Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Questionable abilities

Hani Mustafa is in two minds about Dawoud Abdel-Sayed’s latest

Questionable abilities
Questionable abilities
Al-Ahram Weekly

Since starting to direct feature-length fiction films with Al-Sa’alik (The Bohemians), Dawoud Abdel-Sayed has sought out his own special cinematic language. In films like The Bohemians, Kitkat (1991, based on novelist Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron) and Sariq Al-Farah (The Wedding Thief, 1995, based on a novel by Khairi Shalabi), he draws close to the 1980s neorealism of his generation (Khairi Bishara, Mohamed Khan, Atef Al-Tayib), featuring lower-class, inner-city heroes and more or less open social critique.

These were significant and powerful contributions, but it is in other, less realist films that Abdel-Sayed has made a more distinct mark. In films like Looking for Sayed Marzouq (1991, starring Nour Al-Sherif and Ali Hassanein) and Land of Fear (2000), Abdel-Sayed seeks to go beyond the role of storyteller and the conception of the filmmaker as someone who employs a range of instruments – acting, set design, soundtrack and image – to tell a story. Rather, he conceives of his role as someone who shares inner questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life. And the 2010 Rasail Al-Bahr (Sea Messages) indulges this philosophical, indeed metaphysical interest.

Yahya (Khaled Abul-Naga), the hero and narrator in Abdel-Sayed’s latest film, Qudurat Ghair Adiya (Paranormal Abilities), is a psychiatrist doing research into paranormal abilities. But he has failed to find a suitable case study, and so his supervisor advises him to take a month off and travel to relax. The older academic tells Yahya that he shouldn’t be overly concerned since the state has taken a keen interest in his research and has every intention of helping him complete it. Thus the action starts in a remote pension in Abu Qir, the old seaside neighbourhood in Alexandria, overlooking the shore...

The first few scenes following Yahya’s arrival in Abu Qir have a special allure, with the voice over and the camera movement giving the sequence a literary, somewhat mysterious quality as the residents of the pension are introduced: Ramez Sherif the opera singer (Hassan Kami), Sheikh Ragab the religious chanter (Mahmoud Al-Guindi), Ragui the artist (Ahmad Kamal), the Italian documentary filmmaker (Karim Al-Masry) and the manager of the pension, who also cooks and cleans, Habiballah (Ihab Ayoub) as well as the owner Hayat and her child daughter Farida.

The pleasure in this part of the film emanates from the exoticism of the characters and their distinct idiosyncrasies – the conflict between Ramez Sherif and Sheikh Ragab, for example – but Abdel-Sayed hardly goes beyond the surface in this context, with little or no information about each character beyond his job. We never hear Sheikh Ragab singing, either, though we do see Ramez drawing by the sea and drinking constantly. There is little to relate to at the human level.

In the case of Hayat there is somewhat more depth, with the story of Farida’s father more or less completely told. A former artist, on going to work in the Gulf he adopted the Salafi lifestyle and ended up giving up art, divorcing Hayat and rejecting Farida as a daughter of the devil, since she happens to have paranormal abilities.

In its depiction of Farida’s growing relationship with Yahya the film offers a convincing view of the girl’s inner beauty, skilfully introducing her as the object of Yahya’s attention throughout the rest of the film. This is further established when Yahya has has a sexual encounter with Hayat – at a flat of hers elsewhere in Alexandria – though, having seduced him, Hayat refuses to pursue the relationship further, describing it as a casual encounter resulting from her having had no man in her life for several years.

The drama is driven by Yahya’s discovery of Farida’s telekinetic power: he pretends to be asleep while she manages to bring an apple down into her hands from a plate on top of the cupboard without touching it. This apple seems to have symbolic significance, recalling the apple that cast Adam and Eve out of paradise, since it takes on a pivotal role in the development of the drama.

Soon after Farida uses her abilities on sorcerers at the circus her abilities become known and the police moves in to take her into custody – apparently the authorities throughout the country have been watching and waiting – resulting and Hayat and her fleeing the pension. At the same time the circus itself is forced out of Abu Qir when Salafis begin to take issue with it.

At this point a powerful man named Omar Al-Banhawi (Abbas Abul-Hassan) appears – looking for Farida. Though Omar Al-Banhawi obviously represents the state, Ragui tells Yahya that, since he has a pony tail, he can only be something other than a policeman. Perhaps this is Abdel-Sayed’s way of developing the concept of state power, suggesting that – rather than the secret police or intelligence officers – there are now more ambiguous characters above the state who control the fates of people. Be that as it may, Omar eventually marries Hayat.

Abdel-Sayed later shows Omar as an ordinary human being when he confesses to Yahya that, though he married Hayat in order to control her daughter and use her in information gathering and other security-related work, he later fell in love with her and wanted to start a happy family with her and Farida. When Farida became depressed, however, fires kept breaking up in the house and Omar was forced to divorce Hayat. The word hayat means “life”, and as in previous work, in this scene Abdel-Sayed is advancing a subtext about the possibility of controlling life and how life only comes to those who love it selflessly.

Such symbolism, while complicating the action and forcing the viewer to make an effort to understand the filmmaker’s message, seems somewhat dated so many decades after the emergence of postmodernism – and it strikes a hollow, meaningless chord in the absence of human depth.

The film ends with a car accident, following which Yahya is admitted to hospital – where he begins telling the story. And his confusion about what happened reflects the confusion of the viewer as Abdel-Sayed destroys even the premise of the film by posing the question of who had paranormal abilities: Farida or Hayat or Yahya himself, who was merely using Farida as his medium. It is obvious that Abdel-Sayed wants the viewer to pay attention not to the story but to what lies behind it, but what lies behind the story?

I doubt if Abdel-Sayed himself has a satisfactory answer to that question.

add comment

  
 
 
  • follow us on