Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Dashing to Dada

Hani Mustafa on Egyptian cinema’s latest, unlikely collaboration

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In the first few days of its screening Yousry Nasrallah’s new film, Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces, has left film critics – somewhat aghast – debating each other. Different commentators stressed different points but the central question has been what drove a filmmaker of Nasrallah’s orientation to collaborate with screenwriter Ahmad Abdalla and producer Ahmad Al-Sobki (the latter two, with film star Mohamed Ramadan, celebrated for an entirely different form of filmmaking)?

Al-Sobki has formed the core of commercial cinema for some time now, being the only company that managed to survive the five lean years since the January revolution in 2011, keeping cinematic production going when no other company would. Capitalising on the holiday and Eid seasons, it has offered a steady stream of medium-quality comedy and action films that include various degrees of vulgarity which, despite always winning at the box office, have brought it under attack from society’s would-be moral guardians. The problem with these commercial films is that their directors were given very little time in which to make them, less than three weeks in some cases, which reduced their artistic value compared to action or comedy films of the past (some of which were more or less on a par with their counterparts the world over).

Even compared to its own productions, like Sameh Abdel-Aziz’s 2008 Cabaret, also written by Ahmad Abdalla (a pillar of the New Wave comedy of the 1990s and 2000s), Al-Sobki seemed to be going downhill. After numerous films featuring such New Wave superstars as Mohamed Heneidi, the late Alaa Waleyeddin, Ahmad Helmi and Mohamed Saad – their directors ranging from Sherif Arafa to Wael Ihasan – Abdalla wrote Cabaret as if to try his hand at a “serious”, tragic feature. And the film was a box office hit even though artistically it was superficial, direct and full of cliches and preaching. Abdalla went on writing this kind of film: Sameh Abdel Aziz’s Al-Farah (The Wedding, 2009) and Al-Leila Al-Kebira (The Big Night, 2015) as well as Wael Ihasan’s Saa’a w’ Noss (An Hour and a Half, 2012). In the hands of Abdalla and Al-Sobki, such films have formed a new kind of film that belongs less to comedy or action than to a new genre of commercial film that might be called Sobki.

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As for Nasrallah, who first emerged in the 1980s as an assistant to the late Youssef Chahine, he made his first film, Summer Thefts, in 1988. It was the boldest of things – an autobiographical debut – but its boldness also involved a new dramatic structure and a unique approach to directing, distinct from every other member of Nasrallah’s generation. The film dealt with the internal problems of an upper middle class family that has fallen on hard times since the 1952 revolution. The film, which was classified as belonging to Chahine’s directorial school, won the first prize at the Bergamo Film Meeting in Italy; it was Nasrallah’s first step on a decades-long red carpet. In Mercedes (1993), his second film, which participated in the official competition at the Locarno Film Festival, Nasrallah went on dealing with the trials of the upper echelons; to intensify the sense of social and cultural isolation associated with that kind of privilege in a clever way, Nasrallah made his hero an albino.

In On Boys, Girls and the Veil (1995), a documentary of remarkable honesty and tenderness, Nasrallah moved onto the lower echelons, taking stock of the Wahhabi transformation that beset Egyptian society as exemplified in a poor suburb of Giza governorate, with a strict religious code becoming the norm. But in so doing he was really documenting the feelings that boys and girls develop for each other beyond a certain age. Four years later her was to make one of his best films, The City (1999), in which he maintained his interest in the lower classes; it is the story of a lower middle class young man whose ambition takes him to Paris, where his suffering turns out to be a mirror image of his suffering back in Cairo. The City was screened in Locarno’s official competition and it won numerous awards there, including the Crossair Special Prize; in 2000 it was also screened at the Carthage Festival in Tunis, where the lead actor, Bassem Samra won the best actor prize.

In 2004, Nasrallah released his best-known film, the two-part epic Gate of the Sun, based on the eponymous Elias Khoury novel which documents the plight of the Palestinians starting in 1948, through the story of a family that went through every major stage in the process of dispossession. Gate of the Sun was screened outside the official competition at Cannes, and it seemed to mark the end of a road for the inventive director. His next work, the 2008 Aquarium, evidenced a great desire to experiment; Nasrallah had the actor speak directly to the camera as a way of breaking the fictional spell, for example. The film participated in the official competition at the Dubai, Nantes Three Continents and Tribeca festivals, among other international events.

Nasrallah followed it up in 2009 with Sheherazade, Tell me a Story, a far more conservative film written by the celebrated screenwriter Wahid Hamid. Hamid’s brand of political-social satire, especially in comic format, as a vehicle for superstar Adel Imam, had proved a winning recipe in Terrorism and Kebab (1992), among other films. Sheherazade was screened outside the competition at the 2009 Venice Film Festival and won the best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress prizes at the Alexandria Film Festival in 2010 (the prizes went to Mona Zaki, Mohamed Ramadan and Rehab Al-Gamal, respectively). Nasrallah’s initial response to the revolution in 2011 was a short film that formed part of the celebrated 10 short films compendium 18 Days. In the same year as Ahmad Abdallah and Ahmad Al-Sobki’s second foray into “serious” filmmaking, 2012, his revolution film After the Battle was screened in the official competition of the Cannes Film Festival. It might have been the peak of Nasrallah’s career, but back at home it generated much political controversy, notably in activist and revolutionary circles.

