Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2003
Issue No. 631
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Cosmopolitan grass roots

Speaking to filmmaker Sandra Nashaat, Sherif Iskander Nakhla takes stock of the second in a series of hip comic hits

Sandra Nashaat Harameya fi Thailand (Thieves in Thailand), filmmaker Sandra Nashaat's fourth offering in the five years since her career took off, is a many-sided affair. Building on the relative success of her last comedy, Harameya fi KG2 (Thieves in KG2), the director has worked with the same cast and crew to produce not a sequel but what she describes as a new take on the life of a group of by now familiar types.

"I chose the name in the tradition of Ismail Yassin movies," she explains. (These titles, beginning with Ismail Yassin fi, served to link a large number of films that had different stories and dealt with different themes but employed the same cast and were made in the same style.) "They were all similar to each other," Nashaat goes on, "but the audience realised that they were not sequels."

Now that there are major -- security as well as economic -- obstacles in the way of leaving the country, Nashaat's decision to supplement the comedy with a foreign setting seems particularly astute. Along with Harameya fi KG2, her film fits firmly into the category of so-called new comedy, a genre pioneered by the likes of Mohamed Heneidi.

The action takes place largely from the viewpoint of Fatin (Maged El-Kidwani), an essentially innocent lower-middle-class character in his late 20s whose humane warmth and good intentions do not prevent him from seeking out adventure where it can be found. His trials and tribulations offer a window onto social life in Cairo, eventually taking him to the distant and unashamedly exotic world of south east Asia. Yet Nashaat's approach to depicting the city falls far short of verisimilitude. Hers is a polished realism, an urban perspective that consistently endeavours to make things appear cleaner, and people better dressed, than in the real world. This, Nashaat confesses, is part of her way of working: a film, she insists, could never replicate reality; rather it offers a subjective view of life. Too much reality, she implies, might undermine the impact of a comedy like the present one -- for in the same way as the camera affords a mediated imagery, different from what is available to the everyday observer, so too must a filmmaker's perspective be controlled, even as she tries to produce something lifelike.

Nashaat's camera work certainly reflects this outlook: long takes and tracking shots reminiscent, at times, of Brian de Palma or even Martin Scorcese. Transitions are snappy yet, ultimately, smooth, the sense of unreality enhanced by drawing on the Western gangster movie, a genre Nashaat manages to combine with Egyptian comedy conventions and, more precisely, the mores of her homegrown cast of younger types. Moody El-Imam's often blues- inspired score adds to the general atmosphere of rootlessness: the characters are unequivocally Egyptian, it is true, but the tempo, dramatic logic and visual mood of the film more appropriately belong to the arena of the cosmopolitan. The fact that, language barrier notwithstanding, Harameya fi Thailand could be followed and appreciated by anyone irrespective of nationality is further testimony to the notion that Nashaat set out to produce a genuinely international film, a notion to which she does not object. The international appellation, she concedes, is a feature of Egypt's new comedies, which promote the young and the Westernised.

Despite their youth, the actors' performances are arguably the most impressive aspect of the film. Their ability to induce laughter intact, they also demonstrate dramatic skill and a fine-tuned sense of both the mentality of characters they play and the situations in which those characters find themselves. This is by no means laughter for laughter's sake. Inducing in the audience not only empathy but the capacity to directly identify with the character, Maged El-Kidwani, for one, proved eminently credible.

"The director's most important task," Nashaat explains, "is to guide the actor through, facilitating the transition from one scene to the next. I wanted Fatin to show an innocent, childlike quality, like that of a 10-year-old; and this is the approach I employed in guiding him." That they should come across as convincing real-life people was an object Nashaat endeavoured to achieve with all of her actors.

"It was important for me that they should appear to be human, as human as possible," she adds. "And this is why I left some things up to them. They were encouraged to improvise their movements within each scene, for example;" hence the "natural" effect.

Ibrahim (Karim Abdel-Aziz), Fatin's brother, and Hanan (Hanan Turk), his wife and involuntary accomplice, both gave excellent performances. El- Kidwani's rapport with Abdel-Aziz is remarkable, alternating hilarity with dramatic intensity, while Turk's sense of humour, as Nashaat insists, is remarkable for a female lead in Egyptian cinema. A stock romantic figure, Hanan's character nonetheless came across as focussed and independent. "I wanted her to be funny," Nashaat supplies. "Most [Egyptian] films don't really show female characters with much of a sense of humour. Yet my conviction is that women in general are a very funny lot and I wanted Hanan to reflect that. I believe that Mona Zaki and Hanan Turk are the two most qualified actresses in Egyptian cinema today -- the most appropriate for lead roles. They have such charisma, they are so unique and the audience responds to them so much. In fact," Nashaat confides, "I would like to concentrate on working with them, and to work with them more and more in the future."

As a whole the film has memorable moments, yet its narrative structure falls short of the highest standards. The second half of the film was shot entirely on location in Thailand, Nashaat having painstakingly chosen the locations with her crew during a two-week tour of the country prior to shooting. The change of scenery was rather abruptly accompanied by corresponding alterations in music and atmosphere.

"I wanted to give shots in Thailand a whole different look and rhythm -- to make the audience really feel they have left Cairo," she says. Sadly, however, the result is that the film's two halves come across as two different films. The one-minute denouement, moreover, juts painfully out of the second half, causing even greater disorientation. There was to be a short action sequence to end the film, Nashaat explains, but weather conditions in Thailand made shooting impossible, and the original sequence was replaced by a short scene indoors.

"The film was as well received as I expected," the director testifies, "although I feel it could have been seen by a greater number of people. But of course due to the war fewer people are going to the movies. One of my concerns," she adds, "was that Harameya fi Thailand would be compared and contrasted with Harameya fi KG2, because they are two entirely different films. In the end the inevitable happened, but at least it was positive: many liked Harameya fi Thailand more."

Complaining about technological and technical advances that have taken place at the expense of content -- a trend, Nashaat insists, that characterises cinema the world over -- she confesses that comedy now overpowers all other genres. Comedies are seen as guaranteed to make money, she explains, so producers are no longer as willing to provide variety.

"I want to contribute to breaking out of this vicious circle," Nashaat declares, "which is why the humanity of the characters is so paramount and the comedy supplemented by romance."

A short boxing episode, part of the backdrop in Thailand, demonstrated Nashaat's potential as an action filmmaker -- a genre, she feels, increasingly dominated by special-effects technology, which will perhaps become too automated for her liking. Her next project is a horror movie that will similarly use the imperative to scare people as a framework in which to discuss character. When she directs a film, she says, she will always start from inside the minds of the characters, gradually progressing outwards into their surroundings. It is the humanity of her characters that forms the foundation of her storytelling -- the drama, however engaging, emanating from psychic and social predicaments. And despite the dubious qualities the present offering -- the most obvious fault being its division into what amounts to two separate films, the second of which resumes telling a story begun in the first -- the same could safely be said of Harameya fi Thailand.

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