|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Porn to be wildBy Tarek Atia
To watch a pornographic film in Egypt, you need four things: the videotape; a VCR; a television; and a place to watch it. Film Thaqafi (Cultural Film), which went on general release yesterday, is the story of three horny 20-somethings trying to pull these elements together to watch what is euphemistically called "thaqafi" (cultural) -- a codeword for porn meant to keep parents, friends and colleagues out of the loop (and those in the know in).
Which is a roundabout way of confirming that despite the lack of open discussion of the subject, there is quite a "thakafi" culture in Egypt; mainly centred around teenagers and young adults whose skills in the dating and mating game are, well, underdeveloped. It is this malaise that ails the three main characters of the new comedy Film Thakafi, a first-time effort for scriptwriter and director Mohamed Amin.
Until now, Amin has existed on the fringes of the entertainment industry, doing low-budget ads and travel videos since he graduated from the Cinema Institute 15 years ago. But the "torturous" wait to get onto the big screen has been worth it, as Amin's film is truly a gem. Finally, we have an Arabic film whose popular appeal isn't just the names on the billboards. Clever subject matter and the director's successful handling of plot and characterisation are the things good cinema is made of.
Film Thakafi is not, as the name might suggest, a romp into the raunchy world of pornography. Instead, it's a sensitive look at the problems of sexual repression faced by a particular generation of Egyptian youth. The film takes as its premise that the under-20 generation is being brought up in a world far different from that which those already "over the hill" (read: over 20) grew up in. The 20-ish crowd seem to have been left behind in the brave new world of mixed gender schools, more lenient dress sense and a more relaxed attitude about relationships between men and women in general.
It is this shift that Film Thaqafi brings to life. The struggle of Egyptian 20-somethings to find their place in a changing social landscape is encapsulated in three young men who don't know the first thing about approaching a girl, let alone ask her for a date. The film's main characters have been socialised by the mindset of the houses and schools they were brought up in, where any mixing between boys and girls was considered a no-no. And when it comes to satisfying their sexual cravings through marriage, the economy is not making it any easier.
So what do they resort to? Porn, of course. And herein lies the story of Film Thaqafi, which follows the three men through a day-long "mission impossible" to find a VCR, a TV, a film and a place to watch it. As we follow these intrepid adventurers on their travels around town trying to compile all the necessary elements, it becomes clear that their desire will never be fulfilled.
It is when the three come closest to their goal that the film is at its most devious -- and symbolic. At one point, everything is finally in place, but it turns out that the TV and video do not have matching "systems". Occasionally, they even get to start the film, only to inevitably be cut short just as things are starting to get steamy. The power cuts, or a sibling or parent walks in. Finally, they discover that the film has actually been taped over with a session from the People's Assembly.
The Youssra cameo featuring, from left, Abdel-Wahab, Rizk, Youssra, Eid; right: the boys horse around with producer Sami El-Adl
The film tackles its taboos deftly. I asked Sami El-Adl, the veteran actor and producer who risked making the film, how it got past the censors. "Why shouldn't it get by?" he boomed. "There are no bad words, no bare legs, no kissing. There's nothing overtly outrageous in there." Then he added, "And the censor has become more daring."
Thankfully, so has the movie business. Film Thaqafi is a film where young people actually play young people's roles with complexity, not as caricatures. The film stars, Ahmed Rizk (who played a mentally-retarded boy in the mega-successful Ramadan series Al-Ragul Al-Akhar so convincingly that people thought he was actually mentally challenged), Ahmed Eid (the budding comedian from Short, Fanella wa Cap), and Fathi Abdel-Wahab (the anti-Israeli trouble-maker in the landmark Sa'idi fil Gam'a Al-Amrikiya).
Rizk is the outgoing, talkative leader of the crew, who will stop at nothing to watch the "thakafi" film, including suggesting they try to watch it in a cultural centre attached to a mosque. When that doesn't work, he insists on asking their friend, who is in church mourning the death of his father, if they can borrow his apartment for a few hours. When I asked Rizk about doing the scenes in the mosque and the church, he quipped, "We're already doing a risky film, so we had to do risky scenes."
Eid and Abdel-Wahab also manage to round out their characters, complementing each other and Rizk with genuine camaraderie. Rizk attributes the successful portrayal of friendship to the month ahead of filming in which the actors worked out their roles and the relationships between them. "We've all acted in a lot of things, but we'd never done that before, and that was the key," Rizk said, calling director Amin "a thermometer" for correcting the trio whenever he felt the characters were becoming "too similar to each other."
When I met the three actors earlier this week in El-Adl's downtown office, they were jovial and enthusiastic, but a bit nervous as well. The pre-release hype is pointing toward a success, and El-Adl, for his part, says his whole history has involved supporting youth projects like this one. Many have failed, but he's convinced that this time he has a winner. He expressed concern that the film exceeded its budget of LE1.3 million by more than half a million pounds, but El-Adl has spent the money wisely, investing in good advertising and promotion. Small details, like the film's slick poster, point to a growing trend of sophistication in the marketing side of the film business.
"I'm an actor," says El-Adl, who makes a cameo in the film as a police officer who catches the kids but then ends up discussing the "thakafi", which he has clearly seen before, with them. "But when a screenplay hits my desk that makes me mustafiz (agitated), I go for it." He raves that he wishes there were 15 Mohamed Amins and 35 stars like these, because then he'd produce them all. Actually, he and his brothers (Mohamed, Medhat and Gamal El-Adl) have been responsible for many of the films (Sa'idi, Hammam, Short) that have changed the business in the past three years.
The film is not perfect. Once or twice it goes a bit overboard with its message, like when a nurse repetitively states that she needs to get married so she can release the desires within her. The ending, a cameo appearance by superstar Youssra (playing herself), is just plain weird.
One of the most telling and sure-to-be controversial scenes takes place after the three fail to watch the film in the mosque's cultural centre, and instead find themselves being asked to join a communal prayer. While performing their ablutions, they discuss how contradictory it is that they are preparing to pray, and yet their real goal is to watch a porno. Amin says he meant the scene as a symbol of the confused interaction between the trappings of modern life and the religious sensibilities of the Islamic world. Commenting on the way women dress today, one of the characters says, "I wish they'd all wear niqab (full-body cover) and then we'd be better off." Another fumes, "Stop dressing this way; you're ruining a whole generation."