Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Flights of realism

Hani Mustafa attends Mohamed Khan’s new film

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Mohamed Khan is among the most important members of the neorealist film school of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which includes major directors of the same generation like Atef Al-Tayyib, Khairi Bishara and Dawoud Abdel-Sayed. They were a group of filmmakers who rebelled against the studio-bound realism of Kamal Selim, Salah Abu-Saif and Tawfik Saleh and went out onto the streets to film, as it were, in situ. Partly perhaps to cope with the economic problems that hit Egypt and the film industry after the 1973 war by cutting on the costs of sets, the neorealists depicted the environment as it was. Yet their subject matter was similar to that of the first generation of realists, focusing on economic and social issues especially in the lower echelons of society.

With films such as Al-Raghba (Desire, 1980, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), Darbet Shams (Sunstroke, 1978), Taer Ala Al-Tareeq (A Bird on the Road, 1981), Mawed Ala Al-Ashaa (A Dinner Appointment, 1982), Al-Harreef (The Artful, 1983), Kharag Wa Lamm Yaoud (Gone and Never Came Back, 1984), Awdet Mowaten (Return of a Citizen, 1986), Zawget Ragol Mohem (The Wife of an Important Man, 1987) and Ahlam Hind Wa Camilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia, 1988) as well as the more recent Supermarket (1990), Khan was instrumental to the emergence of the new school. Over a 35-year-long career, he has shown more interest in realism than any other subject matter, even though he often adopts elements of such genres as the thriller – as in Sunstroke. He employs a distinctive dramatic structure, adding a hyperrealist soundtrack of street sounds, and often replacing music with recordings of actual radio broadcasts. Khan has also always embraced experimentation and independent cinema, being the first to make a digital film, Klephty – which sadly was not very widely seen – in 2003.

In his latest film, Qabl Zahmet Al-Seif (Before the Summer Crowds), Khan offers another distinctive feature written by Ghada Shahbandar. It is clear from the title that the film is set in a coastal resort area at a time other than the holidays. The setting, a North Coast Mediterranean resort named Blue Beach off peak, turns out to be part and parcel of the story, which revolves around a cast of characters who are seeking quiet and seclusion but for different reasons in each case. In the opening scene the camera trails the janitor Gomaa (Ahmad Dawoud) while he buys the newspapers or other items from outside the resort, doing some gardening at the villas and helping out with hand work that might be needed. In the process we are introduced to the three main characters: Doctor Yehia (Maged Al-Kidwani), a hospital director and co-owner, and his wife Doctor Magda (Lana Mushtaq); as well as a good-looking and well-dressed lady, Hala (Hana Shiha) who is seen smoking quietly under the umbrella every morning. Apart from the couple and the mysterious woman, the resort is deserted.

The filmmaker does not concern himself too much with the details of the three characters’ motivation for being at Blue Beach, which are hinted at without playing any role in the action. Through phone calls with his partner at the hospital, for example, we find out that Yehia has escaped being implicated in the criminal investigation of a mistake made by one of the younger doctors working at the hospital. Magda, for her part, is with her husband reluctantly. She has serious reservations about the way he leads his life and manages the hospital – his willingness to employ incompetent physicians to save on salaries, for example – but feels bound to her husband, whom she nonetheless treats with a haughtiness bordering on cruelty. At one point it becomes clear that Yehia was an assistant to Magda’s late father, who adopted and pushed him to success, coming from a lower class as he did. Then again, perhaps the tension between the two spouses is due to the fact that their son has left them to study abroad.

Hala, for her part, is a divorcee who works as an interpreter-translator and phones her mother daily to check on her two children. It is clear that her mother thinks she is away in Alexandria, for work. Hala is in a relationship with an actor, Hisham (Hani Al-Metnawi), who has turned 44 without making a  break in his career. She has rented out the villa next to hers for him to come and see her – it seems this is the true reason she is here – only to discover that he has been sleeping with the producer of the TV series he is working on. When she confronts him he points out she has no right to be angry since he is not her husband but merely her lover.

Gomaa, on the other hand, who is filling in for his recently married brother, is hoping to obtain a job through one of the resort residents while he is here. But he completes the picture of a disparate group of people who, having ended up in the isolation of dead time, continue to show a love of life and an eagerness to fulfil their simple desires, which they can only incompletely do.

Here as elsewhere in his work Khan manages to use basic details to reveal the class, culture and psyche of the characters, sometimes layering signifiers to achieve a more complex cinematic language. This is the case in those scenes that explain Yehia and Magda’s relationship: Magda is a heavy, gruff woman who repulses Yehia’s attempt at lovemaking, leading to him sleeping in a separate room – though the viewer can see her rapturously enjoying a spoonful of Nutella in the middle of the night. Yehia, on the other hand, uses his binoculars to watch Hala sunbathing. Gomaa too is aroused by Hala: Khan uses the device of the garden hose frothing between his legs to show how excited she makes him. Hisham arrives wearing a toupee, which he loses in the course of saving Hala from drowning (much as he will lose the image she has of him).

Though few and far between, shots of Yehia and Magda’s parrot in its cage – and of the resort’s stray cats watching it with ravenous intent - also symbolically illustrate the complex tension. In about of jealousy, when he overhears Yehia inviting Hala to dinner, Gomaa lets the parrot out for the cats to devour, and by next morning the tension between husband and wife, resulting from the dinner invitation, has peaked. Such is the tenor of the drama: there is almost no conflict as such. Only at two points does the tension come to a head: when, having prepared a romantic dinner for Hisham, their conversation escalates into a the fight that sees Hisham off (within minutes, while Hala is there, Yehia arrives to invite her to dinner); and when Yehia and Magda start fighting.

In character, the film ends without incident except for the arrival of summer at Blue Beach: Hala’s children arrive for the summer holiday while Yehia and Magda stay as they are. Gomaa’s brother arrives to take Gomaa’s place while the latter travels to the unknown. Together with the editor Dina Farouk, Khan masters a beautiful rhythm that allows them to deal with the action quietly and smoothly, overcoming the difficulty presented by the lack of a conventional storyline. Critics have been misguided to mistake the recurrent motifs for monotony, even though they may have been led on by Khan’s propensity to present straight drama. In this film Khan departs from this tendency. He also presents a remarkable experiment that adds to and deepens his achievement, confirming his reputation as the most adventurous realist and one of the most unfailingly enjoyable filmmakers.

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