24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Reading the palmBy Khairiya El-Bishlawi
Araq El-Balah (Date Wine), Radwan El-Kashef's second feature film, comes six years after Leih ya Banafsig (Violets are Blue), a long time between films for a talented director. Of course, it is no secret that the Egyptian cinema is in crisis and many talented Egyptian directors fail to find producers. Indeed had El-Kashef not been awarded a French financial grant making production possible, it might have taken even longer than six years for his second film to appear. Unfortunately foreign aid, though it represents a temporary solution for some directors, cannot solve the crisis of film-making in Egypt. It comes, too, with strings attached.
Araq El-Balah is set in Upper Egypt. Replete with exoticism, in the design of costumes and props no less than in the treatment of locations, it is very ably executed. It is a glossy film, with a warm colour palette and brilliant lighting. Given that the director is also the scriptwriter, one might expect such visual elements to be part of an organic whole, though in truth they refer to little other than older films.
I could not, watching Araq El-Balah, help but remember bits of Shadi Abdel-Salam's brilliant The Night of Counting the Years, as well as parts of his older documentary film, El-Fallah El-Fasih (The Outspoken Fellah). But more insistently, El-Kashef's Araq El-Balah brought to mind Khairi Bishara's Al-Touq wal Aswerra (The Necklace and the Bracelet), based on Yehia El-Taher Abdallah's novel, an association reinforced by the fact that Sherihan played the lead role in both films.
In Al-Touq wal-Aswerra, Sherihan, the ultimate showbiz girl, was still young and possibly more willing to listen to the instructions of the director, producing a convincing performance of an Upper Egyptian young woman. In Araq El-Balah, however, Salma, Sherihan's character, strikes so many wrong notes that one cannot help but feel that the director allowed his star to get away with whatever she wanted, be it dancing, singing or speaking in a fake and pretentious Upper Egyptian accent.
In both films Sherihan plays the role of a young woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, and is sentenced to death by a community that never forgives women who take its honour lightly. Honour as a concept, whether in the context of Upper Egypt or the East in general, is a complex issue. To deal with the issue superficially is fatal, devaluing a complex value system that cannot be interpreted and developed without acknowledging its internal logic and cultural specificity.
I am afraid that Araq El-Balah falls into the obvious traps. The exotic set, and the people inhabiting it, are objects to be viewed from a distance, with the inevitable result that this is a film for export, not for local consumption.
The director, as well as the producers (Misr International Film: Youssef Chahine and co), have conducted a well-orchestrated publicity campaign for the film, a campaign that targeted foreign audiences and that paid off on the international festival circuit long before the film's domestic release scheduled this week. But what does the film itself have to offer? For me, its just an album of various women's faces. Certainly, the lesser known actresses were able to enact the ideas of the director within the mythological framework he had chosen more convincingly than Sherihan, an actress whose reputation managed to overshadow the entire production.
The film begins with a young man arriving from the city asking about the natives of the village. There are only two women left in the village to answer his questions, young Salma and the elderly Zad El-Khayr (played by Sudanese actress Faiza Amseeb). The film proceeds as an extended flashback: the men had long ago left the village in pursuit of their fortunes in distant, oil rich countries, leaving behind women and children, a crippled, mute, old man and an adolescent boy, Ahmed (played by Mohamed Nagati), who loves Salma, the only unmarried woman in the village and the illegitimate daughter of a woman who had paid the price for her dishonour, also played by Sherihan. Following the departure of the men, the women dress Ahmed in their husbands' clothes before themselves dressing as men, in order to attract a musical troupe to their emasculated community. The confusion engendered by such cross-dressing becomes increasingly complicated, fuelled by an astonishingly potent date wine made of the mythical white dates of a very high palm tree.
The film is full of sensuous moments, of ecstatic dancing and beautifully realised bathing scenes, sequences enhanced by a soundtrack including beautiful songs written by Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi. Such moments, unfortunately, do not add much to the narrative and can be very well viewed and enjoyed outside the film's context.
When three of the village men return, frustrated and penniless, from the Arabian Gulf they realise that something about their women has changed. They focus their anger upon Ahmed whom they decide to kill by first luring him to climb the high palm tree and then felling it. But with the fall of the high palm a curse descends on the village and the place becomes desolate, leaving only the two protagonists, Salma and Zad El-Khayr, behind to tell the story.
In the many interviews Radwan El-Kashef has given since completing work on Araq El-Balah he quotes a businessman telling him that the picture is about people who deserve to be killed rather than be made the subject of a film. And to some extent the businessman got it right: certainly all the characters appear doomed, carrying within them the seeds of their own destruction.
What El-Kashef appears to be doing in this film is to exoticise his characters in a way determined by the impulse to entertain. It is essentially a touristic enterprise, foregrounding the folkloric and the 'other', be it circumcision, ululation or abortion. And as one character gets killed off after the other, the director neatly wraps their corpses in cellophane before marching them in intensely visual funeral processions to the accompaniment of Yasser Abdel-Rahman's brilliant score.