Alley of God
Reviewing the latest crop of supposedly serious cinematic fare, Hani Mustafa is once again disappointed with the shantytown on screen
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Clockwise from top left: gang battles in Marwan Hamid's Ibrahim Labyad ; a fake wedding, according to Sameh Abdel-Aziz's Al-Farah
Since the early years of Egyptian cinema, the hara or popular urban neighbourhood -- the life of the working and lower- middle class, as it were -- have provided the silver screen with fecund material. Kamal Selim's Al-Azimah (Resolve, 1939) was perhaps the first major step in this direction, and it constituted a qualitative leap in that it tackled the effects of the Great Depression on a typical Egyptian middle-class community. This genre of film formed the backbone of the "realist" movement, at the hands of directors like Salah Abu Seif and Tawfik Saleh, through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Technique largely depended on elaborate sets constructed within Studio Misr, Studio Al-Nahhas and other shooting venues, with a given hara, instead of being destroyed once a film is completed, simply adjusted to suit another film. Partly to reduce production costs, which had doubled under Anwar El-Sadat's open-door policy, a subsequent generation of directors -- Mohamed Khan, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed, and the late Atef El-Tayeb -- went out to shoot in real-life alleyways; and so the genre became even more realistic and real life exercised its own influence (by driving Mohamed Khan, for example, to replace the score in his soundtracks with radio broadcasts and other mundane material). For a few days now three 2009 productions have been on show which can be seen as the latest crop of this tradition: Khaled Youssef's Dukkan Shehata (Shehata's Store), Marwan Hamid's Ibrahim Labyad, and Sameh Abdel-Aziz's Al-Farah (The Wedding).
Written by Nasser Abdel-Rahman -- who also collaborated with Youssef on the much-talked-about shantytown film Hina Maysarah (Till possible, 2008) -- Dukkan Shehata is a variation on the same theme -- except that this time it includes much appallingly in-your-face political cliché and makes the worst use yet of Youssef's technique of drawing on newspaper headlines, past and present, to construct the lives of his characters. It opens with a young man, Shehata (Amr Saad) who has just been released from prison, watching while a group of men steal a cargo of wheat from a moving train, conveying it back to the slums in all manner of ramshackle transportation -- a direct allusion to the recent "bread crisis" during which Cairo's poor suffered for lack of bread. As the credits begin to roll, the scene shifts to images of actual newspaper headlines moving back in time through the Iraq and Gulf wars to Sadat's assassination in 1981 and the huge clampdown on political activists that preceded it. Then the action begins -- at a much earlier date than the opening scene -- with the birth of a third son to one poor man named Haggag (Mahmoud Hemeida), whose wife dies in the process. Haggag -- in common with the poor to whom Nasser remains the greatest hero -- has two older sons and a daughter from a previous marriage, and he settles with all four in Cairo, where he works as a gardener at the villa of a communist doctor named Mu'nis (Abdel-Aziz Makhyoun). It is on the way there from the small town where the birth takes place that a fellow train passenger mentions that Sadat has been assassinated -- an all-too-obvious connection between Shehata's life and the beginning of a new era. In common with many left-wing landowners who undertook Nasser-style land redistribution on an individual basis in those years (one real-life example is the late Mohamed El-Sayed Said), this doctor gives Haggag part of the villa land, where the latter opens a fruit shop, which he decides to name after his lastborn son: Dukkan Shehata.
The film relies on a single line of drama concerning the conflict of Shehata with his two elder brothers -- something it tries to emphasise from the beginning by showing their hatred for him in childhood as the son of the other woman. But the action is padded out with far too much irrelevant detail that contributes nothing to the action, much of it -- Haggag's picture of Nasser, for example, which conceals a crack in the wall of the house, prompting Shehata to declare at one point that the crack is getting too wide for it to effectively conceal -- absurdly explicit political commentary. When Shehata finds the picture again on being released from prison at the house of his sister Nagah (Ghada Abdel-Razeq), he dusts it with his hand while muttering, "God have mercy on you, father." Here too the symbolism is almost laughable -- a general feature of the film. By this time Haggag has of course died, as we come to understand, and Doctor Mu'nis leaves the country. Mu'nis's son eventually returns from the US and sells the villa to the US Embassy, offering Haggag's children LE1 million in return for their shop. That is when the elder brothers frame Shehata for a forgery, thereby sending him to prison to get him firmly out of the way. After his release, Shehata goes straight to the villa -- where it turns out that both villa and shop have been turned into an outpost of the Israeli Embassy -- but of course! Nor is there more substance to the characters than the story.
