Nothing to laugh about
Hala Khalil's social drama Best Times is symptomatic of a shift in the cinema industry's mood, Hani Mustafa writes
Sahar Al-Layali (Sleepless Night), released earlier this year is hardly a masterpiece -- certainly not "the best Egyptian film in a decade" as many critics claimed. Nevertheless, the great public acclaim it received almost instantaneously following its release testifies to a significant shift in the public mood, a shift that may even result in creating a new niche for commercial films.
It all started with what is now known in Egyptian cinema as "new comedy", a genre which gave impetus to Egyptian movies following the predominantly lean years of the 1990s. Mohamed Heneidi and Alaa Walieddin's late 1990s first lead-role films Saidi fil Gamaa Al-Amrikiya (An Upper Egyptian at AUC) and Aboud ala Al-Hodoud (Aboud on the Borders), for example, proved extremely successful with cinema audiences. Films like Mafia, released two years ago, created a new genre -- the Egyptian action movie -- introducing American-style suspense to an audience hungry for something other than comedies bordering on farce.
As a result, Egyptian film production began to expand: first into new-style comedies, then into action, and now, after Sahar Al-Layali, into social drama. All have proven commercially successful.
The Al-Adl Group has always tried to kill two birds with one stone, taking advantage of a favourable climate to produce a box office hit, while at the same time introducing new directors. In 2001, for example, they capitalised on public sympathy for the second Palestinian Intifada, introducing Ali Idriss in his directorial debut As'hab wala Business. The film's success encouraged the Al-Adl group to experiment further, as we can see in their newly released Ahla Al-Awqat (Best Times), Hala Khalil's directorial feature debut.
Khalil is not a new comer to cinema. She has produced a number of short films, some, such as Tiri ya Taiara produced seven years ago, receiving critical acclaim. Naturally, many of the technical devices employed in her short films are present in Khalil's first feature, as is clear in the opening scene of Best Times, where we have a series of close-shots.
A woman (Maha Abu Ouf) wakes up, performs all the accompanying morning rituals. When, in the course of her waking-up rituals, she enters the bathroom, a man sitting in the bath pulls her in with him. We are, with great economy, thus offered a glimpse of the kind of relationship she has with this man.
The sequence of scenes which follow only remotely hint at the absurd death about to take place. The rhythm does not change. The woman sits on a chair by the window; a breeze blows and she appears anxious; she goes to the balcony and waters the plants. The breeze becomes stronger, forcing her to wrap her shawl around her. But the shawl flies away. She climbs a step ladder and tries to retrieve her shawl. She falls. The opening credits appear, and, the absurd death already a defining moment, the film "proper" begins.
A mass of information follows as we learn that the man we saw in the bath, (Sami El-Adl, in the role of Rabie), is the dead woman's husband, and that the dead woman has a daughter (Hanan Turk, in the role of Salma) from a previous marriage, whose presence in her stepfather's house is considered inappropriate -- or at least by Rabie's conservative sister. The events following the conversation in which Rabie's sister tries to convince him that Salma should not be living with him, set the time frame within which the script will be moving.
Harassed by her stepfather's sister, Salma leaves the house and stays in a hotel. Rabie tries to persuade her to return home, if only for the 40-day mourning ritual for her deceased mother.
Soon we are plunged into a suspense drama, or rather a light detective story ˆ la Nancy Drew. There is no crime to be solved, however, as the mystery here is related to a series of anonymous letters which Salma keeps receiving. First there is an envelope which contains Mohamed Mounir's new album, the Mounir music becoming one of the film's dominant motifs and serving to highlight some of its themes. In the final credits, for example, two popular songs are mixed: one, from the 1950s, is by Saad Abdel-Wahab; the second, from the 1980s, is by Mounir. What the two songs have in common is the phrase: "the world spins".
The detective team in this film was created by a smart but simple maneuvre: the third letter Salma receives is a picture of her two best friends from high school, Yousria (Hind Sabri) and Doha (Mena Shalabi). In her search for the letters' anonymous writer, Salma reconnects with two schoolmates she had not seen for years -- from the time she moved with her mother from the lower middle class neighbourhood of Shoubra, to posh Maadi, where her mother's new husband lives. This upward social mobility allows the film to deal with social change and class distinctions in modern Egypt without being overtly concerned with this aspect.
The film does not centre solely on Salma's search for the anonymous writer of the letters, but weaves in several plots, thus fleshing out the characters in the supporting roles. For example, we encounter a unique relationship between Yousria and her husband, Ibrahim, who continuously vows to divorce her whenever they have a heated argument. The director uses these arguments to pave the way for the final confrontation when the three friends go to Alexandria to look for Salma's father and Yousria, who is in the final stages of her pregnancy, goes into labour. Ibrahim rushes to see her and they get into a heated argument about her decision to accompany her friends. He vows to divorce her if she does not acknowledge that her decision to travel while expecting was insane. Bringing this sub-plot to a climax, it is Yousria who this time asks for a divorce.
There is also Doha's relationship to her fiancé, Tareq, who owns a small photocopying and typing business centre. In their attempt to cope with a common problem facing the less wealthy of Egypt, namely the inability to procure a home and so get married, they use the photocopying office to develop a more intimate relationship. Tareq does not know how to deal with Doha's ambitions to become an actress: if he approves of them he may lose her, but at the same time he wants to be a supportive lover. Meanwhile Doha is drawn to her friend Salma's stepfather, who offers to help her fulfil her acting ambitions.
Another character, one who is shrouded in mystery and hence used as a vehicle by the scriptwriter and the director to intensify the film's suspense factor, is Hisham (Amr Waked). We first see him giving Salma back a wig and lipstick which he had borrowed from her mother before her death. The mystery becomes even greater when, later, he asks Salma to lend him a pair of stockings. Much later we realise he is a puppet artist, and that he needed those items for his puppets. Amr Waked, a very promising actor, was not at his best in The Best of Times. For some odd reason his movements were puppet-like, something that made him appear quite comical, if not outright ridiculous.
In spite of an inauspicious beginning, the film ends on a happy note. It turns out that the mysterious letters were sent by Rabie in his attempt to develop a closer relationship with his stepdaughter and to get her to accept him as a father. Ibrahim returns to his wife Yousria and with -- a dream come true -- a bunch of flowers. Doha and Tareq return to each other, enjoying their intimate meetings once again in their little love nest -- the photocopying office. While Salma, who had contemplated moving to New York, becomes emotionally involved with her neighbour, the puppet artist, and decides to stay in Egypt.
If Ahla Al-Awqat becomes a box office hit, this will certainly encourage film producers to invest in and experiment with a variety of genres, rather than concentrate on producing the sure-to-be-a-box-office-hit type of comedy. The timing of the film's release, however, may be against it. Students are preparing for final exams, and the attention of those who are not preparing for exams, is focussed on The Passion of the Christ recently released in Egypt.
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