Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A provocative troika

Casting and corruption: filmmaker Dawoud Abdel-Sayed talks to Youssef Rakha

Dawoud Abdel-SayedThe first private screening of Dawoud Abdel- Sayed's Muwaten wa Mukhber wa Harami ("Citizen, Detective, Thief") testified to the popularity of this filmmaker's work, what with writers, artists, cinematic gurus and not a few stars gracing the Renaissance Wonderland film theatre complex with their presence.

An imaginative demonstration of how the human capacity for love and understanding can bridge social and cultural differences; social commentary dressed as comedy; perhaps a bit too long, but he had to make room for Shaaban Abdel-Rehim: comments overheard at the refreshments counter outside. No doubt, then, that Abdel-Rehim, the urban folk singing phenomenon, would be a major selling point.

"It is an accomplished examination of the social circumstances of our times," a lone, grumbling voice suggested.

"Shaaban's presence is strong enough," the staunch guardians of high-brow culture reluctantly conceded, despite their studied outrage with his brand of stardom.

"A comedy in true classic style, though," opined others "All those tumultuous conflicts winding down to a happy ending..."

In tones that suggested impatience or dissatisfaction, on the other hand, many stressed the fantastical hypothesis. A fantasy, they asserted, careful not to be unduly critical. Very good indeed, as a fantasy -- the implication being that a "realistic" story is necessary for the success of a contemporary film?

Yet no one could sensibly deny that Onsi Abu- Seif's cinematography and Samir Bahzan's camerawork, ranging over the entire social spectrum, were convincingly lifelike. Aesthetic appeal notwithstanding, the film rang true, visually. And if the story it told failed to respect the rules of probability, incorporating elements of the absurd and the unbelievable, Abdel-Sayed is quick to point out that it nonetheless remains within the realm of the possible; nothing in it is entirely beyond conception. "Fantasy or realism: call it what you will," he says. "'Fantasy' is a term Raafat El-Mihi brought into common usage; I just don't know what it means. Would you call the work of [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez fantasy, for example? Whatever the classification, all that matters to me is whether you enjoyed the film." There is enough irony and entertainment for the audience to maintain a suspension of disbelief, anyway. And "an epic fairy tale of contemporary Egyptian society," as one audience member called it, is no less relevant to reality than a documentary, "so long as it could happen, all things considered."

In the uproar of the opening Abdel-Sayed struggled to maintain his usual civility. Just before the start of the press conference following the show, pursued by a huge television camera and a barely audible voice, "and what about the political dimension of the film, sir," he gestured desperately in response: "I cannot interpret my films," he yelled, harassed. "Ask me a question and I will answer, but I won't interpret anything..."

Two days later, in his sparsely furnished studio in Heliopolis, the filmmaker had regained his customary composure.

"I have nothing against journalism, nothing at all against the media," he explains after another showdown with a journalist, conducted by phone. "What I have a problem with is ignorance and triviality, the obscenity of someone who wants to talk to you about, about..." he points to the abandoned receiver, "nothing." An accommodating host and a modest interlocutor, Abdel-Sayed nonetheless upholds his right to silence when he sees fit. He is willing to respond to questions when he can, he says; but he will not invent replies.

"I do not present ideas, I present a whole body, a work that is open to interpretation; and this is why it is impossible to talk about ideas or offer interpretations of my own; what would be the point?"

How did the conception of the film come about, though?

"I honestly don't remember. One generally works on a script sporadically, for a long time. The present one took some five years during which I was making another film, Ard Al-Khawf ("Land of Fear") and working on separate projects. There must have been a beginning," he scratches his forehead. "But I wouldn't be lying if I said I haven't got a clue what it was. Although I'd rather not specify, because this reduces the scope of what the film has to offer, I'd say 'Citizen, Detective, Thief' addresses the question of how a corrupt situation is created, how a locus of corruption comes into being. No good film has a single message to get across. It is, rather, filled with numerous, brief messages that together make up a general idea: corruption. And the long span of time is necessary because the film talks about society. Actually, the drama takes place in the space of a few months during the first half of the film. The second half, which happens some 20 years later, is merely a summing up of the destinies of the three characters. And this is what you have to do if you want to assess the progress of a society: what happened to the thief? What happened to the detective? To the citizen? My only source is everyday life," Abdel-Sayed insists, "the experience that one accumulates and recollects, formulating it into something integrated -- a film."

