The tale of the species
Hani Mustafa talks about storytelling and male domination in the season's most controversial film
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Clockwise from top: Hassan El-Radad, Mona Zaki and Sawsan Badr in Ihki Ya Scheherazade
Women's status has often been discussed in Egyptian cinema. Sometimes this took the form of issue-oriented melodrama and addressed itself to all of society. The famous film Uridu Hallan (I want a solution), directed by Said Marzouk in 1975 and starring Faten Hamama, is a case in point. It actually helped introduce amendments in the personal status law, granting women like the film's heroine rights they had previously been denied. In the last ten years many films took their cue from Uridu Hallan. Asrar Al-Banat (Girls' secrets) by Magdi Ahmed Ali sought to demonstrate how patriarchal oppression can have disastrous consequences, with a pregnant 15- year-old whose affair with the neighbours' son remains unknown. Among that film's disadvantages is that it delves too deeply into too many problems facing women in Egypt, including female circumcision by an extremist doctor.
Ihki Ya Scheherazade (Tell it, Scheherazade), directed by Yousri Nasrallah, is the latest link in that chain. It too bases its drama on issues concerning women, but what could the title -- an all too obvious reference to the Thousand and One Nights -- imply? Sometimes the title of a film has no direct connection with its content but rather relates to it by implication, like an overtone or a connotation. A little thinking is all it takes to realise that the title of this film is actually very accurate, implying both that the drama will depend on storytelling and that storytelling is a form of resistance to male domination. Even the structure of the film is close to the old book in that it too depends on stories such as those Scheherazade told Prince Shahraiar every night to prevent him from killing her. The lead character in the film, Heba (Mona Zaki) is a TV presenter who, when her husband interferes in what she may or may not present on her programmes, decides, like Scheherazade, to tell the stories of Egyptian society.
Patriarchal oppression traditionally manifests itself in brute force but Heba's husband Karim (Hassan El-Radad), who holds a leading position in a newspaper, abuses his wife, rather, by asking her to stop talking about politics in her programme. The film tells us of a government official called Helal who is close to the presidency. Helal contacts Karim to pass judgement on said programme. He merely mentions that the candidates for leading media positions are in the process of being selected, telling Karim that he is a principal nominee and that the president himself reads his articles. It becomes clear that Karim is taking instructions, and his intervention in the work of his wife derives from ambition. Rather than hitting or otherwise abusing her, he emotionally blackmails her into toning down the programme. And so she begins to discuss social instead of political issues -- the substance of the film.
The film contains five stories about women's struggles with society, central among which is Heba's own. There appear to be two visions operating at once. The first belongs to Yousri Nasrallah, the director who is progressive and has a remarkable depth of vision. His previous production Al-Madina (The City) was nominated for the grand prize of the Locarno Film Festival and won three other prizes in the same festival: Confèdèration Internationale des Cinèmas d'Art et d'Essai Europèns (CICAE), The Youth Jury Award Special Mention, and the Swissair/Crossair Special Prize. He also did the movie of Elias Khoury's novel Bab Al-Shams (Sun Gate) -- a two-part epic of the Palestinian struggle. Previous works were even less direct, with the focus of human depth and the multiplicity of a given situation rather than explaining a specific idea -- yet in Ihki Ya Scheherazade there is a second vision as well.
That second vision reflects script writer Wahid Hamed, who is mostly interested in serious and somewhat straightforward drama criticising the faults of society. It is however closer to TV drama inasmuch as it is direct and uses multiple methods to repetitively hammer home a generally predetermined idea. As a result, Hamed's work for cinema and TV often lacks artistic depth and aims at raising issues concerning the man on the street in a straightforward and an easily digestible format.
In the main storyline of Ihki Ya Scheherazade, Heba's reason for accepting her husband's interference in her work is the desire to maintain her family life -- especially that this life depends on a very intimate relationship that has been intensified for the benefit of the viewer. Although this in itself is enough, the screenplay adds a sentence spoken by one of Heba's work colleagues in which she reminds her that this is her second marriage -- meaning that society will not accept a second divorce. The ending of the film further emphasises the traditional perspective on women's persecution, when Heba is actually beaten up by her husband. She intentionally displays her bruises and speaks of herself as a case that could serve as material for her programme. There is no special structure to the drama of the stories told through the programme, except in the third story -- about three sisters who inherit a shop from their father. Their uncle, although he refuses to take his share of the inheritance, hardly gives them any of the shop's profits, spending most of it on his opium addiction. The story then develops in a way that reminds one of Youssef Idriss's book of short stories, House of Flesh, written in 1954, in which a gang of sisters abuse a young blind sheikh. In the film it is the young shopkeeper who takes advantage of the three sisters after they throw out their uncle and decide to manage the shop themselves. After a while they also decide that one of them should marry the shopkeeper Said (Mohamed Ramadan). But they do not coordinate the matter well, giving him the chance to start relationships with all three of them.
