I was briefly acquainted with veteran scriptwriter Bachir El-Dik nine years ago during my first internship. Working as a production assistant on the first Egyptian animated feature (which, alas, never materialize), I got the chance to spend long hours with Mr. El-Dik during the brainstorming sessions, closely observing his craft and listening to countless anecdotes about his legendary collaborations with directors Atef El-Taieb and Mohammed Khan.
Largely regarded as one of the founders of the neo-realism wave of the 80s, El-Dik carved his name in Egyptian film history with several classics such as “Maoud Ala El-Ashaa’” (A Dinner Date), “Did El-Hokouma” (Against the Government), “Leila Sakhina” (A Hot Night) and his enduring masterpiece “Sawaq Al-Autobis” (The Bus Driver), one of the greatest Egyptian films of all time.
One of the most genial personalities I’ve encountered in this business, El-Dik has documented changes in Egyptian society during the post Open Door policy era with unflinching accuracy, steering Egyptian cinema away from the unending trap of melodrama and into a brave, cold new world.
El-Dik’s output decreased considerably by the mid-90s, the starting point of film writers’ mass migration to television. For the past decade, El-Dik’s work has been exclusively restricted to half-hearted TV dramas, many of which are strongly influenced by Hollywood formulas.
Perhaps that’s why “El-Kobar” (The Big Guys), El-Dik’s long overdue return to film, has initially been met with a mixture of skepticism and cautious excitement. Anticipation was soon replaced with a thud of disappointment with the release of the film. Disappointment is not the accurate word to describe this film. “El Kobar” is not only the worst Egyptian film I’ve seen this year; it’s El-Dik’s worst film of his career; a meandering, maudlin, dull and incredibly ludicrous corporate drama without a single saving grace.
Mohamed El-Adl’s directorial debut is a failure on every level: Acting, direction, script. He hides behind shiny slogans and pointless mutterings about corruption to overshadow the ineptness of his filmmaking. And once again, mainstream cinema proves that it’s grown out of touch with general taste.
The ever-glum Amr Saad, of Khaled Youssef’s equally torturous films, channels Ahmed Zaki circa “Against the Government” with Kamal, a middle-class public prosecutor struck by guilt for a man he erroneously sent to his death.
In an effort to clear his conscious and make up for a dumb mistake he made (and it is really dumb), he becomes a lawyer, who takes on the case of a civil servant whose little cheerful kid — surprise, surprise — dies in a hit and run accident committed by the son of a powerful man.
As in all recent tedious Egyptian melodramas, Kamal loses the case after the witnesses, and powerless parents of the child, change their testimonies, accepting the slight compensation given by the rich kid’s family.
Having failed this endeavor too, Kamal gives in, turns to drinking and rejects the helping hand extended by his best friend, Ali (Mahmoud Abdel Moghny). Meanwhile, he tries to make amends with the family of his first victim only to be turned down by his indignant sister (Zeina).
Broke, desperate yet too proud to ask for help, Kamal, out of the blue, accepts another case; this time by depraved business titan Al-Haj (Khaled El-Sawy) whose corporation deals in every conceivable illegal business: Drugs, arms and medical waste.
Kamal does the unthinkable and wins the case as the doors of the ‘big guys’ start to open for him. He joins the big league as Ali preps to uncover Al-Haj’s dealings and puts Kamal back on the path of righteousness.
The main theme of the movie — a lone man vs. a corrupt institution — has been dramatised so expertly in the past by the likes of Wahid Hamed and El-Dik himself, emphasizing the role of the individual in relation to a degraded, domineering system.
So, yes, the subject matter is urgent, and the dramatic possibilities of presenting a sound socio-political commentary are infinite. But neither El-Dik nor Al-Adl bother to put the effort, building their structurally tattered story on every cliché out there.
There isn’t an ounce of logic in this story; not a single moment rings true. Al-Adl’s impotent direction relies on the easiest of both visual and narrative devices: The excessive use of silhouettes, the reappearance of Kamal’s victims in random objects, the overbearing narration and — the most painful of the bunch — the use of a guest star (Abla Kamal) to change the course of the drama.
The muddled characterization is a joke. El-Dik doesn’t give a clear idea of who Kamal really is. Is he a tragic anti-hero born into a world that exterminates heroism? Is he the confounded guilt-ridden, redemption-seeking causality of fate? Or is he a Faustian social climber selling his soul to the corporate devil?
The wide fluctuations Kamal’s character undergoes are too sudden, too implausible, exactly like his tremendously inconsistent relationship with all the other characters.
Plot-wise, the film lacks any tension; the conflict is too flimsy to sustain interest. Characters are too overdramatic to allow for empathy. The easy, improbable ending is rushed; a sign of a filmmaker with no resources or vision. All social dimensions of the story are framed via a black and white tableau, dividing the characters into the nasty, heartless bad guys and the valiant, but toothless, good ones. All social/ethical predicaments are reduced to chest-beating statements in endless, weightless monologues.
There isn’t much to say about the acting either. All performances can be summed up as follows: Abdel Moghny screaming his heart out in every feasible occasion; emotionless Saad giving his impression of R2-D2; Zeina crying in self pity; and an animated El-Sawy strutting aimlessly in the film.
I’m trying to think of one positive thing about this film but I can’t find any. “El Kobar” is the most contrived, most lifeless, most insignificant film I’ve seen this year. Egypt clearly doesn’t have the talent at the moment to produce proper corporate dramas. The lack of imagination, intellect or even craft in this film is distressing; an insight into the present state of mainstream Egyptian cinema. In a summer of increasingly lazy efforts; “El Kobar” is easily the laziest of them all.