What does it take to accomplish such a feat? The greatest challenge, the filmmaker attests, is always to do with "finding the right funding," which this time came to Abdel- Sayed's own production company from the Arab Holding Company for the Arts. "And while searching for funding," he recounts, "there was the problem of casting. I'd say casting was more of a problem in this film than in most others. There were problems to do with the availability of well-known actors and their age, the cost of stars in relation to the available budget and the nature of the roles. It took a lot of searching, auditioning, comparing and harmonising. First, one had to find an actor who was suitable for the role. One had to make sure that, seen together, it would be easy to distinguish among the three figures, so that you know without being told which is the thief, the detective and the citizen, the latter being something of an intellectual. Then one had to choose names that were recognisable, even if they were not stars per se, taking into account, of course, that they must be capable of acting as well."

Though of less than stellar status, both Abul-Naga as the independently well off playboy and writer-to-be and Abdalla as the streetwise and well-meaning but cruel low-rank policeman proved very successful. Of the three, however, it is Shaaban who stands out the most; and at some level the film remains a promotional vehicle for his career. As the well-read and "tender" thief who goes on to become a publisher and, eventually, a leading businessman, his role is not too big; a function, one suspects, of his inability to act. That he also happens to be an amateur singer who entertains fellow inmates in prison and in hospital, performing at weddings and celebrations in the popular neighbourhood where he lives, might prove a little harder to swallow. Islam Khalil's lyrics will no doubt make viewers laugh, but the character Shaaban plays, Sherif El-Marghoushi (or "Master Culture," as he is known to the detective and many other, religiously inclined "disciples") remains somewhat sketchy, and threatens to undermine the integrity of Abdel-Sayed's project towards the end of the film when, his status as publisher and businessman intact, El-Marghoushi begins to record his music, and in a string of direct allusions to the real-life Shaaban's rise to fame, adopts the stage name Sherif Abdel-Rehim. Abdel-Sayed's shrewdness is apparent in that, while delimiting the scope in which Shaaban is called upon to act, he gives him ample space in the second half of the film, capitalising on his spontaneous charm and unfeigned sense of humour; he even manages to place him at the very beginning, triggering off the action with his singing. What might be gained from thus buying into the career of Shaaban?

"What do you mean by saying that the film promotes Shaaban Abdel Rehim?" Abdel-Sayed begins, his voice strained. "In fact, I signed the contract with Shaaban just before that song about hating Israel was released, prior to him becoming a phenomenon, as they say. It was just a question of finding someone affordable who would fit the role, part of the casting. I had no interest in Shaaban's career or his unexpected success. It is certainly not my job to promote him. I refused to use Shaaban's status to promote the film. When we were designing the billboards, the PR people said to me, 'Shaaban's name should be directly underneath the title, and it should be as big.' I refused. The name of Khaled Abul- Naga, I said, had to come first; and no name would be as large as the title.

"Nor do I replace acting with singing at any point in the film. Each song has a purpose, a dramatic function without which the film would not be what it is. The script initially had no songs, no, but once I had Shaaban, I was glad I could also have singing; this is one way the film benefited from Shaaban, because his presence afforded a greater opportunity for entertainment and pure forga: one could add things like a popular wedding, a song in the hospital ward.

"Why is it so strange that a thief should also work as a popular singer? If the thief worked as an air steward, that would be a problem. But what's wrong with him being a pimp, for example, so you could bring in the world of prostitutes?"

"It wasn't easy working with Shaaban, no. But he wasn't the only actor I was worried about. The two female roles [Rola Mahmoud and the Tunisian actress Hind Sabri] were both a source of concern, so was Khaled Abul-Naga, whose experience in the theatre I discovered only after getting in touch with him. None of these worries had anything to do with natural ability, though, it was just a question of their lack of experience in Egyptian cinema, the fact that their experience was different or limited or unsuitable for the task...

