Saturday,24 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Saturday,24 February, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A glimpse of the good life

Watching Hala Khalil’s Nawwarah, Hani Mustafa reviews the 25 January Revolution in cinema

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Major political events often tempt artists to depict them, and over the last five years the Egyptian revolution has inspired many filmmakers. Many films dealt with the 25 January Revolution and many were disappointing, with some directors and producers exploiting the historical events commercially with a view to nothing but profit — as if the phenomenal protests that undermined the state, removing its head, were mere tickets to a future screening. On the other hand some producers joined the anti-revolutionary camp, feeling that the turmoil interrupted their lucrative business of making artistically and technically mediocre films, with the 18 days of the sit-in at Tahrir Square resulting in the collapse of the film market for reasons to do with the security breakdown and the audience paying attention only to political coverage and talk shows as opposed to cinematic works.

Some films that had been completed in 2010 and were in post-production when the revolution broke out — Sameh Abdel-Aziz’s Sarkhet Namla (An Ant’s Scream), starring Amr Abdel-Gelil, for example, or Essam Shammaa’s Al-Fagoumi, starring Khaled Al-Sawi — had footage from Tahrir Square or scenes about the revolution added to them despite the fact that the revolution was not part of their dramatic fabric. Comic depictions of the revolution – Tarek Abdel-Moti’s Hazz Said (Good Luck), starring Ahmed Eid, or Ashraf Fayeq’s Tik Tik Boom, starring Mohamed Saad — were likewise rushed and poorly structured, resulting in a viewing experience with neither laughter nor spirit and critics contending that they were purposeful attempts at vilifying the revolution. On the whole commercial cinema dealt very poorly with the 25 January Revolution and its aftermath, but there is a different, more positive side to the story.

Many Egyptian filmmakers offered their own distinctive takes and artistic visions of the revolution, participating in various film events. One example of this was 18 Youm (18 Days) — perhaps the fastest fictional response to the revolution — comprising 10 short films by such figures as Sherif Arafa, Yousri Nassrallah, Sherif Al-Bendari, Ahmed Alaa, Kamla Abu Zikri, Marwan Hamed, Mariam Abu Ouf, Khaled Marei, Mohamed Ali and Ahmed Abdallah. Yet even here only two or three of the film’s 10 parts could be considered artistically sound. 18 Days was screened outside the competition at the Cannes Festival. A year later, Yousri Nassrallah’s Baad Al-Mawqea (After the Battle) was part of the official competition. Relying on improvised dialogue was one good thing about After the Battle, even though the film lacked structure or coherence. Also in 2012, at the Venice Film Festival, Ibrahim Al-Battout’s Al-Sheta Elly Fat (Winter of Discontent) starring Amr Waked was on the Horizons programme. It was somewhat in-your-face and superficial. Far stronger despite its complete lack of dialogue — a somewhat forced affectation — was Ahmed Abdallah’s Farsh we-Ghata (Rags and Tatters(, screened in the 2013 Abu Dhabi Film Festival official competition as well as the Salonica, Montpellier and London festivals.

Documentaries seemed to offer a somewhat stronger take on the topic. Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician, directed by Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama, screened at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Al-Thawra Khabar (Reporting the Revolution), produced by Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper and directed by Bassam Mortada — thought by many critics to be no more than a compendium of revolution-related news footage — was screened at the 2012 Berlinale. Filmmaker Ahmed Rashwan’s Mawloud fi 25 January (Born on 25 January), which dealt with the revolution from a subjective, personal perspective, was screened in the official competition of the Luxor Festival for African Cinema, also in 2012. But perhaps Jihan Noujaim’s Oscar nominee Al-Midan (The Square), which was screened and won the Amnesty International award at the Berlinale in 2014 — as well as the Best Documentary Award at the Dubai Film Festival and other awards — remains the more important documentary contribution “revolutionary cinema”.

