Al-Ahram Weekly Online
6 - 12 September 2001
Issue No.550
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A different vehicle

Hani Mustafa seeks out the Intifada on the commercial screen

It has long been the tradition to release new films during one of the two Muslim feasts: Eid Al-Adha and Eid Al-Fitr, traditionally viewed as the cinema- going prime time. More recently, though, film theatres have found in the summer a new and arguably more lucrative season, the prime months being July and August. While the Eid embodies the full range of films, it seems only light romantic comedies are produced with a view to being released in the summer. Such films, indeed, have served as vehicles for a new generation of comedians (Alaa Walyeddin, Mohamed Heneidi, Ahmed Helmi, and Mohamed Saad). This summer, however, at least one production company, Al-Adl Group, has endeavoured to lure film-goers to its production with a theme altogether unlike the light romantic comedies of these heroes.

Ashab Walla Business (Friends or Business Partners?) tackles Al-Aqsa Intifada head on, treating it as the main focus rather than a backdrop to the unfolding of events. In this, his debut, director Ali Idris distinguishes himself by choosing a serious topic. Yet the intentions of Idris and his co-workers -- their "message" -- is far too clear from the first few seconds on. Even the titles are superimposed on the image of a $100 bill, eventually dissolving into a string of terse, fast images punctuated by techno rhythms -- a scene the viewer might have mistaken for a commercial break. These clipped shots turn out to be the introduction to the fictional satellite television show "Dollars... Dollars" around which the action revolves. And the name of the channel that produces the show? Network 2000.

Karim Nur (Mustafa Qamar) is the successful game show host whose ridiculously simple questions attract a large number of viewers. The premise of the film, as screenwriter Medhat El-Adl conceived of it, is spelled out early on in a conversation between Karim and one of the channel's managers outside the studio. Karim asks the manager his opinion of the show, and the man asserts that true stardom is not so much about being popular as about doing something of importance and value. Karim argues that it is the audience that demands frivolous shows. Yet it is evident that the words of the manager have affected him. The fact that the premise is spelled out so early -- a young media figure wants to do something of importance -- is one of the film's main problems. The plot moves on to one of Karim's competitors in the vapid presentation stakes, Tarek El-Siyoufi (Hani Salama), the anchor of "Flash," a show that introduces young talents to the screen.

They are competing over an advertising campaign that promises a brand new car on top of an already impressive sum. The professional conflict is predictably paralleled by a conflict over women. Tarek's assistant Zena (Mona Lisa) just happens to be Karim's fiancée; she is, one senses, an ambitious character in search of fame and fortune as well as love. Yet unlike the male characters who are more or less realistically construed, she and the other female characters rarely manage to escape the cardboard. To balance out Zena's negative vibes, we have the ever-kind Salma (Nur), director of "Dollars... Dollars," who appears to be attracted to Karim. Medhat El-Adl added a comic dimension to the script by introducing Abdel-Fattah Kamal (Tarek Abdel-Aziz), the writer, and Mos'ad Attia (Mohamed Attia), the cameraman. Throughout the film these two characters' interchanges provide comic relief.

At this point the life Karim, Tarek and Abdel-Fattah shared at school, university and beyond is evoked in a series of scenes edited around the title song, "Ashab Walla Business?" Almost immediately the main event of the story is disclosed. In a bid to attract more viewers, Network 2000 decides to begin shooting in the occupied territories. The channel should capitalise on the Intifada, argue its managers, who are nonetheless eager to maintain the channel's policy of providing frivolous diversions. Channel director Adham Bek (Sami El-Adl) dispatches Karim to Palestine, assigning Tarek the management of the advertising campaign. Karim and Salma (who, as it turns out, conveniently enough on the eve of their departure, is Palestinian) set off to Palestine with Abdel-Fattah and Mos'ad. Yet from then on it is not always clear which scenes are taking place where. The filmmaker seems to pay but scant attention to geographical detail.

Since the group travels by microbus it would be logical to assume that they enter the occupied territories through the Rafah border. The scenes that follow their departure, however, are shot in a mountainous region more evocative of northern Palestine than Gaza. Subsequent scenes, particularly those depicting the escape of the crew, aided by the Palestinian, Jehad (Amr Waked), recall the old quarters of Jerusalem and its narrow, covered alleyways. Yet the script fails to indicate where the events take place in Palestine; is it Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza? Scenes set in Palestine are initially filmed in the style of a documentary. In one scene, the crew is interviewing an elderly Palestinian recounting the story of his son's death; the camera is still, framing an old man on a prayer mat, an open Qur'an at his side.

Game shows and advertisements turn out to be in conflict with political reality, not surprisingly -- a dichotomy that culminates in the crew's preparations for a special "Dollars...Dollars--in Palestine" episode. But the experience of visiting the occupied territories shocks and dismays Karim, whose personality undergoes a remarkable change; he refuses to do that episode. The next development in the plot -- introducing clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli forces -- is contrived and does not flow. When Karim flares up, Jehad tries to lighten the mood, calming Karim's anger. He sings, and everyone joins in, performing the dabka, the traditional Palestinian folk dance. Suddenly a bullet shot is heard and everyone runs outside to find a funeral procession of one of the feda'iyin, which quickly turns into a demonstration and then escalates into a confrontation with the occupation forces; the Palestinians throw stones and the Israeli soldiers fire guns. Though competently shot, the sequence of events remains illogical.

In a climactic scene, Jehad asks the crew to film him while he undertakes a suicide bombing; he thus offers the chance to capture what no other crew will have access to. Excited, the crew returns to Cairo but Adham Bek refuses to run their footage and turns over the game show to Tarek. Enraged, Karim goes to the studio, attacks Tarek, the channel manager and security personnel. In these scenes director Ali Idris and director of photography Ihab Mohamed employ Dogma-techniques to emphasise the tension. The rapid movement of a hand camera that shifts from one person to another is accentuated by Mona Rabi's sharp editing which compresses moments, making for a fast, powerful sequence. The film ends shockingly, however, with Tarek presenting the "Dollars" game show while Karim's footage is being broadcast: invading an Israeli security checkpoint, Jehad blows himself up. Idris saves this shocking scene to the end, building up the tension gradually. The concluding credits run against a background made up of the numerous images of real-life martyrs who have carried out suicide bombings since the beginning of the Intifada. Despite its many structural problems, Ashab Walla Business broadens the scope of commercial cinema, breaking the romantic comedy rule.

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