually, he was at a loss to which good things she meant because he felt as if this country is “clobbering us around the head with shoes on a daily basis.” He then promptly took his leave – followed by the woman who made the original comment – and their voices were audible still arguing the point outside as the organisers explained that they hoped that this event would be the first of many unifying and strengthening the independent cultural sector.
Originally published in al Ahram Weekly.
P.S I am of course aware that there are more like 3 – 4,000 Egyptian blogs in existence but was unable to find a quotable source.
P.P.S Omar el Sharqawy was released this week you’ll be glad to hear.
P.P.S.S If you in Egypt make sure that you have a look at the printed version of this so that you can gaze upon the glory of a topless Bassem Samra. Am I the only woman in the world who fancies him?