Demanding yet more lawsuits
The Egyptian entry in the Cairo Film Festival's official competition has been the subject of increasing controversy, writes Hani Mustafa
The organisers of the 27th round of the Cairo International Film Festival faced a dilemma: could this round possibly be allowed to become the first in the history of the event that did not have a local film in the official competition? They obviously decided it could not -- that would not only have been an embarrassment but would have confirmed the growing view within the region that Egyptian cinema is no longer an industry leader. A film was duly selected for the competition-- Khaled El-Haggar's Hob El-Banat, and then the mudslinging started.
The controversy did not really focus on Hob Al-Banat itself, awarded two certificates of merit for two female leading roles played by Laila Elwy and Hanan Turk, but encompassed the past history of its director, Khaled El-Haggar, and his controversial graduation project, The Gulf Between Us (40mins).
The focus of the film, produced at the National Film School in London where El-Haggar was a student in the mid-1990s, is on the relationship between an Egyptian man and a Jewish girl who meet in Britain, a relationship that ultimately fails because of opposition from the families and friends of the young couple. Clearly a problematic area for Egyptian or Arab artists for whom depictions of Jewish characters in a film or work of literature are often interpreted as a call for normalisation. And while the film -- in which El-Haggar also plays the lead role -- was made in the West at a time when the Oslo Accords were being promoted as the essential precursor to an end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was almost inevitable that The Gulf Between Us would lead to attempts to pressure the festival's administration into rejecting El-Haggar's participation in the official competition, regardless of the merits, or otherwise, of his latest film.
It was within the framework of such attempts that an open forum was held at the Lawyers' Syndicate in which scenes from The Gulf Between Us were screened as part of an anti- normalisation conference. Several speakers at the open forum demanded a lawsuit be filed against the festival banning El- Haggar's film from being shown. Their outrage at the subject matter of the graduation project has been compounded by its participation in 18 international film festivals, including the Tel Aviv Film Festival. The film's participation in Tel Aviv Film Festival is confirmed on the Web site for the UK Jewish Film Festival, where the film was also screened in 2001.
The uproar surrounding Hob Al-Banat and its director has, as might have been predicted, given the film more than its deserved share of attention. Al-Hayat newspaper, for example, accused Mohamed Salmawy, a member of the festival jury, of "violating the code of conduct in festivals world wide" by praising the film in Al-Wafd newspaper.
The film is itself a fairly predictable rehash of a standard plot, familiar from its variations in several Arab and Western films. Three half sisters have been left LE15 million by their father, though the inheritance carries conditions. They share the fortune only after they have lived together in the same house for a year. Until then the eldest sister (Laila Elwy), who looked after her father through his final illness, is in control of the money.
The film is constructed around the growing relations between the three sisters and their romantic entanglements, much in the manner of a sit-com. The eldest sister has a complex against marriage caused by her father's multiple marriages and complicated relationships with women. The second sister (Hanan Turk), a teaching assistant, is mannish in appearance and possessed of a fiery temper. This, we are supposed to assume, is a result of her mother's hatred of men. The third sister (Hana Shiha) lived in London with her Egyptian mother, the resulting confusions in identity leading Shiha to become involved with a film actor (Khaled Abul-Naga). He, predictably, is interested in sex, she in marriage.
Connecting the different stories through a narrator (Ashraf Abdel-Baki) was an easy option on the part of the scriptwriter. The presence of Abdel-Baki, a psychiatrist who lives opposite the three women, is a stock conceit, and one made all the more stereotypic by his playing with children's toys in his spare time.
The film has several technical problems, not least the sound synchronisation and the music which at times overpowers the voices of the actors. There are too problems with several members of the cast: Ahmed Barada, the former international squash champion, could certainly have benefitted from more extended coaching, as could Ahmed Ezz, who plays Laila Elwy's boyfriend, while the editing of the film comes, eventually, to rely rather too heavily on abrupt cuts.
The film was always unlikely to reap any of the festival's major prizes. And its inclusion in the official competition was only ever a stop-gap solution to an on-going dilemma: the fact that the film was shown only twice, once for the press, the second screening unannounced in the published schedules, underlines the arbitrary nature of the "solution" reached.
Hob El-Banat, when it is released commercially, will face yet another uphill struggle. The battle, irrelevant to the film as a film, will be between, Islamist and nationalist activists on the one hand and the director and his history on the other. Whatever the result, an otherwise exceedingly modest piece of cinema will have received a great deal of barely warranted attention.