Not so clockwork orange
Screenwriter Hisham Hilal tells Rania Khallaf
about The Third Party, the first TV drama to document the 25 January revolution
The 30 episodes of The Third Party stand out from other serials screened last Ramadan. Many critics have described the work as a new turn in television drama -- the most popular audio-visual art form in Egypt. The work of the 38-year-old screenwriter Hisham Hilal, it tells the story of three intimate friends whose difficult circumstances forced them to become hoodlums. All three are university graduates with respectable jobs; but, despite this, they remain unable to fulfil their dreams of leading dignified successful lives. Falling under the influence of the General, a malevolent, powerful man with very high official connections, they have been performing all manner of criminal acts for his benefit. The trio, Dibo, Mimi and Youssef (played by Mahmoud Abdel-Moghni, Amir Karara and Amr Youssef, respectively) first appeared together in the 2011 Ramadan serial, Citizen X.
Living in a poor neighbourhood, the three characters are so skilfully constructed that the audience cannot help but sympathise with them. The network of social and emotional relations woven around them is equally intriguing, especially in those scenes set in the neighbourhood where people are compassionate, funny and unsophisticated. The trouble begins when they begin to feel they are earning very little for their illegal operations. This leads to conflict with the General -- a name that might refer, by implication, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was in charge of the country for nearly two years after the former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
"The Third Party was initially a political term used by politicians and analysts during the revolution to describe thugs and other unknown criminals who killed demonstrators," Hilal says, "and who later turned out to be an arm of the regime." The three young men can be seen as bullies and crooks, but they enjoy popularity in their neighbourhood and lead a secure social and emotional life. "Actually, such hoodlums do exist in our society, but you do not notice them in your everyday life. I have personally met some of them. I can remember a famous one, Khanoufa, known as 'the Bully of Masr Al-Qadima'. His job was mainly to guarantee the success of the [now dissolved National Democratic Party] NDP's electoral campaigns, or any other operations ordered by prominent members of the ruling party. Such bullies have always had access to arms and are well-trained and organised. Although they remain unseen by the average citizen, they are a time bomb that should be defused before it is too late. The revolution has helped to reveal an old and open wound that requires speedy treatment."
But, aside from the script, which was written during the last few months before the revolution, the unusual success of the serial is due in part to the dedication of the director, the production team and the actors -- team work that recalls the golden age of TV drama in the 1970s and 80s. "There was this feeling that we were a team on a national mission, with all the details of the 25 January Revolution fresh in our heads and the pictures of the martyrs and the injured flooding our imagination," Hilal added. The events of January and February 2011 gave him a boost and the script a special, almost spiritual atmosphere that spread effortlessly to the entire production. "There was too little time to indulge in any personal conflict or ego." The revolution, which he believes has yet to be adequately dealt with by television drama, instantly freed him from censorship. This too could account for its success.
Yet The Third Party is not without weaknesses. The character of the General, for example, is naively written -- so vague he is reminiscent of old-movie detectives. In such a realistic script, the General is hardly adequate as the NDP strongman. His connection with military rule, which bore the brunt of discontent for many months after the revolution, is not drawn out. "My name was given me by my enemies as an acknowledgement of how powerful I am," he says in one episode. A better defined character would have made for a much more powerful drama. Nor does the General's lush appearance help. "But a character like that is very believable," Hilal says in his own defence. "Such people were the bedrock of the corrupt regime; they played a major part in killing demonstrators."
By the end of the serial the three friends are saying no to orders. They feel the need to lead an honourable life and end their criminal career -- so much so that one of them shoots the General dead -- a symbol of the end of military rule. But it is not so much the revolution as the characters that the audience is led to sympathise with. The events of the revolution are there as a backdrop, with the light involvement of some secondary characters such as Amina (Amina Khalil), an ambitious journalist who falls in love with Dibo after she meets him in the downtown bar where he works. This love story is the turning point in Dibo's life, as it leads him to decide to give up his criminal career and start a new life with Amina. "I did not want to involve the main characters more in the events of the revolution, because I did not want the trio to appear as heroes," Hilal explains. So be it.
The way he deals with the relationship between demonstrators and policemen remains somewhat vague. Hilal puts the blame for the killing and injuring of demonstrators on the thugs themselves rather than on the police or army officers who commanded them, which is not very convincing. Even when Ahmed (Mohamed Farag), a jobless young man, is shot in the eye by a sniper during the demonstrations, we do not see a clear-cut condemnation of police or thugs. Instead the event is treated as a human drama, not as a consequence of the brutal confrontation with the demonstrators: Ahmed no longer has the courage to marry Dibo's sister Shaimaa, the nurse he loves (who is arrested and subjected to a virginity test while treating injured protesters in Tahrir Square). "Well, I did not mean to be neutral but to make criticism of the police subtle; yet there is a clear reference in the second episode to their secret alliance with the thugs," Hilal says, "when one policeman is seen asking a thug about the amount of weaponry needed for a specific operation assigned to him."
When a TV series proves successful with both audience and critics, there is usually one overriding reason -- and in this case it is probably the script, which is sharp enough to illustrate every detail pertaining to the three main characters and the circles of relations around them. It also owes much to the chemistry between the actors and director Mohamed Bekir, and finally to the spirit of the revolution which was present in all the stages of production. While this was practically the first drama to tackle and document the events of the revolution, the three hoodlums are not directly involved in the events. "They did not participate in the revolution, but benefited from it through trading in weapons and smuggling antiquities; both were illegal businesses that accompanied the revolution," Hilal says. The script is loaded with unsavoury language and acts of torture and killing -- reflecting the violence prevailing at the time of revolution. "But I actually see no difference between the Muslim Brothers and the bullies," Hilal says. "While the revolutionaries wanted a free and democratic country, the Islamists seized the historic opportunity and took over power, ignoring the demands of those who toppled the old regime." The violence, Hilal feels, reflects the anger felt by most revolutionaries during and after events.
The female characters are portrayed in a positive manner. They take the initiative to build their own careers, chase their lovers and play positive roles in relationships. One of the most interesting points is that all the actresses are fresh faces: Dina El-Sherbini, who plays Mimi's loving wife, for example. And this too may explain why The Third Party claimed more viewers than The Bully, another serial screened during Ramadan, starring Asser Yassin. No matter, says Hilal; it is a subject that will crop up again and again on TV: "It is obvious now that hired thugs were the right arm of the regime. They were involved in all types of illegal operations blamed on 'crazy or fanatical people'. When the 25 January 0Revolution broke out and the police authority was pulled out of the scenario, these thugs emerged as the equivalent authority. They had their life's opportunity to kill, steal and smuggle. There is, therefore, a pressing need to discuss this class of people and figure out its roots."