Friday,19 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Friday,19 October, 2018
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

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From the psychological thriller to the stage: Nora Amin discusses Egyptian voyeurism

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While we have been happily celebrating Eid despite the economic situation, Ramdan TV continues to echo with emotional and artistic impact. Two very successful series deserve in-depth coverage: 30 Days and This Evening.

The first, directed by Hossam Aly, is a thriller that never seized to surprise us with the crimes it showed being committed every day. A style and form that we are not so accustomed to in Ramadan, it allowed us to experience what a psychological drama really means. Beyond the social drama, betrayal and vendetta episodes, 30 Days does explore human behaviour in a psychological manner through the sample of Dr Tarek Helmy (played by Asser Yassin) who falls prey to the psychopathic anonymous perpetrator Sameh (played by Bassel Khayyat). 30 Days delivers exactly what it promises from the beginning: every day and every episode there is a new thriller, a new alarm, a new complexity, a new mystery, a new open and unanswered question, and above all a new challenge to the artistic team to keep the adrenaline rushing and to preserve the dramatic tension without failure.

It is rare for a television series to maintain such coherence and consistency without mistakes over a period of 30 days, holding the thread to the end while keeping the viewer’s attention and sustaining the the suspense. 30 Days would have been much easier to do had it been a movie or a play, since the challenge of extending the plot over 30 days is irreversible. The acting challenges faced by Asser Yassin and Bassel Khayyat are equally demanding. It would have been easy to fall into the trap of reproducing the character every day, of merely escalating the danger and the tension without showing the development of the psychological fabric of the character. Yassin definitely managed the very sensitive operation of revealing slowly and thoroughly the psychological development of the character while it faces life-changing danger and confronts death every day for a whole month. This gradual revelation, this slow development, is a craft of expression – of controlling the dose of expression every day in order to create the perfect buildup synced with reality. I should add to this the fact that video shooting obliges the crew to shoot scenes out of their normal succession, which means an even greater challenge for the actors – especially Asser Yassin – who must jump from one situation to another and back again, with the separated by days if not weeks. It is thus necessary to keep track of and mark the psychological phases and progressions in order to easily go back and forth. Such a process in acting is actually equivalent to the imaginary psychological torture the character is facing, it poses the danger of really affecting the consciousness and psychological control of the actor especially if there is a large number of scenes involving psychological breaks. Yassin passed the test with rare cinematic stamina.

One can easily notice the difference in the modes of acting, between Yassin and Khayyat, yet this difference is mainly due to the difference between the two characters: one is a sane psychotherapist who lives an almost normal life; the other remains for the largest part of the story an anonymous, mysterious man who behaves in a strange way and seems to have outbursts of anger and an incomprehensible need for revenge taking him to the edge of crime. The second character is a psychopath, a perfectly theatrical character that requires a certain theatricality in acting to render the required dose of drama.

One can easily classify Yassin in this TV series as a movie actor, while classifying Khayyat as a stage actor, yet those classifications are classifications of the characters they play rather than classifications of their own crafts as actors. The normal Tarek is played in a spontaneous and easy-going cinematic mode while the complicated and mentally sick Sameh is played in a complex and exaggerated theatrical mode. The mode of acting translates the character’s psychology. Even off stage, however, both actors use their stage experience and their stage references to set the acting dose right.

The main achievement of 30 Days is that the psychological experiment attempted by Sameh also succeeds as an acting experiment to slowly and gradually develop and reveal the psychological effects and dimensions of transformation under traumatic experiences of pain and danger. Yassin does succeed in extending the emotion of transforming from good to evil over the period of 30 days, he manages to control the dose of expression and in examining the psychological repercussions of trauma to help us as viewers figure out how we too have been transforming due to our own extended traumas of danger and inhalation.

***

The second model series is This Evening, written and directed by Tamer Mohsen, who manages to overcome the conventions of TV drama and ethical hypocrisy. He portrays the female characters in a genuine and authentic way without moral prejudice or judgment. He goes as far as accusing contemporary society of sexual abuse and blackmail, and rids the female figure of the concept of shame – traditionally a taboo since shame has been for ages connected to any female figure and especially outside the sphere of the elderly and the mother figure. And that is why This Evening can be regarded as a revolutionary piece, especially since it had been set to be screened in the religious month of Ramadan when nobody usually dares to cross any barriers.

Tamer Mohsen presents a story that is liberating on all fronts. Not only does he tackle the very complex relation of love between man and woman with a focus on its sexual component, he also criticises the current patterns of electronic and digital sexual blackmail in which the female tends to be the prey and must succumb to new tactics of rape and psychological manipulation. All the female characters in This Evening are flesh-and-blood people who overcome the stereotypes and the clichés of the female characters in Egyptian drama, whether on screen or on stage. 

Hanan Metawei provides a genuine model of the average female who falls in love. As an actress she manages to reveal her femininity and her sexuality without compromise, without objectification and without seeking refuge in pretension and social negotiation. She agrees to be a secret second wife but she continues with the rest of her choices with full dignity. She keeps her baby with the triumph of a single mother, a single woman who lives alone and runs a successful business on her own. The character she plays and the way she plays it could be an enormous offering to Egyptian theatre, which is also still in many cases a hostage to social hypocrisy and fake acting. 

The character of Samir, played by Ahmed Dawood, expresses a moment that is rare in the history of Egyptian drama when he watches the video of the girl he loves Toqqa (the beautiful and talented theatre actress Asmaa Abul-Yazid) being raped on screen. I imagine the gigantic amount of secret videos of Egyptian women being raped and blackmailed and raped and blackmailed all over again, and how this has never been expressed on screen or stage before, and I am deeply thankful for Tamer Mohsen for creating this, especially during Ramadan, and for furnishing us for the first time ever with female characters who defy the image of the victim, and who defeat our prejudice of shame and honour. Toqqa reverses her image from victim to heroine by publishing her own story on social media, her confession becoming her ultimate liberation while also spreading the news of her sin and alleged shame. By announcing shame she denounces it. By facing the shame and transforming it she triumphs over the sexual blackmail. It’s a choice that is ideal, and yet very difficult for women to in a society that is sexually obsessed. The brave act of Toqqa is the equivalent of burning down the destroyed old movie theatre attached to the blackmailers’ centre of operations, it it burning down the headquarters of crime, burning down the ancient society of voyeurism, of contaminated spectatorship, the epidemic stage. 

Tamer Mohsen invites us to investigate the platforms and stages of our mutual voyeurism and exhibitionism beyond right and wrong. Guided by his faith in the characters he created, and by his belief that art has to overcome prejudice and moral judgment, he brings to the screen the theatricality of our emotional plots, and he brings to life a rare sincerity and justice in the representation of female characters. I  wish those characters and the way they were portrayed could be extended to the Egyptian stage. It would be a real honour to the stage.

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