This story appears to gain its strength from literature but its narrative direction does not seem very convincing, as the shop is supposed to be located opposite a popular coffee house making it unlikely that there could be sex safely going on in the warehouse right behind it.
The first story in the film is incomplete. The script traces the contradictions in society through a young woman called Salma Hayek who is beautiful and works in a makeup shop. She deals with upper-class women and is aware of fashion, different brands and labels of makeup. But on her way to and from work on the underground she wears a veil. The scene that the film concentrates on is just of Salma accompanying Heba and showing her the schizophrenic state she lives in. This girl is representative of many other women who work in similar jobs -- a story which, though marginal to the film as a whole, is close to the director's point of view in his exploration of the lower urban classes in shantytowns as portrayed in his documentary Sobian we Banat (Boys and Girls, 1995). In this remarkable film, he records the state of religiosity in the society of the 1990s through a number of teachers who were donning the veil one after the other. The film recorded their love stories at the same time. The film was predominantly romantic, a mood we do not have time to see in Salma Hayek's story.
The second story is a little vague. It deals with Amany, who lives in a psychiatric institution where she helps many of the other patients. There is no structured drama here but only an attempt at tracing the feelings of this 50-something woman who was never married and was never in love. But the opening scenes were characterised by human depth, showing Amany's exceptional intelligence. Amany, who is middle-class, worked in hotels for a large part of her life; she is highly educated and speaks several languages. The opening conversation between Amany and Heba at the hospital is ideal for exposing the character. Amany has felt that every man who ever approached her was only interested in a sexual relationship. In flashbacks, we see the ending of her story with a man who has proposed to marry her (Hussein El-Imam): while dining in a restaurant, the man presents his ideas on the marriage institution. He asks her to sell her car as he will drive her to and from work; they should pool together their incomes but he should be the one to decide how they should be spending them. A beautiful social critique, it nonetheless seems somewhat artificial for the man to pull his list of demands out of his pocket to present it to Amany before their marriage project ends in a sarcastic war of words.
In the fourth story, Wahid Hamed's vision rises to the surface once again. A woman refuses to have sex with her husband before their wedding. In a conversation between the two of them, he convinces her that they are legally married. This conversation is followed by a scene in which they sleep together in his family house, but Hamed goes out of his way to make even the most conservative viewer sympathise with the woman rather than seeing her as a sinner. His experience in TV drama, where a median or lowest common denominator is presented with the intention of being acceptable to the vast majority of viewers. It is in this sense that the ending too should be read: the script is unable to make do with subtle domination and must culminate in physical violence. So much for the script.
What is truly remarkable about this film is the acting. Nasrallah presents many old and new talents. Sawsan Badr is in her second remarkable role of the summer season. The first was her role as an old and cheap dancer in the film Al-Farah (The Wedding). She is continuously asserting her ability to take on psychologically complicated characters. The actresses in the story of the three sisters presented a balanced performance in which they did not outshine each other while presenting the complex feelings of love, frustration and desire. Safa (Rehab El-Gamal) treated her younger sisters as a surrogate mother, while the middle sister Wafaa (Nesreen El-Amin) was a model of power and boldness. The youngest, Hana (Nahed El-Sebae), was a typical teenager, with teenage contradictions and feelings.
Viewers seem to be especially fond of Sanaa Akroud, who played the role of Hend (the dentist who, in the fourth story, is blackmailed by her husband and ends up sleeping with him before the public wedding). She seems to have a special charisma, although she plays the role of an ordinary person. The only notable aspect of her story in the film is that it criticises corruption in the top positions of power as her husband becomes a minister. This approach to political corruption is typical of Hamed's TV drama. Some actors however were not as remarkable. Among them is Hassan El-Radad who plays Heba's husband. Mona Zaki also appeared to have less talent than all the other actresses. Mohamed Ramadan is an actor who appeared last Ramadan in a TV series about the actress Soad Hosni, playing the role of the late actor Ahmed Zaki, perhaps the most powerful performer in the history of Egyptian cinema. He seems to be stuck in his Ahmed Zaki role, borrowing the way Zaki used to talk and even his nuances in lighting a cigarette and putting it out. He appeared as a miniature Ahmed Zaki, probably impressing anyone other than the Egyptian viewer who is too familiar with Zaki to be impressed.
As a whole, the film is a unique storytelling experience revolving around one story that affects all societies. The excessive use of flashbacks reduces the visual glamour of the film as well as weakening the narrative and disrupting the dialogue in certain scenes. Still, this is an important work in a short and steaming summer season.