If the bio-pic of Abdel-Halim Hafez was intended as a celebration of the legendary singer, and as the late actor Ahmed Zaki's swansong, it fails on both counts, writes Hani Mustafa
By the time the lights of the theatre go out and the projector starts the audience has usually prepared itself to enter the world of the film, its concentration at its highest as it prepares to gather the strings of the main events. Not, of course, that this occurs in a vacuum. The advertising that preceded the film, criticism and reviews that the audience might have read, all inform the audience's expectations. And if the film deals with a story with which the audience is familiar -- if it deals with historical events or the life of a celebrity -- then the audience may well have a very fixed idea of what it is about to see.
All these factors gather in the film Halim, about which a great deal has been written before, during and after shooting. First there was the legal battle between writer Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman and the relatives of the late Abdel-Halim Hafez which put the whole production at risk. And most of the audience would already be familiar with the story of the singer who became a legend in the late 1950s until his death in March 1977. Viewers would be bound to compare whatever image they held of the singer with what they were about to see.
The film began with Ahmed Zaki in the title role. Though already ill with the lung cancer that would claim his life in March 2004, Zaki had insisted on continuing to work on the film, and at the time many articles appeared about the great empathy Zaki had with Hafez. They both came from the city of Zagazig, both worked in the performing arts and were cut down at the height of their fame. The production company stresses such connections, giving the film a subtitle in its adverstisements: Halim: Ustoura Yugasidha Ustoura (Halim: a Legend played by a Legend).
Some members of the audience could easily have gone to see the film to see Zaki's final appearance -- it is a film in which real life and drama become confused. Zaki was receiving chemotherapy throughout shooting, which left him exhausted and able to complete only short scenes. This, in turn, left the director with a problem: Zaki was playing the older Halim, and given the limited footage the filmmakers had, the bio-pic inevitably became skewed towards the second half of the singer's career.
But who should act the role?
It was logical for the director to look for an actor who resembled Hafez, but this was also Zaki's last film and it became equally important to find an actor who looked like Zaki. The filmmakers, headed by the producer -- and Zaki's personal friend -- Emadeddin Adib, opted for Zaki's son Haitham, reasoning that all he needed to do was impersonate Hafez to become a go-between linking his father and the legendry singer. The result is that Haitham's main reference became Hafez's performances on screen -- not a very promising strategy given that Hafez was known to be a mediocre actor and that the success of his films was largely dependent on his performance as a singer. In the end Zaki appears in about 15 per cent of the film while Haitham plays the rest.
Scriptwriter and director Sherif Arafa opted to frame the film by dramatising an interview with Hafez about his life in general. The interview becomes the backbone of events that are woven around it. The film opens with Hafez in concert, during which he faints and is taken to hospital.
The film naturally includes many of Hafez's friends and contemporaries. Their appearance is of a documentary nature, and the makeup artist worked hard to create a physical resemblance between the actor and the celebrity -- including Kamal El-Tawil, Mohamed El-Mougi, Baligh Hamdi, Salah Jahin and Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi -- that he impersonates. The actor who bears the closest resemblance to the character he portrays is Bahaa Jahin (a poet and a journalist) who plays the role of his father, the late Salah Jahin.
Waking up in the hospital, Hafez tries to distract himself by listening to the radio only to find it is playing an interview recorded with him. At this point the script starts to play in a series of flashbacks.
A directly chronological depiction of the life of a celebrity -- the born in, raised in approach -- is unlikely to prove dramatically satisfying. The radio interview has the virtue of allowing the film to concentrate on those aspects of Hafez's life that most resonate with the audience, and they can be reduced to three components -- illness, the revolution, and love. The film did not stray far from these three themes.
Early scenes depict the poverty in which Hafez was raised in Zagazig following the death of his parents when he was still an infant. The film chose the most melodramatic event to represent Hafez's childhood, including a scene in which his uncle takes him to the orphanage where he spent most of his childhood. In this sequence the film also presents the beginnings of Hafez's illness, showing him swimming in a canal where he probably contracted the bilharzia that would later result in his fatal liver failure.
The script moves, via the radio interview, to one of the most significant days of his early life, when Hafez, having succeeded in a radio audition, quits his job as a teacher.
In documenting the revolutionary songs that have come to be associated with Hafez, the film intersperses scenes of Haithem working on the songs with archive footage of actual events, including the building of the High Dam and the explosions that were used to divert the course of the Nile.
In dealing with the defeat of 1967, during which Hafez was performing songs that glorified the revolution while the army was withdrawing haphazardly from the front, the film opts for a series of quick scenes spliced together.
Then there are the series of scenes that deal with the singer's one true love, a girl from an aristocratic family whose conservative family reject him as a suitor because of his social background. The viewer sees all of this in a series of flashbacks intertwined with the radio interview and interspersed with scenes of a girl from Hafez's village whom he sponsored through medical school. Mona Zaki exerts great efforts in this minor role.
The film also includes several unrelated details to add to the human interest to the plot. There is the story of the young couple who first meet at one of Hafez's early concerts in the Andalus Gardens. In an attempt to politically contextualise, the young man becomes an engineer on the High Dam project, and following the 1967 defeat sits with his daughter watching Nasser's famous speech in which he quits the presidency. There is also the story of the cafe worker who works in front of Hafez's old house and who buys the cafe after the revolution in a symbolic representation of Egyptians reassuming ownership of the country.
There are a number of relatively naïve traps into which the film falls. The director wanted to represent Hafez's many films, so he replaced Hafez's face in the films with Haitham Zaki's, with comic results. Then there are the plain factual errors. The tragedy of the 1967 war is articulated through the story of two violinists in Hafez's band who are called up for military service. As Israeli planes bomb the battlefield the two soldiers look for one another but as they meet one of them is killed by gun fire. The question that immediately comes to mind is whether or not this was friendly fire. The Israelis, after all, were bombing from above.
These are not the only problems. The production looks rushed, despite having taken two years to be completed. One wonders what motivated producer Emadeddin Adib to rush this film into a summer release, given that his company's other big production, The Yacoubian Building, is being screened at the same time. In strictly marketing terms, the company's releasing two films simultaneously can only mean that they are competing with one another at the box office.