Life, but not as we know it

A film double-bill yesterday evening confirmed that less really is more, especially if you are Youssef Chahine and you insist on scenes featuring staring-eyed women dancing in dining rooms while clutching pyjamas.

The Cairo International Film Festival is currently delivering its wares to mostly empty cinemas (apart from the obligatory Otv crew), and I went to watch a film from Chad, mostly because I have never seen a film from Chad before. And it was free entry.

Daratt was an excellent film, about a young man whose father is killed before birth during the civil war, and who goes to find his father’s killer after a general amnesty for war crimes is announced (intending to kill him), and who ends up baking bread with his father’s assassin and who then gives him a mock execution. The best thing about it was its realism; the acting wasn’t overplayed and desert shots were mixed with what seemed to be real life scenes of a poor neighbourhood in which the events unfold. There was also no music score, streets noises instead serving as the soundtrack – which again had the effect of sucking the audience, or at least me, into the film.

I’ll admit that I’m a bit puritanical in my film tastes sometimes, but there really is something appealing about these stripped-down, simple, films: they allow a strong plot to shine. I like a yarn, and while I don’t insist on a beginning, middle and an end there has to be a semblance of a plot – hence my dislike of artsy fartsy films where we are shown a man cutting his toenails in a toga for two hours. But above all what counts for me is realism; yes I like to be entertained, and yes I like to escape into other worlds, but an inaccurate portrayal of another world just doesn’t interest me. It’s even worse when it’s an inaccurate portrayal of not another world, but my world.

Which brings me to Heya Fawda, the second film I saw last night. I had been super-excited about this film for numerous reasons: firstly, one of my favourite actresses is in it (Hala Sedky), secondly, it discusses torture and thirdly, I bumbled questions at some of the cast and crew last week for work*, and had come away feeling that finally, perhaps, we would have the chance to see something real, as opposed to choreographed dancing on Gouna’s beaches. The excellent trailer seemed to confirm this.

But no, dancing with pyjamas. Chahine Chahine Chahine. A quick summary of the plot outline before I begin railing:

- Hatem is a balding low-ranking police officer, an amin shorta, based in Shubra. He is a crook and a bully, and is universally despised.

- Nour (a teacher) lives opposite Hatem with her spunky mother, Baheyya. Hatem loves Nour. Nour doesn’t love Hatem.

- Hatem makes ever bolder advances towards Nour. Baheyya the mother hen defends her daughter.

- Sherif the attorney general falls in love with Nour, bringing him into inevitable confrontation with pervy Hatem.

- Sherif’s mum is an idealistic, ex-militant student, a school headmistress in the same neighbourhood as Hatem’s police station who spends most of her time standing up to authority in a bouffant which looks like a loaf of bread.

On paper we have the makings of a good – if unoriginal – film exploring universal themes of love and violence through these interweaving relationships. It is the Egyptian setting, and the greater context in which these events play out which could, and should, have made this film stand out from the thousands of other films on the market with the same good vs. evil plot.

Chahine’s heavy-handed directing put pay to that. I’m not a Chahine fan, and haven’t seen all his films, but even an amateur like me can see that there are certain trademark Chahine touches which run throughout his films, including this one. In crafting his films he imposes his character on them to such an extent that it dominates them. Why must he shoehorn one or more dance scenes into his films? There were three in Heya Fawda, including one where we see Mena Shalaby dancing with her beloved’s mother while clutching her beloved’s pyjamas, which was quite simply, nauseating (as were all the romance scenes). He is also possibly the only living director in the world to still use blue screen during car scenes: there was a particularly atrocious shot face-on of Youssef el-Sherif (Sherif the attorney general) driving. Not only was a fuzzy white line around his head visible, but the street scenes projected behind him appeared to have been captured in 1985. I can only hope that this was tongue-in-cheek, or a homage, perhaps, to silver screen days gone by.

Another thing that annoys me about Chahine are the annoying little oversights which spoil his films. In Alexandria…New York, in a scene set in New York, I was surprised to see that in the 1950s Americans painted their pavements with the same black and white stripes that mark Egyptian pavements…In Heya Fawda while Hala Sedky (Sherif’s mother) is showing Nour family photos we see a photograph of her son which, funnily enough, is the same publicity photograph of Youssef el-Sherif which was sent out in media packs. And how often have you seen fights and demonstrations where everyone chants in perfect synchronicity, and people hit each other in an orderly fashion? Chaos my arse. These small details are irritating, but weren’t enough on their own to ruin the film. This was accomplished through the film’s treatment of the torture/brutality/conditions of detention themes, which I found unforgivable.

The torture scenes were a farce: gothic-type cell filled with detainees, some strung up on the wall receiving electric shocks while others lay prostrate on the ground contorted in agony. It looked like a circus, and I understood why the film had not been censored – the scenes lacked any power to shock, so divorced were they from the reality we are all now familiar with thanks to Youtube. The female cell meanwhile was a fantasy boudoir of scantily-clad buxom ladies who spend their time belly dancing, and preening themselves and each other. One catfight did break out, which Hatem broke up using his belt, but the scene was mere titillation rather than being a serious treatment of police brutality.

Now Chahine is not of course obliged to present the reality. It’s his artistic vision and his production company’s money. The problem is that the film attempts to explore and present political themes, has pretensions to do so, but fails miserably. As a result it fails both as a commentary on Egyptian society and as a romantic comedy, and ends up being Chahine’s usual hackneyed mess of fetishised young men dancing lots. Incidentally, the conversation I had with the scriptwriter, Nasser Abdel Rahman, leads me to believe that the problem lies in the treatment of the idea, rather than the idea itself: Abdel Rahman spoke eloquently about the issues which inspired his script, and which are mostly smothered by the dancing and the cartoon characters in the police cells. I had no sense of the chaos, corruption and lawlessness which is supposedly the nucleus of the film’s plot.

On a positive note there were a few strong scenes; Mena Shalaby’s staring eyes finally came into their own in the post-rape scene, which was extremely moving. She also had a couple of good lines in a scene where she explained to a school inspector that she can’t actually speak English despite teaching it because when she was at school the teachers who taught her English didn’t speak the language and she couldn’t afford private lessons at university. Other than that, I spent most of the time Shalaby was on screen attempting to contain the dormant Shingles which always threatens to erupt whenever I am forcibly exposed to her little-girl lost school of acting.

SPOILER WARNING: The next paragraph sort of gives the plot away, but surely you already know how the film is going to end?

I did experience a strange feeling of release and satisfaction when at the end of the film the neighbourhood stormed the police station and Hatem is set upon by a huge crowd, but left the cinema annoyed, irritated and insulted that Chahine had not only failed to cash in on the huge leeway he has as an Egyptian institution in order to take risks with this film, but bungled his treatment of these important themes so immensely. Only this week a bunch of police officers were sentenced to sentences ranging from three to seven years for beating a man to death in Mansoura. This man was not wanted for a crime, but rather was the brother of a suspect. A lawyer friend involved in the case says that he was dead an hour after the police went to his house. These things are happening and Chahine chooses to distort them into some black comedy-background for the tepid love story which is of greater concern to him. This is the problem with being a legend, it mostly acts as a smokescreen for mediocrity and absurdity.

If it wasn’t for the excellent Khaled Saleh (Hatem), this film would have fallen on its arse.

* I am back working for The Man, but this time a Man who is going to give me money to write stuff, doesn’t expect me to sit at a desk all day and who will hopefully leave me time to churn out my own writing/nonsense. Zippity doodah.

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