Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Messing with reality

Hani Mustafa celebrates Raafat Al-Meihi, one of the 1980s’ most distinct cinematic voices

Messing with reality
Messing with reality
Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week the Zawya Art House celebrated the work of Raafat Al-Meihi – who passed away on 24 July – with a week-long programme of screenings (22-27 October). Six of the most outstanding films written and directed by him demonstrated the extent of his achievement, with a special focus on his heyday in the 1980s: Avvocato (1983),  Lil-Hobb Qissa Akhira (Love’s Last Story, (1985), Dear Gentlemen (1987), Samak Laban Tamr Hindi (Hodgepodge, 1988) and Sayidati Aanisati (Madames and Mademoiselles, 1989) as well as A Little Love, Much Violence (1995).

Despite the production crisis resulting from the war economics of the previous decade and President Sadat’s Open-Door Policy – to deal with this, Al-Meihi produced most of his own films – the 1980s were a remarkable decade for Egyptian cinema. At the start of the decade a new mode of filmmaking often called neorealism was pioneered by Mohammed Khan, Atef Al-Tayyib, Khairi Beshara and, a few years later, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed. Filmed on location rather than in the studio – something that was driven in part by the lower budgets at their disposal – these directors, unlike such predecessors as Kamal Selim, Salah Abu-Seif and Tawfik Saleh, presented a more immediate view of the lower and lower middle classes in cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Minya...

Raafat Al-Meihi started his career a few years after he graduated from the Higher Film Institute, writing the script of Sayed Eissa’s 1966 Wa Gaffat Al-Amtar (The Rains Have Dried Up). He wrote Kamal Al-Sheikh’s Ghoroub wa Shurouq (Sunset and Sunrise, 1970) and Ala Man Nutliq Al-Rassass (Who Do We Shoot At, 1975) as well as Atef Salem’s Ayna Aqli (Where Is My Mind, 1974) before finally making his directorial debut, loosely based on Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms, Uyoun La Tanam (Sleepless Eyes) in 1981. As is to be expected, his work was conceived partly in response to – and reflected the low-budget, on-location methods of – the 1980s filmmakers, but it ended up revealing markedly different qualities.

Avvocato, for example, does not depart from the neorealism of the era. It deals with a family made up of the poor lawyer Hassan Abdel-Rehim, better known as Hassan Sabanekh (“Spinach”) – played by Adel Imam – and his wife Attia (Youssra), a state school teacher, as well as his teenage son and his sister in law Esmat (Isaad Younes), who is engaged to a former wrestling trainer named Fathi who, though freshly returned from the Gulf, is unable to buy a marital flat, resulting in the postponement of their marriage. In a comic framework, the characters are ingeniously presented at the start of the film, giving the impression that – like other 1980s films – Avvocato is intended as a satirical treatment of the problems of the lower middle class.

Yet, revealing Al-Meihi’s skill as a screenwriter, the film takes an entirely different direction, revealing the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of society with a delight bordering on the fantastical. The characters’ problems are much more basic, for one thing. The son wants a bicycle. The father cannot sleep because of the mother’s snoring. The sister cannot be with the man she loves. Surviving on the intrigues of such figures as a drug lord and a former intelligence chief, and coming in contact with judges and educational authorities, Sabanekh just manages to survive but, mixing satire with realism and political-cultural critique, his antics reveal more of society than any straightforward take on social issues as such.

In Love’s Last Story, though Al-Meihi seems to go back to neorealism, he strengthens the cerebral dimension of his work. Set in the working-class, semi-provincial island of Al-Warraq, it deals with love and death through such phenomena as illiteracy and superstition. A powerful landmark, the film is tightly structured and beautifully photographed, combining the natural beauty of the island with the paraphernalia of poverty. Its stars, Yahya Al-Fakharani, Maali Zayed and Abdel-Aziz Makhyoun seem to compete for the most brilliant performance.

In Dear Gentlemen, Al-Meihi gives freer reign to fantasy the better to take on the institution of marriage and gender issues and personal freedoms in Egyptian society. It tells the story of Ahmad (Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz), his wife Fawzia (Maali Zayed) and their baby son. Ahmad is a journalist, Fawzia a bank clerk who suffers from discrimination on the basis of gender. The issue is presented seamlessly to the viewer as we notice Ahmad’s sexist attitude to Fawzia, his need to control her in a patriarchal way, something Al-Meihi manages to achieve in an extraordinarily light-hearted way that doesn’t let the viewer take sides... One day Ahmad comes home from work to find that his wife has become Fawzi, a man.

In 1988 Al-Meihi made his boldest film to date, Samak Laban Tamr Hindi, which starts with the three stars – Ahmad Sabanekh (Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz), Qadara (Maali Zayed) and the Interpol officer (Youssef Dawoud) – addressing the camera directly. They explain that the film has no story or dramatic structure, advising the viewer not to try and work out what’s going on because it is completely incomprehensible. In stark contrast to Avvocato – to which the film is linked by the Ahmad being Hassan Sabanekh’s brother – there is no comic structure or storyline. Hassan, who works as a veterinary doctor in the countryside, refuses to link himself with Hassan, who has sold out and become almost a reflection of the rest of society.

Consisting of Ahmad and Qadara’s escape from the Interpol officer who accuses them of terrorism and threatens to torture them if they do not reveal the names of their accomplices, the film takes the heroes to a hospital, in which they enter the morgue and come out on the other side – into the hereafter, where paradise is a disco serving only milk and hell a group of men holding kerosine cookers – one of the most beautiful absurdist scenes in Al-Meihi’s corpus. Another powerful scene has a white-clad Ahmad riding a donkey to preach dignity and freedom to peopple in a large procession, recalling Jesus, only to discover that all his disciples are police informers.

In the same vein but less extravagantly, Sayidati Aanisati is the story of Mahmoud, a janitor at a factory, who as it turns out holds a PhD in physics. Due to the economic crisis, four female employees of the factory who share a flat – Dorria (Maali Zayed), Aziza (Safaa Al-Sab’), Karima (Aisha Al-Kilani) and Amal (Abla Kamel) – decide to marry Mahmoud at the same time. Complications eventually lead to Dorria and Amal divorcing themselves from Mahmoud and marrying the former CEO of the factory Fathi (Youssef Dawoud).

Aside from his contribution as a screenwriter and auteur, in 1999 Al-Meihi bough Studio Galal where he established a private cinema academy that has since produced numerous professionals and artists.

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