Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Out of control

Watching one of Ramadan TV’s more successful series, Rania Khallaf speaks to its screenwriter

Out of control
Out of control
Al-Ahram Weekly

Written by the young screenwriter Mariam Naoum and directed by another young talent, Tamer Mohsen, Taht Al-Saytara (or “Under Control”) is an almost perfect work of drama that sets itself apart from much of the nonsense with which Ramadan TV is beset.

‘Under control’ is an expression used by addicts to tell each other they are managing their drug intake and hence their sanity.

Starring the well-established and elegant actress Nelly Kareem and the Tunisian actor Dhafer Al-Abdin together with a group of well-trained new actors, the show deals with the problem of addiction, one of the ailments afflicting growing number of young people all through the social spectrum.

The show tells the story of Mariam and Hatem (Karim and Al-Abdin, respectively), a loving married couple who return to Egypt after a few years in Dubai, where they met.

In the first couple of episodes, Mariam appears to have a psychological problem, which makes her feel tense, with an urge to run away from Hatem. Together with Hatem the audience then realises that she was a heroin addict some nine years before. A series of faltering conversations unveils a network of complicated relationships: Mariam’s former friends and fellow addicts, now with their own families, still suffering from addiction.

As the events progress, the audience is introduced to an honest dramatic representation of the secret world of addiction in Egypt.

Mohsen uses close-ups to powerful effect, and he makes brilliant use of new actors. A 2002 graduate of the Higher Institute of Cinema, he has worked on many documentary films. He also directed series like Without Mentioning Names in 2014, and the film Cat and Mouse in the same year.

***

A 2000 graduate of the Higher Cinema Institute’s screenwriting department, Naoum has written a number of popular drama shows in the last few years, including Zat, an adaptation of Son’aa Allah Ibrahim’s eponymous novel, in 2013 and Segn Al Nessa (or “Women’s Prison”) in 2014.

A lover of both black and white movies and novels as a teenager, and the daughter of the celebrated novelist Nabil Naoum, Mariam made the decision to switch screenwriting after she had already enrolled as an economics student.

“Reading has always been a cornerstone in my life,” she says. “It has been my best companion since childhood. As a child, I used to write my diary, and lots of letters to my friends, and these small things were seen by my father as the prophecy of a good writer. I owe a lot to my professor Yehia Azmy, who wrote the film of Yahya Al-Taher Abdalla’s The Ring and the Bracelet. He understood my character, my strong points. And he encouraged me to read the right books in literature and theatre.”

Naoum’s mentors also include screenwriter Maher Awwad and established filmmakers Dawoud Abdel-Sayyed, Mohammed Khan and the late Atef Al-Tayeb.

After her graduation, Naoum worked as a copy writer in advertising, writing documentary scripts. It was after she met the talented female director Kamla Abu Zikry in 2004, that she started her drama career with Abu Zikry’s film One-Zero in 2008. But by 2004 she had already participated in a workshop to write the script of Red Wax, a TV series starring Youssra, screened in 2010. Most of Naoum’s own scripts revolve around suffering women from different social strata. She writers masterfully, with no conscious feminist agenda.

“It is just a coincidence,” she says. “But yes, as a woman, I am more aware of the psyche and problems of women.”

One of the few drawbacks of Under Control is its focus on upper-class addicts.

“Because we are a somewhat chauvinistic society, when you focus on an ailment related to the lower class, upper-class people tend to think it’s the poor’s own problem. But, no, addiction is widely suffered by wealthy people, and we need to recognise that we are all in the same boat.”

Another possible problem are the preachy talks of Sherif (Hani Adel), the former addict who coaches a group of recovering addicts.

“Yes, this is true. But it is there because we are dealing with a problem whose syndromes and motives are not fully understood by families, who might suddenly face the fact that their son or daughter is an addict. It is in the end a psychological disease, and most of us know very little about psychology. I consider this show a social-responsibility drama. We are not just telling a story or entertaining the audience. No, I want the audience to rethink the whole problem and to be more compassionate and understanding.”

There is a notification screened before the titles, posted by the Egyptian branch of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) indicating their readiness to communicate with addicts anywhere free of charge.

What is powerful about the series, however, is that it teaches you to confront your own disaster, small or big; replace addiction with your own affliction, whatever it is, and if you apply the 12 steps in NA’s Bluebook it will help.

According to Naoum, NA is an American organisation dating back to the 1930s. It had a resurgence in the US in the 1950s and started working in Cairo in the late 1980s.

“What is remarkable and an indication of our success is the number of viewers who have visited the NA website since the start of the show, with the number of hits jumping from 200 to 3000 by the third episode.”

As with Zat, for which Naoum researched social and economic changes in Egypt from 1952 till 2012, she made a lot of effort before sitting down to write.

“Dealing with the issue of addiction was no easy task; it required a lot of research...”

Naoum visited treatment centres, where she talked to addicts and their families at various stages of recovery. Together with the director and the actors, she also attended former addicts’ meetings.

This was helped further by psychiatrist Nabil Al-Qott playing himself in some episodes. He performs spontaneously, without preaching. Al-Qott, Naoum says, was a guide to the world of addicts.

“He is the one who opened the door to the actual world of addicts, and taught me how they would behave in different situations,” Naoum adds.

Although the viewer is fully involved in the events of the series, it might have been more convincing if the series was shorter than 30 episodes.

“It is true that we need to abandon the prerequisite that a series should be written in 30 episodes and screened in the high season of Ramadan, but this show has so many events and stories to be told. It has to do with the production requirements anyway,” she says, agreeing that, despite the presence of depressing scenes, the absence of screams and wails  combined with romance, is a positive point. “I talked with many recovered addicts and they are actually very mild-mannered people, very strong personalities, and some of them helped us in correcting the performance of the actors while we were shooting the show.”

Worth mentioning is the spontaneous performance of the young actress Gamila Awad playing Hanya, a schoolgirl who becomes an addict due to the absence of parental guidance and, unlike Mariam (Karim) – who prompts compassion and contempt by turns – gains the audience’s unqualified sympathy. Among the most powerful scenes were those in which Mariam reveals to her cousin that she is back on heroin.

“I believe this show is different from the rest of my work,” Naoum says. “I loved this interaction between addicts and the show; their feedback, I mean. It made me feel that Under Control is a unique creature of flesh and blood.”

Naoum’s next project is a film adaptation of Sunset Oasis by the celebrated novelist Bahaaa Taher, to be produced by Al-Adl Group and directed by Kamla Abu Zikry.

Asked why she prefers to work on literary texts, she said, “I love reading, and there are novels that really bewilder me. I usually add more details to the original text; for me it is not just a pure adaptation. For example, in Zat, I added more characters and events, but let’s see what the Sunset will bring...”

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