Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 -16 April 2003
Issue No. 633
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Urban poetics

Sherif Iskander Nakhla journeys with the dispossessed

Filmmaker Samir Seif's Deil Al-Samakah (Fishtail), written by one of Egypt's most popular script-writers, Wahid Hamed, and featuring a host of talented actors from the young Amr Waked to the long established Mohsena Tawfiq, would appear to be one suggested answer to the crisis that has beset Egyptian cinema for as long as anyone can remember. Such a life-saving film would adequately balance the overriding commercial drive with some degree of aesthetic and/or intellectual seriousness; and Deil Al-Samakah at first sight seems to include as much entertainment as intellectual import. A social drama, it tiptoes on the line separating reality from (symbolic) imagination. There is much laughter, but just as much meditation on the nature of life, especially as it manifests to the contemporary human being living in Cairo. The social fabric of Egyptian life, the struggle of the young to establish themselves or, more simply, grow up and into their own, and the limitations of poverty and convention are all themes touched upon in the film. Topics, by contrast, range much farther and wider, for the dramatic framework of the screenplay allows for a broad variety of relatively brief engagements. There are, to mention but a few, subjects of corruption, homosexuality and urban isolation. Cairo used to be a homely village of a city that undermined privacy and difference, the film seems to say. Now it has developed into a gaping void of a metropolis that, while preserving the restrictive qualities of village life, no longer feels homely or adequately accommodates the soul.

There is truth not only in this line of thinking, which the film presents, impressively, without a hint of spoonfeeding or overkill, but in the notion that the answer to the aforementioned cinematic crisis may well reside in precisely such a take on contemporary life: bold, relatively uninhibited, reasonably honest and, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the expectations of the viewer in question, controversial. Both Seif and Hamed have enjoyed the dubious honour of the latter adjunct, and both, no doubt, deserve credit for their upfront approach to ticklish topics on this and many other occasions. Theirs is a world of almost sensational impact, but one that nonetheless manages to preserve some aspect of clear-headedness. In this sense, indeed, any collaboration between the two would be worth exploring. How, and to what extent this time, would Seif's action-obsessed mentality mesh with Hamed's quasi-absurdist orientation? Black comedy, social critique and the desire to expose negative aspects of life are essential qualities that they share. While preserving enough of the art-for-art's- sake approach to remain indelibly entertaining, and with an unflinching beady eye on the box office, they seem to conceive of their role as that of agent provocateur. Each does so in his way, but in the context of Deil Al-Samakah, at least, it seems permissible to talk of their combined efforts as a single force.

The film essentially comprises a journey, more circular than linear, that leads to a disorienting awakening. The hero (Amr Waked) is an electricity meter reader, a job that implies a certain degree of poverty and day-to-day struggle. In this instance, however, he is also a poet -- a talented observer of life whose sense of self depends as much on his ability and desire to think up poetry as it does on his mundane job; both, indeed, are survival tactics. And he improvises as he goes from door to door, observing, registering discrepancies and making encounters. It is his double-sided presence that provides the film with its substance, guiding both the progress of the action and the presentation of the subject matter. The hero, played with a precisely concocted mix of humour and realism, flits from the poshest Zamalek apartments to Cairo's poorest slum quarters. Most of the film is made up of the resulting series of encounters. Each time he enters a house, it seems, the plot thickens a little further and more of contemporary Cairo is revealed. This is a world seldom recorded on film, and it may prove shocking for a significant portion of its prospective audience -- perhaps tellingly, the film is currently playing only at Cinema Rivoli -- but, aiming at people's minds as well as their pockets, Deil Al-Samakah comes across as a powerful meditation on a young and dispossessed Cairo: certainly the hero's poetic voice-overs are moving in themselves. None of the humorous episodes or farcical complications undermine the sense of reality, which is so intense it can be disturbing.

While Hamed's sense of the absurd comes into play in the nature and structure of the encounters (the homeowners in question solicit cameo appearances by, among others, Abdel-Rahman Abu-Zahra, Sawsan Badr and Farida Seifenasr, all of whom put their heart and soul in these brief performances), Seif's penchant for action finds expression in the unpredictable nature of the action; this is arguably the film's most impressive quality, which serves to grip the viewer till the end and contributes not only to the entertainment but to the atmosphere, the very spirit, of the drama. Hamed's script is profoundly theatrical, both action and dialogue are rhythmic and the scenes arranged for maximum impact, while Seif's suspense mechanisms ensure that the viewer can never at any point guess what will happen next. Most impressively, perhaps, the characters, even if they are presented within a largely imaginary framework, come across credibly as real people, neither stock characters nor stereotypes. Their lives resonate with a dynamic relevance usually preserved for the most inscrutable and the least popular Egyptian features. Yet they remain, ultimately destinations in the hero's ongoing journey through the body and soul of the largely derelict city he inhabits. And it is precisely this that lends the film a sense of wholeness and a focus that the vast majority of similarly entertaining features lack.

Part of the unpredictability results, naturally enough, from the fact that the characters are three-dimensional. Yet the very concept of a meter reader-cum-poet is stimulating in itself. For most viewers, perhaps, the power of Deil Al-Samakah will derive from its gripping and humourous qualities. But for the few who seek after serious cinema, it will derive from empathy with the hero's quest to understand the world that surrounds him, to tell right from wrong, to differentiate things as they are from things as they should be, and to finally make an articulate comment on all this. Deil Al-Samakah offers viewers a ticket to a journey through which a highly credible and relevant perspective on contemporary life in Cairo can be attained almost effortlessly. Happily it also entertains them in the process.

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