The characters in the film can be divided into two categories. The first includes those with a single, overriding motive who not only act on that motive but reveal no human dimensions beyond it. Not two- but one-dimensional: they include the eldest brother Tilib, who seems to care for absolutely nothing apart from making money, and the middle brother Salem, whose sole objective is to hurt Shehata, unaccountably as it seems. The second category of character includes those with too many conflicting motives who, due to either inadequate script-writing skill or the desire to cram too many ideas into a single entity, come across as meaningless and without purpose. Nagah, for example, has no perceivable personality. She seems to love Shehata, but does nothing to help him except crying when he is jailed for a crime he did not commit. Likewise when she is swindled out of her rightful share of the inheritance and given a much smaller sum of money: Nagah just cries. On the other hand the character of Karam (Amr Abdel-Gelil), is an almost identical version of the comic-relief character in Hina Maysarah : this time, instead of muddling his words, Karam mixes up his proverbs. He is constantly breaking into conversations with inappropriate proverbs, themselves composites of two or more proverbs that he has mixed up to ample comic effect. Like his predecessor in last year's film, Karam is violent despite being funny, and he seems to employ his own absurd philosophy in defending whoever he happens to love -- in this case his sister Bissa (Haifaa Wahbi), Salem's wife -- and yet at many points the logic of this character is reversed and he emerges as an evil man capable of beating up his sister or wife for no reason. Beyond his caricature- like mannerisms, Karam, like Nagah, has no human substance to speak of.
It was only to be expected that the presence in the film of a stellar sex symbol like Haifaa Wahbi should make it more successful at the box office. In fact Wahbi was only chosen in order to complete the traditional "taboo" triangle of politics, religion and sex. In this particular film the religion side of things may not have been as obvious, though Youssef manages to cram in an attack by religious extremists at the end. Yet the sex aspect was more than accommodated by the sheer presence of Wahbi, who had only to reveal some silicon-enhanced cleavage for sex to be a main theme. When she appears in the company of Salem, for example, she is very scantily clad and very seductive. Yet, knowing that Bissa categorically refuses to sleep with Salem at that time, the viewer tends to conclude that her appearance is intended not for the vengeful husband in the film but rather for the sex-crazed audience. One of Youssef's early films, Al-Asifah (The Storm, 2001) relied on an extremely naïve storyline to tackle the 1991 Gulf War, in which two brothers not only happen to be on the opposite sides of the armed conflict -- the one in the Iraqi, the other in the Egyptian army -- but also, miraculously, considering the chances of such a thing actually happening, to meet face to face in battle. Once again, with scriptwriter Abdel-Rahman, he presents a completely hackneyed storyline of similar dimensions, though this time his principal message is how kindness can be -- quite literally -- killed, since kindness dies with the death of Shehata. From sub-Greek tragedy melodrama to silly sub- symbolism: Youssef adds nothing at all to the development of Egyptian film.
If Dukkan Shehata resorts to multiple sub-plots with the aim of portraying the life of the poor, in Ibrahim Labyad Marwan Hamid and scriptwriter Abbas Abul-Hassan attempt the same aim through the framework of an action thriller set in the slums around the Muqattam Hills and the neighbourhood known as Magra Al-Uyoun. The opening, which involves a son witnessing the death of his father and thus swearing revenge, is somewhat reminiscent of a B-movie; and it is this that has prompted many a critic to say that Ibrahim Labyad is some kind of late-in-the-day Egyptian version of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, since Hamid's feature contains many echoes of Scorsese's besides. In one scene, for example, when Ibrahim Labyad (Ahmed El-Saqqa) goes to retrieve a package of "merchandise" stolen from him by a member of the Zarzour gang, the knife fight that ensues in Zarzour territory is almost identical with the opening battle in Gangs of New York. The action of the film proceeds through the return of Ibrahim and his friend Ashri (Amr Wakid) to a slum governed by a head gangster named Abdel-Malik Zarzour (Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz) -- following the strength and heroism Ibrahim shows in a fight with one of his men. It is then that the leader gives him the honour of becoming a member of the same Zarzour gang.