"Shaaban is not an actor. He took an acting course with Mohamed Abdel-Hadi before embarking on the film, and his spontaneity was perfect for the role. You could get a professional actor to create a complex, stylised version of that character, but it wouldn't be the same thing. I rather admire Shaaban the singer, I must admit, and not for aesthetic sophistication or anything. I mean, I don't understand why, when he himself declared that he was no mutrib, we keep expecting Shaaban Abdel-Rehim to be Abdel-Halim Hafez and then blaming him for not living up to that standard. Refined tarab and musical prowess: that is clearly not what Shaaban is about. His songs are, rather, about the simple dream of turning into an ordinary member of respectable middle class society. In one song, for example, he dreams of having a son he could feed roumi cheese: there is strange beauty in this, beauty that makes the subject an object of ridicule, almost, but beauty nonetheless. There is something very honest and natural about these songs. Anyway, as I say, and regardless of my feelings about Shaaban, it was just a question of finding someone who could play the thief convincingly. As for the fact that he changes his name to Sherif Abdel-Rehim, that was the song writer's contribution; and I wouldn't have cared in the least if instead he called himself Sherif Abdel- Fattah, for example. Of course you must not forget that, in the same way as the film employs Shaaban for its purposes, Shaaban will attempt to use the film to further his own cause; that kind of exchange of interests is only to be expected."

Aside from the unpredictably complex and intractable dramatic developments of the second half of the film, much of the irony derives from the narration that accompanies the action. A cool and collected voice, the narrator places the scenes in context, often in a refreshingly satirical tone; the information he provides never impinges on the process of discovery in which the viewer is engaged. His functions are many. He illuminates aspects of the three heroes' personal history and social role so that, without losing their individual attributes, they act equally as picaresque archetypes: the thief turned businessman; the detective-torturer turned (corrupt) government authority; the Westernised intellectual turned religiously inclined literary authority. , The narrator unobtrusively politicises an otherwise apolitical comedy of errors, making the occasional quotable statement that seems to emanate directly from Abdel-Sayed (who wrote the script). Most importantly, perhaps, the presence of the narrator creates a sense of distance that, while giving the narrative an engaging thrust, helps with the Brechtian "alienation" Abdel- Sayed seems to be positing more firmly than in previous films. The viewer is encouraged to keep the fictional, fabricated side of the experience in view; and in this way any lack of "realism" is justified while a more or less direct social-political message (about religious extremism, state-endorsed brutality and social inequality, among other things) can be imparted. And yet that message remains baffling, ambiguous, unclear.

On the one hand, the film is the story of how three disparate social-political entities become reconciled to each other, achieving success through mutual cooperation and support. On the other hand, each of these entities is, in its way, immensely problematic and corrupt; so that their success, while an occasion to celebrate, seems to reflect the failure of a society that rewards complacency, hypocrisy and moral inconsistency with fame and fortune. Is Abdel-Sayed, who seems to condone that failure, deliberately pulling the viewer's leg, so that the latter might reflect on his own position?

"Certainly I don't set out to confuse anyone," he affirms. "But you must understand that, in the second half of the film, the summing up of destinies, all that went wrong in the first half is corrected; so that the rules of comedy obtain, everything ends happily and only a few, passing problems continue to beset the characters, as the narrator says. Now concerning the ultimate message or idea of the film, why must everything be unequivocal and one-sided? Why must you be able to say what it 'means'? I think the film makes fun of all three characters, to a much greater extent than sympathising with them. But it is kind sarcasm, the kind of fun you make of somebody you love. Sadly, our cinema seems to have accustomed us to the one-sided view in which you either like somebody or you don't, in which somebody is either good or evil. Yet knowing somebody, having a genuine relationship with somebody, involves none of this clear-cut decisiveness. So, too, with the three characters: my job is to let the viewer know them, have a relationship with them; it is certainly not to tell him how to judge them. Life is not like that either. If you've really known me, then you've encountered both the good and the bad in my personality; and it is up to you, in the end, what the final verdict might be."

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