Brand new void
Mohamed El-Assyouti watches the Ruby vehicle Sabaa Waraqat Kutshina (Seven Playing Cards), and Tamer Ezzat's documentary Everything is Gonna Be Alright
The blanket publicity surrounding Sabaa Waraqat Kutshina (Seven Playing Cards) announced it as "the first of Sherif Sabri's films" in much the same way that Kill Bill volumes one and two, released in 2003/2004, was publicised as "the fourth film by Quintin Tarantino". And both publicity campaigns were awash with orange and yellow motifs. But there the comparison ends: the implication -- that Sabri, like Tarantino, is a "stylish" director -- is hardly sustainable after watching the film. The publicity also suggests that Sabri, a music video and commercials director, is a box office draw.
Sabaa Waraqat Kutshina showcases Ruby, the singer whose image Sabri created and has been promoting for the past two years. But in all other respects this is a one man show: Sabri is writer, producer and director.
After attacks from the Music Syndicate and censors office abated and compromises were reached to grant both the singer and the film licences, the movie theatres were packed last weekend to see the release. The publicity and controversy had done its job, as audiences flocked to see a film with an elaborately stylised audiovisual content that endeavoured to relegate narrative and performance to the margins of what is, in effect, an extended music video/ commercial.
Starring actors whose previous experience is mostly limited to being cast in Sabri's commercials and music videos, the film's imagery is littered with product placement -- of cigarettes (Marlboro), cars (Mercedes), mobile phones (Nokia), soft drinks (Pepsi), and various fashion, jewellery and furniture brands. Watching one commercial spot after another interspersed with a few music videos it was hard not to wonder when the film would begin.
The main plot involves an elderly, wealthy philanderer who dies bequeathing a villa in Hurghada to his nephew who then learns that hidden in the villa is a key to a safe deposit box full of jewellery. The nephew moves to Hurghada, works as an accountant in an hotel and falls in love with the nightclub singer who spends sex-free nights in his villa with the hotel owner and finds the key.
The characters are calculated to both stimulate the audience's prurience while eliciting sympathy and even identification. The protagonists are cool as well as good. They fall in love but leave each other because they are undergoing opposite transformations -- the nightclub singer, whose shows are all about sexual innuendo, likes to stay in bed with her boss, "only hugging" and hoping to marry him but only if he really loves her. The accountant, with the help of a female friend who is also searching for the money and good, transforms him from nerd into something trendier.
Egyptian cinema offers many variations on the seductive but innocent coquette: Naima Akef, Soad Hosni, Mervat Amin, Naglaa Fathi, Nahed Sherif and Shams El-Baroudi, through to Madiha Kamel and Sherihan. Unfortunately the flimsiness of the part written for Ruby in her first lead role -- she appeared earlier in Youssef Chahine's Sukut Hansawar (Silence....Rolling) -- places her in a far from flattering light next to these screen personae, schizophrenically worshipped as idols and viewed as fallen angels.
The scenes of Ruby's first star vehicle followed each other with very little dramatic momentum and what was for some too much skin. The price the coquette has paid in Egyptian films so far has been to be either raped or turned into a prostitute. But Ruby meets neither fate: she wins in a TV competition and becomes a famous singer, which she is in any case.
Sabaa Waraqat Kutshina is a proof that what can sustain audience attention for the five minutes of a music video cannot be extended over the duration of a feature film, especially if narrative and dramatic substance is sacrificed for what amounts to an exercise in audio-visual style.
The history of cinema is full of women whose screen persona were adopted as icons of femininity. They all had very distinct facial features enhanced by the efforts of hair stylists, make-up artists and cameramen. However, thanks to the directors they worked with they were capable of carrying a dramatic performance to complement their image. The Ruby publicity, whether for the film or the musical albums, emphasise her look. Unfortunately when this expression is animated in a dramatic context, when she has to say dialogue, for instance, the polish is blown away. The stylists' and the personal trainers' efforts have paid off to varying degrees while those of the acting coach, if the production even bothered to have one, have been lost.
Perhaps the film's master scene is Ruby in her nightdress, dancing alone in front of a mirror in her bedroom. It sums up what the film is about -- the commodification and fetishising of (female) body parts, as represented by a superstar singer. Sabri might have pursued this line towards richer dramatic and stylistic ends and the film could conceivably have benefited from its exploitation of the emerging sex-symbol. Yet this scene does not even pretend to be dramatically motivated. It is just there, like the Red Sea, the commercial brands and Ruby's body, they are virtually interchangeable, commodified and exploited by the film, and by the social and economic conditions that encouraged its production.
Screenings of Tamer Ezzat's Everything is Gonna Be Alright coincided with the release of Sabaa Waraqat Kutshina.
Focussing on the lives of Egyptians living in New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
As he walked from the metro station leading onto Chambers Street, to meet with the crew of the short feature he was directing, Tamer Ezzat found himself amidst the hullabaloo caused by the first of the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York.
The production of his film disrupted, for the next year Ezzat turned his camera on himself as well as on a group of Egyptians living in New York, in an attempt to fathom the significance of events that changed their lives for good. His 80-minutes documentary, Everything is Gonna be Alright, criticises the stereotyping in the US media that stigmatised the images of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims, and traces its impact on the lives of his protagonists.
Youssef, a nine-year-old half Egyptian, born and living in New York, tells his parents that he wants to change his name, which happens to be the same as one of the 9/11 hijackers, and not be a Muslim any more. Hossam Fahr, Youssef's father, an interpreter with the UN who has lived in New York for 19 years, yearns for the days when he was able to see the twin towers of the World Trade Centre from his apartment. He keeps on telling his son that -- as their favourite Bob Marley song goes -- "everything's gonna be alright" though he is sceptical about what the future holds for his family. Fahr believes that the old stereotype of the self-hating Jew could now be applied to the self- hating Arab.
Khaled Fahmy, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at New York University, whose version of the history of the region his students find hard to swallow as they are surrounded by a media that gives a contrary version, was interviewed by Peter Jennings's ABC channel but believes that what the producers selected from his interview, taken out of context, implied that he blames the extremism of the Islamists alone, and not that of the Israeli right as well as US policy, for the deterioration of the situation in the Middle East.
Osama Abdel-Aziz, who worked as news producer for Rupert Murdoch's Fox news channel for several years, witnessing how they distort the information they present about the situation in Palestine and the Middle East, quits Fox after 9/ 11 to work as a reporter for an Arab news channel.
Dalia Bassiouni, in New York to work on her doctoral thesis, teaches communication and works for an Arab channel, covering news for expatriates, but suddenly she finds that she has to interfere to clarify the biased stories given by the wire services.
Everything's gonna be alright is an independent production: Ezzat is not only producer, writer and director but also cameraman and editor. Together with his five protagonists he questions the programming of American media, the image it projects of them, and reflects on their own identity and self-image. It seems that the adult protagonists were already conscious of their difference, of their Arabness or Egyptianness, long before 9/11, which served only to accentuate this consciousness.
It was, Ezzat says, the protagonists' choice to speak throughout the film in Arabic apart from nine-year-old Youssef, who preferred to speak in English, and Fahr in one scene in which he reads a piece in English commenting on his son's and his own fears.
The film is subtitled in English, underlining the duality of being here and there, of speaking and thinking in two languages belonging to two cultures which, extremist proponents contend, are mutually exclusive and on a collision course.
Posited as a counterpoint to the stereotyping pervasive in mainstream media in both the East and the West Ezzat is content that he was able, by relying on simple means and documentary language, to address Western citizens with a gripping argument, something that, in a way, he believes, points to "the ineptitude of Arab media and Arabs in the US".