Egyptian film is a staple attraction in the regional fest circuit. No Arab fest can do without one or more Egyptian features, for obvious reasons. Egyptian films remain the most prominent and most popular industry in the Middle East. Egyptian film stars are always guaranteed to bring glitz and glamour to any Arab fest, attracting media attention and lending them substantial clout.
Unlike previous years, the search for new quality Egyptian productions was an arduous endeavor to Arab programmers. The January 25 uprising forced several productions to shut down or delay shooting, leaving Arab fests with a handful of films to fight for. Faced with such intense competition, Doha Tribeca, for instance, resorted to Khaled El-Haggar’s “El-Shouk,” a film that already debuted last year at the Cairo International Film Festival where it won the Golden Pyramid award for best film.
Known for its aggressive acquisition policy, Abu Dhabi decided to scoop most available fest-friendly pictures, and thus, three Egyptian films were featured at the fifth edition. The initial excitement surrounding the Egyptian entries was subsequently met by humdrum critical reception, disenchanted by the sheer mediocrity, frustrating superficiality and downright insignificance of all three films.
The tragedy of “Asma’a”
The most hyped of the Egyptian selection was Amr Salama’s “Asma’a,” a well-intentioned yet infuriatingly conventional drama about an HIV-positive patient fighting the prejudices of her community.
Tunisian starlet Hend Sabry — in her finest performance to date — is the eponymous 40-year-old patient who’s been hiding her disease from her unruly teenage daughter and colleagues. She seeks refuge in a small support group whose socially-varied members are facing similar problems, afraid of the shame awaiting them if they come out.
Asma’a’s life takes a turn for the worse when she starts developing liver problems. Before having a surgery, she divulges her secret to her “devout” physician who impulsively throws her out. She then approaches an influential, self-absorbed talk-show host (Maged El-Kedwany, who won best Arab actor for his performance) to tell her story to the public and acquire funding for her operation.
The present-set narrative is intercut by flashbacks of Asma’a’s past, climaxing with the revelation of how she caught the disease; a device that generates anticipation and keeps the audience engaged.
Based on a true story, “Asma’a” — which had its world premiere at Abu Dhabi — is a message-driven film with a sincere, important objective and a rare honesty maintained for most parts of the film. A number of moments are stark and painful; an example is a scene when Asma’a’s workmate leaves her some cash on the floor, deliberately avoiding touching her.
Visually, “Asma’a” represents an improvement over Salama’s “Run, Lola, Run” rip-off debut “Just like Today.” The same shaky hand-held shooting is employed once again here, but gains urgency in frantic scenes such as the aforementioned instant when Asma’a first announces her secret in the hospital bed. The drab, washed-out colors of the present are contrasted with the bright, vivid hues of the countryside-set past.
Conceptually, the film suffers from the eternal setback defining the vast majority of mainstream Egyptian films. “Asma’a” has one eye on delivering a serious, truthful message and another on catering to the audience’s tastes, sensibilities and ethical tendencies. Hence, the film embraces countless Hollywood clichés: archetypical characters — the politically incorrect TV presenter, the ungrateful daughter and even the self-sacrificing, victimized heroine — preachy monologues and a dishonest, crowd-pleasing ending. And by depicting AIDS as a strictly sexually-transmitted disease, the film works against the very misconceptions it attempts to destabilize.
The unforgivable offense of “Asma’a” though is its moral conservatism, the uncontained plague rapidly spreading in the entire local film industry. Throughout the film, “Asma’a” bemoans everyone for demanding to know the genesis of her disease, insisting that no one has the right to judge her. Initially, the story promises to offer an intriguing, daring comment on honor, shame, the tyranny of religion and the demeaning treatment of women. Yet, in the morally-strict universe of Salama and his like-minded peers, Asma’a must emerge as the wholesome, sinless, audience-friendly Joan d’Arc and, as a result, the core argument the film presents instantly collapses.
The highly improbable, overly dramatic situations Salama invents reduce the impact of the intended message and rob the film of any traces of authenticity. The film had a golden opportunity of ending with a last note of grace, yet it eventually succumbs to the temptation to please. By watering down the ending and deviating away from the conclusion of the real story, “Asma’a” transpires into a disrespectful and deceptive effort by a gutless filmmaker showing no reverence, no faith in the actual tragedy he adapts.
The good, the bad and the inconsequential
Equally uninspiring is “Tahrir: The Good, the Bad and the Politician,” a documentary exploring different facets of Jan. 25. Divided into three parts, the first, directed by Tamer Ezzar (“A Place Callled Home”), focuses on the activists, medical volunteers, musicians, photographers and regular folks who witnessed the myriad events of the revolution first hand. The second part, crafted by Ayten Amin, gives space for members of the police force to justify their reprehensible actions that led to the death of almost 1,000 Egyptians. The third, helmed by “Asma’a” director Amr Salama, explores the downfall of Mubarak via a mock tutorial titled “How to Become a Dictator in 10 Steps.”
Produced by Film Clinic, the same production house that co-financed “Asma’a,” the documentary — which debuted last month at the Venice Film Fest — is a rush job with no depth, no insight and little intelligence.
The sole distinction between this awfully tedious affair and the numberless videos and amateurish short documentaries floating online is its glossy look and somewhat superior production values. Like these videos, the film offers nothing new from what you’ve seen before. If you had followed the 18 days of the uprising as they unfolded in real time, you will not find anything of great substance here.
The first part is the most pointless, lethargically charting events the world knows by heart: the outbreak of protests on Jan. 25, the police attack on the 28th, the consolidation of Egyptians in Tahrir, the marriage ceremonies, the exasperating reaction to the Mubarak speeches, the Battle of the Camel and the stepping down on Feb. 11.