As Houriya, the role of the grassroots girl of which the Tunisian actress has come to be the most important performer, Hind Sabri was nonetheless not at her best since she played the house maid in Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Muwatin wa Mukhbir wa Harami (Citizen, Detective and Thief, 2001); and it seems the ambiguity that enfolds her share of the drama has had a negative effect on the actress's ability. Driven, it seems, by the urge to imbue the story with a sense of mythology, Abul-Hassan created a complicated and not-entirely-clear connection between Zarzour and the girl, whose only real function in the film is the edict that he has issued in his capacity as ruler of the expanse that Houriya should marry no one: whoever seeks Houriya's hand somehow sooner or later ends up dead. Though it is only mentioned in passing in the course of a conversation between Ibrahim and one of Zarzour's men, the story could almost fit into The Thousand and One Nights. Only a few scenes later, however, we realise that Houriya is the daughter of the man who killed Ibrahim's father at the start of the film, when Ibrahim -- barely a young man -- managed to take revenge immediately. This fact is just thrown into the movie, without the least effort to integrate it into the structure of the narrative. The viewer simply feels that Ibrahim is suffering under the weight of some deep psychological burden throughout the film.
Abdel-Aziz's performance, it must be said, is remarkable; and it may have borrowed from Marlon Brando's Godfather in The Godfather I, for which Brando received an Oscar as Best Actor for the role. This is not to mention Amr Wakid, who manages to create a distinct and independent personality for Ibrahim's friend Ashri. As for Ahmed El-Saqqa, compared to all the many roles he has performed in his past, this was neither his best nor his worst. It seems increasingly typical of Saqqa to provide an average performance -- as he does here. Yet acting is hardly the main problem with this movie. The problem relates rather to lack of clarity in storyline and motives, since the edict issued by Zarzour in relation to Houriya -- though certainly the most mythical -- is not the only peculiar or foggy episode in this film. The ongoing conflicts between the Zarzour gang and that of Faris, where Ibrahim works after he leaves Zarzour, remain completely unclear; at no point does the film make clear what it is that has placed the two gangs in conflict, or what precisely they might be fighting over. Are they simply rivals for influence within the stretch of neighbourhoods they occupy, or are they in some kind of commercial contest? The film does not even depict the battles between them. With the exception of one battle in the desert between Ibrahim, Ashri and another Zarzour man on one side and several Faris men on the other, there are no battles in the film to speak of. And this is very telling regarding the tone and content of the film as a whole, considering that it is an action movie. In its action designation as in other aspects of Ibrahim Labyad, the film seems to hint at what it might be far more than actually being that thing. It presents no more than clues that viewers are expected to pick on for themselves, rather than stating or effectively articulating what it is all about.
It is through borrowing from the American mob sphere that the scriptwriter approaches interesting dramatic areas. But there are far too many contradictions in the information and the facts imparted at various points in the film for any of it to make very good sense. The killings we keep finding out about as the action unfolds seem to be governed solely by violence and strength, for example, yet there is security all around, too, and the authority of the state is present from the first moment. In one line of dialogue it is said that the authorities turn a blind eye to many crimes in the area -- except for killing, with the police never giving up the search for a killer until that killer is found. But it is killing, and nothing else, that the viewers encounter most frequently. And no one is arrested for murder. Yet it is not for the huge amount of violence that it contains -- no doubt excessive for some viewers -- that the film is at fault. Many films from around the world contain scenes with more or greater violence. Nor is it to be taken against the film that it does not accurately convey the atmosphere of poor neighbourhoods in Cairo, be they older popular neighbourhoods or more recently created shantytowns. Not all films are realistic in this way, and in fact many filmmaking schools do not belong to realism in the first place. It is rather the paucity of its drama that fails Ibrahim Labyad, which contains no clear storyline or effective structure. This may have to do with the scriptwriter's sincere and serious attempt to move away from traditional, preset formulae, as well as avoiding a replication of the plot or dramatic structure of Gangs of New York. But this ultimately resulted in the absence of the most essential qualities of sound structure and articulate drama, perhaps the most important qualities in cinema.