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Written and directed by Hala Khalil, Nawwarah is the latest film to weave the revolution into its dramatic structure. It opens with an introduction to the life of the heroine, Nawwarah (Menna Shalabi), showing her extremely poor place of residence in one of Cairo’s indigent neighbourhoods. The camera follows Nawwarah to the villa at which she works as a maid in a gated community outside Cairo, serving Osama (Mahmoud Hemeida), his wife (Sherine Reda) and their daughter (Rahma Hassan), showing the many stages of the journey through various economy transport vehicles to the gate, where she boards one last minibus to the villa.

The director’s choice of location accurately reflects the the economic, social and health conditions of Cairo’s poorest: the lack of clean water, and the toilet shared by several families, for example. In the opening scene Nawwarah is carrying two large water containers she has just filled from a public tap while she walks a long distance to her house — as if this neighbourhood exists outside time and outside the range of state amenities. In a conventional way, without any dialogue, the opening scenes contrast Nawwarah’s place of residence with her affluent place of work.

The temporal setting is determined by a subtitle, “Spring 2011”, indicating the historical situation in which the action takes place. At the time the country was governed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, following the stepping down of Hosni Mubarak. And it is next to impossible to deal with this period audio-visually without falling prey to tired cliches which the viewer has heard and grown bored with. In one scene when Osama and his wife invite a group of friends to dinner, for example, they speak of the revolution as a wave that will fizzle out and an American conspiracy, describing the young revolutionaries as mercenaries whose aim is chaos. The scene feels forced and unnecessarily unpleasant.

In the soundtrack the filmmaker makes use of radio news to clarify the procedures undertaken by the prosecutor-general and the public auditor at that time, freezing the assets of National Democratic Party leaders like Safwat Al-Sherif and Zakaria Azmi. The use of the radio is in fact a tradition in Egyptian cinema, which has imbued many films of the 1980s and 1990s with a distinctive realism associated with neorealist directors like Mohamed Khan. Yet it seems the Nawwarah crew was unable to secure real-life radio news and was therefore obliged to record its own — with the result that it too feels forced and ends up being boring with no object other than communicating certain facts about the political-judicial situation.

The most remarkable aspect of the film is how it is made up of a number of separate stories all of which are organically linked with Nawwarah: Nawwarah and her fiancee Ali (Amir Saleh), for example, have been officially married for five years but are unable to find a place to live and so consummate their marriage; the film somewhat unrealistically depicts their relationship as platonic. More pronounced is Nawwarah’s relationship with her grandmother (Ragaa Hussein), who sells sandwiches and lives with her, suffering constant back pains: at one point the grandmother says to Nawwarah that she is scared that, when she dies, there will be no water with which to wash her corpse. State corruption comes into the story via the failure of the neighbourhood council to connect the houses to the water grid even though the residents have all paid their dues. Likewise the health dimension: Ali’s father is suffering a prostate illness and confined to the state hospital where, having no bed, he sleeps on a blanket on the floor. Ali and Nawwarah bribe the nurse so that she will provide a bed for him to no avail.

At the same time Osama, being an former minister and parliamentarian, is subject to having his assets frozen. Osama’s wife is so terrified she insists that they should all travel to London, where their son lives, asking Nawwarah to live in the villa so that no one will suspect that the family has fled. Thus the various strings of revolution become entangled around the figure of the poor young woman, and though she has a glimpse of the good life that experience soon boomerangs and she awakes to an even greater tragedy than the one with which she started.

Perhaps the acting is the most powerful element in this film, with Menna Shalaby performing her role without the least affectation and a peculiar calm, her smile of contentment never quite covering up the deep melancholy of her life. This is perhaps one of Shalaby’s best performances ever, for which she deserved the Best Actress Award at the 2015 Dubai Film Festival. Nor would it be fair to ignore the brilliance of the veteran Ragaa Hussein, the relative unknown Amir Saleh and star Hemeida, who gives a stellar performance despite his role being small.

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