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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9 Responses to Life, but not as we know it

  1. Amir says:

    Have you seen ba7eb el cima?
    Was wondering what you thought of it, I’ve heard good things and want to watch it when i’m back next month.

  2. fully_polynomial says:

    You get what you deserve. Why would you go watch a Chahine movie? And Hala Sedqui is your favorite actor? I have never heard anyone say that :) (nothing against Hala, its just an odd choice).

    BTW — I just obtained Dunia, which was the movie that first brought me to this blog. I will watch it when I have the time.

    Amir — Ba7eb el seema is overrated. Its not as bad as a Chahine movie of course and has some good moments, but I wouldnt recommend it. While I like Mahmoud 7emeda in general, his performance here was not up to par.

  3. Basil Epicurus says:

    My favorite Chahine movie was Al Maseer (Le Destin) which was an excellent movie about censorship and the power of retaining independent thought. What makes it even more intriguing is that it was set during the 12th century, in Andalusia,: one of my favorite historical periods. It really is his magnum opus.

    I also liked Bab il Hadeed, because it had a noirish, dark tone that you don’t see often in Arabic movies.

    A distant third (but still enjoyable) are the Alexandria trilogy of movies.

  4. fully_polynomial says:

    Ahhh! Every time I hear someone mentioning how they like Al Maseer, a little part of me dies inside.

    Nice cinematography on that one though (Ramsis Marzouk?), and a nice idea. Terrible execution topped with what is possibly the most annoying theme song in Arabic cinema (I dread the moment this song starts when I am at a Mounir concert).

    (I never get these word verification thing correct on the first time. I must be blind and/or stupid)

  5. Basil Epicurus says:

    I liked the execution on Al Maseer, FP, and thought the whole movie worked (even the song and dance routines weren’t as egregious as usual). Obviously we disagree on this one, but I agree generally that Chahine isn’t as great a director as he’s made out to be.

    By the way, Amnesiac, if you want to see a great movie about torture and the misuse of power, check out Al Baree2, starring Ahmed Zaki and directed by Atef El Tayib. It’s almost 25 years old but a true classic and a powerful narrative. Have you seen it, FP?

  6. Amnesiac says:

    I want to rewatch Ba7ebb el Cima. I liked it when I saw it but possibly because at that time I didn’t know much about the world of Egyptian Christians, and found it interesting for that reason. Am aware of course that some Egyptian Christians would contend that the film does not accurately portray their world: the NGO where I worked at the time held a roundtable discussion about the film which nearly ended in fisticuffs. It was great.

    Leila Elwi gave a good performance, I thought.

    Fully P, Hala is not my favourite actor in the whole wide world, she’s one of my favourite actresses. I like her ability to do subtle, cynical humour, and whatever I’ve seen her in she’s always given a solid, convincing performance.

    Basil, Fully P: See why did he have to put dance routines in a film about censorship and the power of retaining independent thought? Stupid.

    There’s another film about torture in Egypt which I still haven’t seen, a7na betou3 el autobees (I think?)

  7. fully_polynomial says:

    basil — agree on el baree2. and on all things 3atef el tayeb in general. though i think el baree2′s ending was a bit rushed.

    otobees is also a great film.

  8. Forsoothsayer says:

    ahhh my comment didn’t go through!

    hala sedky is a good actress, i like her in ya donya ya gharami. i recommend that for anyone interested in women’s themes.

    al maseer was good for the reasons basil mentioned but the dance bits did suck (and were porrly choreographed). he does fetishize young men relentlessly – a friend of mine who acted in one of his movies said that he simply followed the male star of that movie around all the time like a puppy and paid little to no attention to the other actors. in her opinion, she said, he was kind of in love with that kid.

    ba7eb el sima is a good film but of course highly inauthentic. i have yet to hear a Christian person use the term “7aram” and the protestant side of the family was poorly dealt with. then again no one knows jack shit about egyptian protestants unless you get those satellite channels. should write book about that, most of them are too wrapped up in that rather trippy world to think critically about it. then again i think it’s pretty obvious that the use of christian characters was to avoid the scissors of the censor while addressing the larger egyptian theme of fundamentalism, repression and the like.

    i guess i won’t see heya fawda then. never liked menna shalaby anyway for the reasons u mentioned.

  9. Forsoothsayer says:

    this blog post has been the subject of much discussion – nay, debate – in my office.

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