It is by no means necessary to criticise Ibrahim Labyad for failing to convey a true-to-life sense of the hara. But in so far as one considers all three films in the context of a specific tradition of realism, the first two certainly fail. The first film opts for superficial political commentary of some form: a terribly unfortunate, though perhaps commercially justifiable move. The second film, on the other hand, simply employs the hara as a backdrop to a sequence of action scene which nonetheless fail to coalesce into a convincing whole. Of the three it is Al Farah that comes closest to communicating a sense of the hara. With scriptwriter Ahmed Abdallah, director Sameh Abdel-Aziz manages to provide a rich variety of Egyptian grassroots characters. Structurally the film is in effect a remake of the duo's Cabaret, which was a grossing hit last year. Both films rely on a single festive event lasting no longer than a day in order to construct its drama. The principle difference between Cabaret and Al-Farah is the setting or rather the nature of the short-term event in question. The former deals with a night out at the nightclub, the latter with a wedding in a popular neighbourhood.
Al-Farah opens with Muallim Zeinhom (Khaled El-Sawi) preparing for the wedding of his sister, which is to take place in the area where he lives. The viewer is thus primed for a straightforward event -- only to realise before too long that the wedding is but a pretend celebration. In popular neighbourhoods in Cairo, it is the custom for guests at a wedding to pay nu'out to the newlyweds -- a sort of cash equivalent to a wedding gift that is nonetheless regarded as obligatory since it is inevitably paid back: a family with a wedding is in dire need of money and the community are sufficiently aware of this to chip in, each knowing that when it is time for them to shoulder the financial burden, those whom they are helping out -- along with everyone in the community -- will help them in their turn. This cooperative system exists only for weddings and other major celebrations, however, and sometimes when you really need the money, the only way to get it is by holding a pretend wedding. Such as it turns out is the case with Zeinhom. The premise seems unique in itself, and the filmmakers certainly capitalise on it, largely through a multifarious and compelling cast of characters.
First there is Muallim Zeinhom, whose aim is to collect enough nu'out to buy a microbus with which to provide for his family: his mother (Karima Mukhtar), his wife (Rojina), and his children. Operating a microbus is one of the most lucrative options available to Zeinhom, but it would only be sufficiently lucrative if he owned the vehicle. Then there is the wedding impresario (Maged El-Kidwani) -- the man generally charged with the business of introducing performers, DJ-ing, and crucially in this case acknowledging the presence -- and cash contributions -- of the guests. Kidwani thus assumes the role of general commentator regarding the events of the film, on which he comments somewhat ironically from the stage set up in the grassroots neighbourhood. The script does not abandon this man simply to that role, however, but provides him too with a dramatic storyline. He has a prominent and seemingly old scar on his face, caused by his father (Mohamed Metwalli) whom he has never forgiven for it. The film simply touches on this notion of lack of reconciliation between father and son, without entering into the detail of the story. The film also presents the character of Amm Habashi, the party organiser whose specialty is that kind of pretend celebration.