Ezzat exerts no effort in trying to shed new light on these events, offering a new perspective or exploring it from a new angle. The majority of employed footage is recycled, leaving a null impact on the informed viewer.
Same goes for Salama’s amusing if equally inefficient segment. The structure of his feature is quirky, if not particularly original, and there are a number of moments, such as Mubarak’s dye and the Photoshop work performed on his profile photos, that are quite side-splitting. But eventually, it all amounts to nothing revelatory. Salama interviews the usual experts — Mohamed ElBaradei, sarcastic writer Belal Fadl, former NDP members Hossam Badrawy and Moustafa El-Fiqi, novelist Alaa Al-Aswany — who end up reiterating the same analysis and remarks exploited to death over the past nine months.
The lone saving grace of the film is Amin’s middle section, easily the most compelling part of the film. Amin interviews different members of the police force — a low-ranking police officer, a lieutenant, a former member of the notorious State Security and a retired general — each giving a different account of the revolution and their work in the force.
Moral uncertainty dominates this section. The low-ranking police officer claims he detested the Mubarak regime and sided with the people, but couldn’t afford to give up his job. The lieutenant puts an elusive question on the table: If a gun is pointed at your head to shoot protesters, what would you do? Amin constructs a shockingly fascinating portal into the minds of these men, venturing to understand their mentality while putting them in the hot seat.
In the end, “Tahrir” feels like a hollow, occasionally smug exercise in self-congratulation lacking any notable journalistic qualities. Compared to similar BBC and PBS documentaries, the film is deemed reactionary and trivial.
18 humdrum days
More uneven is the omnibus film “18 Days,” a collection of 10 short movies shot by 10 different directors two months after the outbreak of Egypt’s uprising. Most shorts in similar projects are hits or misses; “18 Days” is no different, except that the misses far outnumber the hits. It also doesn’t help when a greater part of these films begin on Jan. 25 and ends on Feb. 11, a structure that gets increasingly repetitive by the end.
The standout feature of this anthology is Kamla Abu Zikry’s “God’s Creation.” Scripted by Belal Fadl, Nahed El-Sebaei (“Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story”) plays a young veiled tea seller with moral qualms about dying her hair. Affectionate, absorbing yet also ironic, Abu Zikry’s little gem pushes the revolution into the background to underline religious dogma, social repression and gender roles; issues that have taken an even bigger significance after Feb. 11.
Fadl pens another winning film in the series: “When the Flood Hits you,” directed by Mohamed Ali. The most light-hearted entry of the group centers on two politically impartial unemployed loafers striving to make some cash by selling flags in both the anti- and pro-Mubarak protests. Unfurling as a joke with a killer punch-line, “Flood” is a look at a people who were largely invisible to us during the protests; a stark, refreshing antidote to the black and white world portrayed in most segments of the film.
Ahmad Abdalla’s “Window” is the most ambitious feature of the set; a wordless story about a young man (Ahmed El-Feshawy) who refrains from going down the street, spending the entire duration of the 18 days inside his room, following those tumultuous events through social and print media. Filled by Abdalla’s signature ingredient — a shy, withdrawn hero, an ultra contemporary soundtrack, a gentle romance — “Window” is winsome tale of a young love blossoming in the most unexpected terrain.
All three features put a human face to the revolution, presenting flawed Egyptians who had no impact on the course of it, accenting a side disregarded by mainstream media.
Other segments fall dramatically short compared to those three. Khaled Marei’s “Revolution Cookie” features an outstanding performance from comedian Ahmed Helmy as a hapless tailor, ignorant of what’s happening in Tahrir, shutting himself off from the outside world in his shabby store. While the idea is interesting, I simply couldn’t buy the premise of the story.
Mariam Abou Ouf’s “#Tahrir 2/2” is a gritty, austere glimpse at a young jobless father (Asser Yassin) turned thug during the Battle of the Camel. Abou Ouf’s striving for authenticity results in otherwise overblown performances from both Yassin and his co-star Hend Sabry and serious logical lapses.
Sherif Bendary’s Suez-set “Curfew” is the only feature set outside Cairo, chronicling the effort of an elderly man (Ahmed Fouad Selim) and his grandson to return home during curfew time. While its structure strays from the rest, the film feels listless, dreary and quite aloof.
The little said about the terrible rest the better. Sherif Arafa’s insane asylum-set opener “Retention” is preachy and dim-witted. Marwan Hamed’s “19 19” starring Amr Waked in the fictional equivalent of Wael Ghoniem is crude and predictable. Yousri Nasrallah’s Asser Yassin, Mona Zaki and Youssra starrer “Interior/Exterior” about a young husband forcing thwarting his wife from participating in the protests is cheesy, naïve and clumsy, while Ahmed Alaa’s closer “Ashraf Seberto” about a barber turned medical assistant is a substandard Egyptian soap opera digested in 10 minutes.
I left the theater cold, unmoved by the whole experience, craving for something deeper, something more stirring, something less obvious. “18 Days” is an underdeveloped project lacking imagination, dexterity and thought.
Egyptian filmmakers are yet to digest the gravity and convoluted consequences of those 18 days. The revolution-related works produced thus far already feel inapt to the current political and social climate.
Egyptian filmmakers, as a Canadian colleague put it, are yet to learn to distance themselves from these events, to view the revolution objectively from afar, to look at the larger, murkier picture. And until they do, do not expect films of real value anytime soon.
A scene from “Tahrir: The Good, the Bad and the Politician.”
Ahmed El Feshawy is Ahmad Abdalla’s “Window,” a segment of omnibus film “18 Days.”