Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2005
Issue No. 756
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Recycling the romance

The couple, the sidekick, the villain, the voice of reason: when it comes to Our Life's Dreams, Hani Mustafa has foresuffered all

In a period that extended from the 1960s to the early '70s, numerous movies were made about the attempts of a group of young people to attain a common dream. This could be the project of renovating and managing a hotel. Or it could be the success of an up-and-coming band -- as was the case, for example, in the Reda Troupe film Agazet Noss El-Sana (Mid-year Vacation), and also in Moulid ya Donya (All the World is a Carnival).

While all these films depend on a single basic theme, that of a group of young people with one common goal, the setting and mise-en-scene are where each director, responding to the fashions of his time, hopes to make his mark. In the film Africano, first screened some three years ago, Amr Arafa (introduced as a director through this film after years of being a producer and a director of commercials) used the same old structure, albeit in a new location, namely South Africa. The scenery enriched the film, but the traditional plot and the poor acting added nothing to the Egyptian film industry. Africano and Ahlam 'Umrina (Our Life's Dreams), the latest installment in the genre now being screened in movie theaters, are quite similar.

The latter film is directed by Osman Abou Laban, who started his career in video clips. The early part of the careers of the two directors is by no means dissimilar: video clips and advertisements in Egypt have much in common. If advertising has the sole goal of attracting the audience to a particular commodity, in video clips it is the singer who is presented as the commodity, the genre being seen as little more than a commercial, with at most an added element of entertainment thrown in as an afterthought. This was reflected in the end product that the two directors produced in that both films share the attention to detail paired with a lack of any aesthetic sense.

Such films depend on a number of key ingredients. First, there is a love story where the two lead actors play young people who are either desperate or hiding an inner sadness -- as is the case with Khaled (Mustafa Shaaban) and Nada (Mona Zaki) in Our Life's Dreams. The director and the script-writer here designed a romantic premise that hinges on the two lead characters meeting by coincidence in a stable where Khaled works and also happens to be the owner's son. Nada, on the other hand, has studied plastic arts in England and is on tour with her friends. The filmmakers bank on this coincidence to base on it the pair's next meeting in Marsa Alam airport. The characteristics of despair and sadness that the formula calls for usually revolve around loneliness or the inability to have a clear objective. This is palpable here in the case of Khaled who wishes to obtain an immigration visa. In Africano, in which Mona Zaki also plays the lead role, Ahmed EL-Saqqa is a vet, desperate to escape from the zoo he works in to his uncle's South African farm to which he is one of the heirs.

Happily, such films always include an element of comedy: one of the ingredients is a comic sidekick. In Abou Laban's film, this ingredient comes in the form of the doctor Mohamed (Ramez Galal) who, unfortunately, is incapable of wresting a laugh from the audience, except perhaps in one or two slapstick situations, such as the attempt to catch a chicken in the market. Then comes the ingredient of the villain, usually a rich authoritative man with an interest in the project that the young crowd is working on. Examples include the evil cousin in Mid- year Vacation or the lawyer in Africano. In Our Life's Dreams he is Nada's relative and her partner in a family project in Marsa Alam. He is presented at first as an aggressive investor who is interested in taking over the young people's project and in due course devotes his attention to forging contracts, getting bank loans and fleeing the country. The last of the traditional elements is what may be called the "voice of reason," who is more often than not an older family friend. In Africano he is a driver who works in the open zoo and is possessed of traditional African wisdom; as it happens, the actor who performed the role there, Talaat Zein, also plays the equivalent role in Our Life's Dreams. Here, however, he is an old friend of Noha's father who considers himself a partner in the project. He represents fatherly wisdom, and since the attempt to buy the land involves a lot of blackmail and extortion, the filmmakers have decided to tie it to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hamza informs Noha that he met her father in this area when they were standing guard during the war. He tells her that Israeli soldiers entered the area disguised as fishermen but that he and her father found them out and dealt with them. He then points to a sunken ship and tells her that this was the end result of the battle after which the Israelis bombed the area, killing four of her father's friends. He states his position quite clearly, namely that the one who owns the land is the one to defend it.

Human relations in this film lack all dramatic logic. Take, for example, Noha's two friends. They have come to start the project with her, and yet their sole role appears to be holding a picturesque, torch-lit wedding, as well as having a child at the end of the film. Abou Laban does not use them at all except to end the film as he started it: with someone calling out to Khaled "Salma is giving birth." The Salma in the first scene is a horse, and in the last it is the friend. The whole film in fact appears to be nothing more then a cute advertisement for the Marsa Alam area in which the Kuwaiti businessman, Al Kharafi, owns a massive project. Perhaps it was meant to make a light-hearted case for youth working together towards a common dream. But the abiding impression is that this is a film totally devoid of cinematic value, a mere faded copy of so many scripts from the 1960s. So the question remains, what should Egyptian filmmakers do to create a romantic film without imitating what the audience has seen decades ago.

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