|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
10 - 16 September 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
That kindof guy
Situated in a context of confrontation between the politically and socially powerful haves and the have-nots who barely make ends meet, Sayed Gharib -- played by Ahmed Zaki -- is the hero of director Sherif Arafa's and screenplay writer Wahid Hamed's newest film, Idhak, Al-Soura Titlaa Helwa (Smile for the Camera). Like the heroes of other Arafa-Hamed films (Al-Li'eb maa Al-Kubar, Tuyur Al-Dhalam, Al-Mansi, Al-Irhab wa'l Kabab and so on), Sayed is a have-not. But unlike the other Arafa-Hamed heroes, Sayed is centred, at peace with himself and has no ambitions beyond maintaining his sense of dignity and honour.
Sayed is a photographer, and the director capitalises brilliantly on the dramatic and cinematic potential of the protagonist's vocation. Before the credits even begin to roll the viewer is presented with a series of short, humorous, caricaturish scenes -- "snapshots" of Sayed in his studio with customers including a tomato selling fellah who, having his photo taken for the first time, finds it hard to smile for the camera and Maher Bey, an important government official whose baldness is only exposed as he preens for the camera and accidentally dislodges his toupee.
The Maher Bey pre-credit snapshot succinctly states one of the film's themes -- that one should not be ashamed of truth. Indeed, the director seems to hint, the devices and machinations by which the truth is hidden, like the toupee that Maher Bey dislodges in Sayed's studio, imprison and burden us.
In addition to stating one of the film's major themes these pre-credit scenes in the photo studio provide an introduction to the protagonist, brilliantly played by Ahmed Zaki, who, at his best moments, is right up there with such giants as Naguib Al-Rihani. From the word go, Ahmed Zaki presents us with an eminently likable and credible human being who knows how to connect with others and how to make them smile for the camera in his small town photo studio.
As Sayed says at one point: "There is nothing that makes people happier than to see a nice picture of themselves." Enabling others to see themselves in a flattering and warm light is Sayed's gift. His camera is less capital through which to make money than it is a bridge between Sayed and others. And making people laugh and have a good time is less a job than Sayed's vocation. The smiling faces he sees from behind the lens -- whether passport snapshot faces or bride and groom faces -- are smiling "for real" and not just posing. Sayed is a photographer who knows how to make others smile from the heart. He's that kind of guy.
Sayed follows his heart and has brought up his daughter Tahany (whom Mona Zaki competently endears to the viewer) -- an outstanding medical school student -- to be honest with herself and with others. In addition to supporting his elderly mother Rawhiya (played, sometimes melodramatically, by Sanaa Gamil) who manages to remain young at heart in spite of having lived through the politically, economically and socially hard times of the 1967 defeat, Sayed Gharib is a single parent. The photos which document the various stages of his daughter's life are testimony to the immense pride he takes in her. She is his princess, poor or not, and he will protect her from the promises and betrayals of the sons of the rich and powerful, will take revenge should anyone dare to break her heart.
The move from the small town (to which Sayed's family had fled during the 1967 war and in which the film opens) to Cairo serves as a device by which the film can examine contemporary Egyptian reality in comparison to the time of the 1967 naksa (disaster). Rawhiya's hopes that the situation of her family would improve with the move to Cairo are all but dashed. A new, perhaps more serious disaster awaits Sayed and his family in the big city-- the immense gap between the billionaires who live in penthouses and own fancy cars, on the one hand, and those who own nothing other than their feelings, their sense of dignity and their commitment to human values.
Camera work, music, decor, montage, screenplay -- all orchestrated with intelligent subtlety by director Sherif Arafa -- work together to follow the protagonist's journey. Without being in the least heavy-handed the film manages to convey the symbolic significance of the move from a small town, over which shadows of the 60s still loom, to the capital, with its enormous contemporary social and economic conflicts. In spite of revolutions and wars, the social structure of Cairo is still classist to the core. Classes, however, are no longer divided between masters and slaves, pashas and peasants but, in a more morally pronounced way, between mega-grabbers who give themselves the title of "pasha" and simple honest folk. Smile for the Camera is replete with these new "types": the authentic pasha whose wife has an affair with a nouveau riche casino owner, the 90s businessman, Abdel-Megid Ezzeddin (played convincingly and humorously by Ezzat Abu Ouf) and so on.
The types of yore will not do in a social critique of contemporary times. Sayed's daughter Tahany is not, as she tells her father, "the gardener's daughter aspiring to marry the son of the palace-owning pasha". Simple words, dexterously employed by screenplay writer Wahid Hamed to express social realities far more complex than those of the 60s. Trapped by the incessant stream of cars, unable to cross the road to the fancy house in which lives the man who prevented his son from marrying Sayed's daughter, Rawhiya tells her son: "We are small, very small Sayed."
But are they? "As long as we stick together we can get through anything," says Noussa, played by Leila Oloui, a former thief who made good and now owns a kiosk on the Corniche. The widow of a con-man who dies through an overdose, it is with Noussa that Sayed falls in love. No matter how poor you are -- one of the film's simple, though not simply stated, messages is -- there is strength in human solidarity, in numbers, not on a price tag but in a community.
Although the plot revolves around a conventional poor-girl-meets-rich-boy-and-they-fall-in-love situation, the film does not indulge in stereotypes. Karim Abdel-Aziz -- handsome and likable, though still on his way to artistic maturity -- plays the rich boy who drives a LE300,000 car and is neither cruel nor corrupt. He is a hard-working, distinguished and serious student unable to stand up to familial and social pressures to marry from his own economic class. Through the star-crossed young lovers, through juxtapositions of scenes from their respective homes, we are presented with a social and economic profile of two classes which, like oil and water -- and in spite of hints towards a happy ending -- we know can never really mix.
Running parallel to the story of the young lovers is the romance between Sayed and Noussa. The sub-plot gives Smile for the Camera opportunity to present interesting and viable secondary characters, such as Noussa's good-for-nothing father who cheats at cards to be able to cover his alcohol expenses. But though Leila Oloui is energetic and competent in her role as Noussa, many of the sub-plot's scenes are not terribly convincing and remain superficial in their treatment of the social phenomena and types they purport to present.
The climax of the social conflict which the young star-crossed lovers were bound to come up against unfolds in a setting usually meant for resolutions -- a wedding. In the guise of wedding photographer, Sayed sneaks into the wedding of the rich boy who broke the heart of his daughter. Tahany, in a state of shock, is in the hospital -- and Sayed will take his revenge.
In a film which on the whole steers clear of heavy-handedness the climax scene is discordantly melodramatic and simplistic. Sayed slaps the bridegroom and proceeds to deliver a long lecture on values like "commitment", "love", "promises"...etc. Set aside the fact that the decor is thoroughly unconvincing -- the wedding is not remotely as extravagant as the weddings of today's rich which the film purports to be presenting -- the climax shows the film-maker wanting to have his subtle character portrayal cake and to melodramatically eat it at the same time. Having painstakingly built up a picture of a young man, the bridegroom, who remains fundamentally uncorrupted by his father's billions, the film gives us filthy rich wedding guests who live up to every stereotypical notion we may have of "the rich". The attempts at humour in this crucial scene are in bad taste. When the bridegroom's father proposes to the young lady (a minister's daughter, naturally) whom his son does not marry because he loves the photographer's daughter, we really don't know whether to laugh or cry.
In spite of the auspicious start, the insistence on a happy ending where love triumphs no matter what places the film in the romance-wrapped-in-socio-politico-critique-all-nicely-set-in-a-comic-framework camp. A pity that since Smile for the Camera had so much going for it.