Habashi is clearly materialistic, a quality that qualifies him all the better, perhaps, for his shady line of work. He is mean, stingy, but he is not an embodiment of evil in the way that Shylock is. He is rather a pleasant man who helps people and pays attention to wedding guests. The only truly off-putting action he takes is when, towards the end of the film, he insists on going through with the wedding despite the death of Zeinhom's mother. But since the wedding is make-believe, it requires a similarly make-believe bride and groom. And that is where Abdallah (Khaled Galal) comes in, together with Gamila (Jumana Murad) who is clearly not Zeinhom's sister. These two separate characters are united by a simple story that has been presented repeatedly in Egyptian film. They are engaged to be married -- with a marriage contract that has not yet been officially implemented -- but it has come to the attention of the neighbours that they have been having a fully- fledged relationship out of wedlock, a terrible sin in context. Abdallah and Gamila agree to perform the roles of bride and groom in this film-within-the-film because they are now in dire need of the money. This is because Gamila's father has determined to marry her to her fiancé and clear his name. In good old fellahin tradition, he plans to demonstrate the virginity of his daughter to the entire neighbourhood by displaying the bridal sheet -- stained with blood. And so Gamila must now have the required hymenoplasty in time.
The more distinct character is Samira (Donia Samir Ghanem), who sells beer at the wedding, wearing men's clothes to help reduce the incidence of harassment by the drinkers there. She provides for her family, including her mother and siblings. But there is also the ageing belly dancer (Sawsan Badr) who, due to her age, is willing to perform for very little money; she too provides for a family whose principal breadwinner suffers from unemployment. There is also the "monologist" -- performer of comic "monologues" or dramatic songs sometimes interspersed with stand-up comic-style jokes -- whose name is Salah Warda (Salah Abdallah). He represents a profession, most famously practised by the great comedian Ismail Yassin (1912-1972) which seems to have gone extinct in the vast majority of restaurants and nightclubs (where it was traditionally performed), disappearing from weddings as well. The monologist has less of a story, though he is still driven by the desire to demonstrate his importance and status to his young son, who attends the wedding in order to see him perform.
The film is marred principally by its reliance on preaching, to which it pays more attention than the business of effectively orchestrating an otherwise truly outstanding dramatic premise. It is the same problem that the director-screenwriter team's previous collaboration, Cabaret, suffered from. Yet unlike its predecessor, which ends with greatest bang possible in the blowing up of the nightclub in question, Al-Farah ends extremely equivocally. For some incomprehensible reason the filmmakers wanted to have two different endings. At first we follow as the wedding goes on despite the death of Zeinhom's mother -- and the decision not to cut it short in response to the unexpected calamity becomes a Pandora's box of unhappy eventualities. Thus Zeinhom's wife leaves him, the bag of nu'out is stolen, the impresario tells off his father, and Samira kills Hassan Hashishah (Bassem Samra), the only guest who pays her a compliment. And so the wedding turns into a kind of funerary ritual -- like the traditional condolence-paying ceremony -- towards dawn. Only then does Zeinhom realise he should never have gone ahead with the wedding stepping, as it were, on the corpse of his mother; he should have ended it immediately, if only to eliminate all those terrible consequences. If only he had been content with what little money he had managed to gather when the woman passed away, he thinks, none of those terrible things would have happened. This seems like an alternative ending.
Over the many decades of its lifetime, Egyptian cinema has not once stopped portraying the poor. It is rather the manner of tackling grassroots life that was affected by a wide range of factors at different points. Political transformations in particular had a remarkable effect on the way the poor appeared on screen. In the 1940s, the drive to national independence punctuated an intellectual transformation of the widest proportions, underpinning a growing interest in upward mobility from the lower to the middle class. It may even be said that there was then a social and economic revolution that subsequently resulted in the broadening of the middle class, which turned into the principal conveyor of culture and urbanity in Egypt, with each of its subclasses playing a slightly different role. The July Revolution and the developments it gave way to were no more than complementary factors that brought this process to completion. Through the 1950s and 1960s, and especially after the Revolution adopted a socialist orientation, as agents of cultural and social transformation, filmmakers were more or less in agreement with both the regime and the middle class to which they belonged regarding the social role of cinema. Cultural buoyancy persisted through the 1970s and 1980s despite the fact that the regime during those decades was far less in harmony with the middle class and its filmmaking progeny. Judging by these three films, however, these days the purpose of portraying the poor in film seems to have rather more to do with either presenting a simple, not to say stupid political message in the most self-defeating explicit way, using grassroots neighbourhoods as a setting for an action flick, or else preaching to the audience.