28 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1999
Issue No. 453
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Profile Study Special Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Signs of sleaze
By Khairiya El-Bishlawi
The editor-in-chief, the influential policeman, the high-ranking politician, the engineer who occupies a respectable official position, the bank manager, the economist -- all gather every night at Kokitta's house, a centre for prostitution and underworld financial shenanigans. And each one of them uses his influence to protect this woman.
Kokitta is a strong, attractive woman and has a way of seducing men and manipulating them as if she owned a set of keys to their hearts and minds. Her house is open to every one, both men and women, and she has an assistant, Amina, a woman no less powerful and who keeps a video recording of every customer's sexual goings-on for the purposes of blackmail.
When night falls, Amina supervises the preparation of the dining tables and the bar. To the music of Qazem Al-Saher, Kokitta performs her sensual dances wearing seductive and revealing costumes, paving the way for the evening's conversations, which revolve inevitably around financial gains at the expense of the poor. In the first part of the film, the customers plan to destroy all the popular buildings in the neighbourhood to construct a new, exclusive residential compound, which is to include golf courses and luxurious villas.
In Kalam Al-Leil, filmmaker Inas El-Degheidi characteristically chooses a topic full of potential for explicit scenes and sexually loaded dialogue. No topic, really, could be hotter than the different kinds of "prostitution" -- including moral and political -- and few subjects attract audiences in the commercial cinema to such an extent.
El-Degheidi chooses powerful, attractive women as the protagonists. At the beginning of this film the spectator watches Kokitta spinning her webs around a new catch: a formidable political figure, played by Mahmoud Qabil, who occupies an important position in the state. He is a good-looking, reserved man who discreetly refuses to answer the questions of journalists, preferring a brief "no comment". Yet he succumbs without much resistance to the charm of sex embodied in Koki and to the verbal flirtation she uses to trap him, although he is a responsible official who tackles such important issues as the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Ashraf Abdel-Baqi and Youssra in a scene from Kalam Al-Leil
In the film, the conflicts between powerful women, ie Kokitta and Amina (Jala Fahmi and Youssra), are more resonant than the conflicts between men and women. Each of them is adept at defending her interests and has her own weapons, whether secret or disclosed.
The conflict sometimes escalates to open statements of hostility. Youssra's expressive capacities are stronger even though throughout the film Kokitta displays what amounts to an impressive show of impertinence, loudness and physical prowess which she uses to attract the influential men and dispense with the less powerful. In one scene we watch her pulling one of them by his tie like a sheep and hands him to Amina who continues to pull him to the front door in the midst of threats and insults.
Such power can quickly become brutal, as in the scene when Amina asks permission to resign and return to her modest family to look after her sister, marry the man she loves and bear children before it is too late. Love, though, is an emotion that does not exist in a world of business, which relies on sexual commerce. Marriage is only possible when it becomes a cover for dubious relations. In order for Kokitta to force Amina to remain she frames her for prostitution and watches as she is taken away from her mother and two sisters to a police station. In revenge, Amina carefully plans Kokitta's fall using the videos and the help of the policeman responsible for watching the house and reporting on its customers.
There is no doubt that Inas El-Degheidi is a bold filmmaker. She possesses a perspective which conforms to the traditional idea of a woman as someone who either determines the male's direction or is determined by it. Women's bodies and voices are sex-tools, successfully used to appeal to the public. In her films El-Degheidi empowers the spectator to gaze at Kokitta, establishing the angles that will allow such voyeurism. In fact, the thematic construction of Kalam Al-Leil relies on this concept of voyeurism, and what the protagonist can see through her camcorder.
On the level of instinct, the viewer too follows the progress of the film from the angle chosen by the filmmaker, gaining access to an environment that seeks little beyond arousal.
As already mentioned, the conflict between the two women is as intriguing as the conflict between the sexes and eventually it escalates into murder.
The mixture of comedy, sarcasm and quick, fast-moving scenes, as well as an excessively explicit portrayal of the illicit relationships taking place, is successful. Yet it remains true that, in terms of dialogue and drama the film is lacking and, in parts, offensive, while the characterisation relies on popular stereotypes. For example, the character of Saadiya, the popular, ugly, nagging woman who fails to arouse her husband (played by an extra) is a mere caricature. There is also the character of the honourable flower vendor, Hanafi, who remained, despite the efforts of actor Hassan Hussein to give him social and moral dimensions, ineffectual and insignificant.
Kalam Al-Leil suffers from a visual loquaciousness, many of the scenes being uselessly repetitive, underlining the filmmaker's failure to compress or deepen the meanings she seeks to communicate. One's final impression, after the fabricated theatrical happy ending (proclaiming the success of Amina and her policeman) is that the more exceptional and original aspects of the film, for example the camera work, the lighting, the framing and Youssra and Jala Fahmi's acting, are spoiled by the very corruption the film attempts to highlight.