|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
Issue No. 501
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Too much to sayBy Tarek Atia
"What's up with all the purple buildings everywhere?" asks director Ahmed Atef, whose first feature film Omar 2000 recently took home nine prizes at the Alexandria International Film Festival. Cairo's much-maligned love for fluorescent architecture is a classic case of "bright colours, poor soul," Atef remarks.
Omar 2000 is about how ludicrous we've become -- in this and similar ways, Atef continues. "We look in the mirror, but we don't see our real selves. How is it that he doesn't notice his hair is white?"
Atef is now speaking of the film's hero, Omar, a young man who "decides" to go crazy 30 days before his thirtieth birthday after discovering that his hair is going gray. Atef calls Omar 2000 "a salad bowl, or hallucination, of modern Egyptian society." More practically, it looks like a film made by a journalist (Atef writes for Al-Ahram Hebdo) taking his cues from the headlines: devil worshippers, the human organs trade and so on.
The film reflects the director's dissatisfaction with globalisation. One of the characters buys everything on credit and is then chased by his creditors. When they find that he can't pay up, they force him to give up his clothes. He describes how every time he buys something, he feels like he's getting a little bit closer to getting in bed with the dancing girls in the ads.
In short, it's a film that reflects a multitude of social changes: in the cinema business, in the censorship office and Egyptian society in general. If that sounds heavy, then it won't come as a surprise that Omar 2000 is hard-going at times -- mainly because of Khaled El-Nabawi, who plays Omar with all the subtlety of an elephant trampling through an ant farm.
El-Nabawi may be melodramatic, but the film in which he stars is revolutionary in other aspects, foremost in its daring dialogue. I was curious to know how the film had slipped past the censors. There are references to the country being more like a monarchy, to five per cent of the population living well while the rest are kicked around, to the six or so families that run all of the country's businesses. There is a joke about what happens between the Baba Ghanouj and Umm Ali when you put Viagra in the refrigerator. There are also scenes that contain references to the US Embassy poking its nose into religious sentiments in Egypt.
"I don't self-censor," Atef remarks. "They were convinced by my arguments that I wasn't dealing with taboos." Maybe so, but it was a big leap of faith for the censorship office to let all these things go, and Atef thinks it signals a wider margin of freedom for filmmakers to speak through.
"Our generation, those between 25 and 35, are starting to get involved in cinema, journalism and business," he says. "Once we get the posts, we'll be able to influence those who are younger more." For Atef, Omar 2000 , which cost some LE2.5 million to make, is a case in point; it is among 10 films by new directors to be released this year. Although box office proceeds may not turn a profit, producers can now depend on a number of other outlets to recoup their costs, including television and satellite television rights, video and foreign distribution.
"Viagra is here!": devil-worshippers rage in Omar 2000; the director on the street (right)
Omar 2000's original script featuring two neighbours, one of whom becomes a fundamentalist, the other a devil-worshipper, underwent 13 rewrites by Atef. Even so, Atef admits that because he's trying to speak about so many things, the film may come across as a first film by a new director trying to say everything that's on his mind. Heavy themes sometimes make the film seem to be of the dreaded genre of lauded festival films with no popular appeal. Atef denies the charge. "I want to make movies that affect thoughts, feelings, and nerves," he says.
As to festivals, Atef has plenty of experience. At the age of 24, he was vice president of the Ismailia Film Festival and five of his short films have been shown in more than 25 festivals around the world. The nine prizes the film picked up in Alexandria total some LE120,000.
Atef's next film is tentatively titled "Open Air Circus", but he's reluctant to divulge many details about the plot or a possible cast. The format of Omar 2000, which features a string of disconnected scenes counting down to Omar's thirtieth birthday, has been criticised by almost a quarter of its viewers as in some sense forced, or "artificial" -- a fact that is taken by Atef to mean the audience has become complacent with the standard, more traditional plot-line. And yet, Atef notes, the format is similar to tales like One Thousand and One Nights and the stories of Abu Zeid Al-Hilali, which follow one after the other without necessarily having anything to do with each other.
In his efforts to experiment in form and technique, Atef tried some rather unorthodox methods of inspiring his actors, including using music and smells to set the mood. The method seemed to be more effective for both Mona Zaki and Ahmed Helmi, who put on stellar performances. Atef also studied the paintings of Kandinsky, Matisse and Haring and based the lighting of each scene on the palette of a particular work.
One is tempted to draw comparisons between the 29-year-old director and his protagonist, but Atef insists that he is not the depressed 30-year-old Omar. He claims that he is closer to the character of the gravedigger Ahmed, a person who is able to "extract positive life lessons from grim surroundings."
Teaching the nitty-gritty 21 - 27 September 2000
The official Omar 2000 website