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Up until 2005, Nasrallah had relied on the French producer Humbert Balsan, often in the form of a successful coproduction with Chahine’s Masr International (led by Gabriel and Marianne Khoury). With Balsan’s death, however, Nasrallah immersed himself in the Egyptian film market by working first with Wahid Hamid, whose influence is huge, and now with Al-Sobki. With Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces – currently showing – Nasrallah enters a new setting: the municipality of Bilqas near Mansoura in the Nile Delta governorate of Daqahliya. The film opens with a huge party being held at the house of one of the town’s wealthiest residents, Farid Abu Raya (Ahmad Farrag). Farid Abu Raya’s political role as an MP comes through in a panoramic shot of one of the town’s alleyways, which includes electoral publicity that features him. The point is made that political power and economic influence go together.

Cooking at Abu Rya’s house are the cooks Rifaat Yahya (Basem Samra), his brother Galal Yahya (Ahmad Dawoud) and their father Chef Yahya Al-Tabbakh (the family name means “the cook”, much as Abu Raya means “of the banners”), also the owner of a small hotel in the area, played by Alaa Zeinhom. The details of the scene reveal only a small piece of information cited by the Bilqas head of security: that there had been a disagreement between the two families, Abu Raya and Al-Tabbakh, and that this party is meant to seal their reconciliation. The film then goes back in time to hint at the origin of the disagreement, connecting with many dramatic lines without focusing on any one.

Here as elsewhere in the film Nasrallah stresses food alongside love as two aspects of sensuality; but there is no real sensuality in the cooking. There is rather an intellectual appreciation of its subtleties when, while making a liver and kidney dish requested by Shadia (Laila Elwi), Refaat fails to find any thyme – and so he uses coriander instead and he bets Galal that Shadia will not find out. This prompts Yahya to tell them of when he had a similar bet with the pasha for whom he worked and won a gold watch, later moving into the service of an army general – an allusion to the transfer of power from the aristocracy to the army after the revolution of 1952, something that has preoccupied Nasrallah since Summer Thefts.

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On the one hand there is Abu Raya’s desire to buy Al-Tabbakh’s hotel so that he can tear it down and develop the surrounding area: a rather conventional trope, decades old, that nonetheless reflects the historical conflict between seasoned connoisseurs of taste who had survived the totalitarian era under President Nasser and the nouveau riche class that emerged under President Sadat’s Open-door policy. Nasrallah illustrates this affiliation of Abu Raya’s with much visual exaggeration, reinforcing the aesthetics of ugliness (and the underlying evil) associated with this class of person. He emphasises Abu Raya’s way of dressing, his mustachio and his hair, and he shows his wife Om Roqaya (Sabrin) wearing silver studded robes under her hijab. Taking evil or at least power to extremes, she is seen patting a lion cub in her own bed.

Thus the traditional good vs evil format is established, since the Tabbakh family represents good. But this exaggerated ugliness is not a feature of the bad guys alone, for the same aesthetic governs the good guys’ life as well. Unlike such buildings in previous treatments of this theme, the hotel being preserved has no special value or beauty capable of transforming it from a mere place to the symbol of a way of life or an aesthetic sensibility. The same garish colours can be seen, along with the same emphasis on ugliness – a kind of mixture between real-life, lower class bad taste and Bollywood colourfulness – which reaches an apogee in the shaabi song performed by Mahmoud Al-Leithi alongside a belly dancer whose suit has a large red heart at both breasts and backside, and whose performance is pointedly obscene. The song goes on for a good few minutes without any purpose or reason beyond injecting the film with a concentrated dose of ugliness, but this is also the moment at which the Nasrallah film seems to devolve into a Sobki feature.

In one scene while Yahya’s niece Karima (Menna Shalabi), Refaat’s fiancee, is helping Abu Raya’s divorcee Shadia to clean her apartment, she removes a piece of fabric to reveal the original upholstery in garish, discordant colours; and Shadia tells her to keep the ugly upholstery hidden because it reminds her of her former husband, who chose it; and he has such bad taste. Yet as the rest of the apartment is shown it becomes increasingly clear that nothing in it is any less ugly.

The good vs evil format is actually employed as a background to a variety of relations, the most important of which is the four-way relationship between Refaat, Karima, Shadia and Galal. Refaat and Karima are expected to marry, but they feel only a brotherly-sisterly affection for each other. It is gradually revealed that Refaat is in fact in love with Shadia, who has returned to Belqas after a long time away; and Karima is in love with Galal, a widower, whose son she has motherly feelings for. Other details remain unclear: Galal – a proud young man and a sensualist who, unlike Refaat, responds to the advances of the bridegroom’s sister in law at a wedding where the three cooks are to provide the food – has dodged military conscription; and he spent some time in jail after beating up an officer who insulted him by his mother.

The most dramatic story involves the Tabbakh-affiliated singer Ashour (Mohamed Al-Sharnoubi), who after having a urfi (or unrecorded) marriage with Abu Raya’s daughter Faten (Lama Kotkot), is set upon by Abu Raya’s thugs, who cut off his penis and leave him to die by the canal. This is when the reconciliation takes place, when Refaat and Galal convince Abu Raya they will sell him the hotel once he gives a large party to be attended by everyone in the village. And in the course of the party, aided and abetted by other disinherited residents of Belqas, the two brothers manage to capture the thug responsible for killing Ashour and have him confess to his crime and to Abu Raya inciting him to it in front of the head of security and the governor. It is an eminently revolutionary scene, and it takes the form of a populist revolt against injustice...

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No doubt like many others who have seen the film, I am profoundly perplexed: what could have prompted such a shift in a filmmaker like Nasrallah? But perhaps the aesthetics of ugliness, which first emerged following the First World War with the likes of Hannah Hoch and Marcel Duchamp, are becoming relevant again. Perhaps Nasrallah is pioneering a kind of revival of Dadaism, then again perhaps he is (consciously or unconsciously) evoking the famous film, the 1973 La Grande Bouffe for which Marco Ferreri received the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Festival.

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