Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Black comedy, black drama

Screen of discontent: Hani Mustafa on films of the revolution

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Many Egyptian filmmakers inspired by the 25 January revolution sought to make films on the topic, whether about the 18-day sit-in or the aftermath. Some were successful in registering interesting details of life during that time but most have failed. Films on the revolution that were screened in international festivals over the last two years include 18 Days, a compilation of 10-minute films by 10 directors (Youssri Nassrallah, Sherif Arafa, Kamla Abu Zikri, Marwan Hamed, Sherif El-Bendary, Mohammed Ali, Ahmad Abdalla, Ahmad Alaa, Khaled Marie and Mariam Abu Ouf), which premiered on the fringe of Cannes in May 2011, a few months after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Likewise Tahrir: The Good, the Bad and the Political, a three-part documentary by three filmmakers (Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama) and Revolution News, another documentary by Al-Masry Al-Yom journalists, was screened at the 2012 Berlinale. Yet it was Nassrallah's fiction feature After the Battle that competed for the Palm d'Or last year and thus became the most controversial and talked about of "the revolution films". Without exception, and notwithstanding quality, all those films reflect a high degree of confusion and artistic-political compromise.

In Febrayer Al Aswad (Black February), which is no less confused or compromised, screenwriter-filmmaker Mohammed Amin tries to outsmart other directors by basing his work on a sociological reading of the malaise to which Egyptian society had been subject. Amin's films have always reflected the populist take on their political subjects, however unrealistic or conspiracy theory-ridden. In The Night of the Fall of Baghdad (2005), for example, Amin depicted the then widespread nightmare of an American invasion of Cairo along the lines of the 2003 fall of Baghdad. Though extremely superficial and simple-minded, Amin used this idea to create a comedy closer to fantasy than realism, but the result was extremely mediocre. He repeats the experiment in Black February nonetheless, using the premise of the collapse of the middle class -- a half-baked popular with "the man on the street" since the revolution -- as the basis of his work. The triteness is evident from the start, in the way Amin attempts to characterise the class in question: since the Egyptian middle class is the class most interested in education, all the main characters have very major qualifications. They include Dr Hassan (Khaled Salah) and Dr Salah (Tarek Abdel-Aziz), a sociology and chemistry professor who share the same house, along with their families, Hassan's wife Ikhlas (Amal Rizq) and daughter Reem (Mayar Al-Ghaiti) and Salah's wife Essmat (Rania Chahine) as well as his son and daughter. Even Reem's fiance (Yasser El-Tobgy) is a scholar.

The comedy is black from the start. Having failed to find work, the two brothers resorted to establishing a pickles lab which the called Newton Pickles. Amin uses the device of the narrator, Hassan: a two-edged sword that, while imbuing the film with a vaguely literary tone, allows the director to avoid necessary steps in introducing the drama and playing out the ideas. The action thus starts head on with the shock to which the family is subjected when they are caught in quick sand during a desert safari -- saved only incidentally because their group happens to include a State Security (secret political police) officer and a judge. This happens in February two years before the revolution, and it leads Hassan to come up with the theory that the state pays attention to its citizens only if they are in one of three categories: security, the judiciary or business. This is when black comedy really takes off, with the family adopting an extremely opportunistic approach to life as a result of Hassan's theory, attempting to obtain another nationality and breaking Reem's engagement, trying to marry her off to a judge (Ahmad Zaher) and a State Security officer (Edward), both of whom soon become victims of state of corruption and lose their status: the one after revealing rigging in the 2010 elections, the other after trying to stand up to the malpractices of his superiors.

Yet the February incident is not the family's only problem: another recurrent motif is the nightclub next to which they live, a constant source of noise that they can do nothing about because the club's owners have the support of influential government figures. So far, so acceptable: light drama combines with comedy to produce an atmosphere of hysteria. In one scene the family begin to dance spastically to a pumped-up remix of an Um Kalthoum song, signalling their connection to the homeland, but the scene is marred when Amin has them doing the same to 1980s pop -- the better to rid themselves of that connection -- thereby eliminating the irony and reversing the momentum. This is all in the context of their attempt to immigrate, but on the failure of that attempt the comedy becomes extremely unfunny as they hatch a plan to have the young women give birth on a plane on its way to a western country in order for the babies to have the nationality of that country and the young man become a professional footballer. The dramatic development is too naive for words, with the women, for example, giving birth after a crash landing in Africa. Likewise the ending: after Reem is committed to the State Security officer, Hassan wakes up to hear the famous chant, "The people want to topple the regime." The revolution has put an end to his plans.

***

From this film as much as many recent comedies it is clear that the manufacture of laughter in Egyptian commercial cinema is going through a crisis, and if this problem persists the audience will no doubt stop attending comic films -- thereby defeating the very object of comedy -- which happened once before. The emergence of what has been termed new-wave comedy in the 1990s with film stars Mohammed Heneidi, Mohammed Saad and the late Alaa Waleyeddin did play a role in bringing audiences back into film theatres but the tendency soon resulted in spontaneity and verve turning into laboured futility, and the queues at the box office soon disappeared. The present cinematic car crash is but another example of such miscalculation.

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Another recent film that deals with the events of the revolution is filmmaker Ibrahim El-Battout'sEl shita elli fat (literally "Last winter", English title: Winter of Discontent), and contributing to the confusion with which the silver screen has tackled this topic, it comes across as the cinematic reflection of the confusions and failures of the revolution itself at the present point. The badly translated title is a reference to union strikes in late-1970s Britain. Yet this is no different from El-Battout's previous films (the medium-length Ithaka and the full-length Ain Shams and Hawi): slow-paced, Eastern Europe-style work that prioritises style, in which even dialogue is uttered in a manner that is exaggeratedly slow. This was particularly evident in Hawi, which relied on the inner impulses of the characters rather than drama -- or tried to. Yet the script of the present film, written by Yasser Na'im and Habi Saud, makes it very difficult for El-Battout to apply his style; so does the dramatic subject matter itself. The tempo required for the kind of political events dealt with here, with the time frame shifting between 2009 and 2011, must needs be fast. There is no room in this kind of film for the kind of psychic probing and artsy pretence on which El-Battout is building his name. It is the story of an activist couple, Amr (Amr Waked) and Farah (Farah Youssef), and their relations with a State Security officer (Salah Hanafi).

The personal details of Amr and Farah are not sufficiently clear in the film. We know that Farah is a TV presenter who works for state television, but is Amr a computer programmer or a video editor? He has four monitors on his desk, on which he is constantly reviewing political material. Perhaps he is the admin of a Facebook page like "We are all Khaled Said", to which he uploads videos. The principal dramatic focus of the film is that Amr is abducted by State Security, where he spends several months being tortured. He is released to find that his diabetic mother, who had been looking for him in vain, has died of grief over his disappearance. The film gives us nothing on Farah apart from the crisis that drives her to resign from state television on realising how unethical and unprofessional she was required to be. El-Battout replays a real-life episode that happened more than once in the course of the revolution: someone calls the presenter to give testimony from Tahrir Square when that person is in fact in the studio and all they are saying is fabricated in the interest of the regime. The script provides no other clue to the two young characters: how they met, how they came to be so much in love and why their love faltered after Amr's experience with State Security, who they are at the human or the social level.

Likewise the third character, the State Security officer: he is equally unconvincing. He is someone who is always scowling, even with members of his own family at his luxurious villa which is far too posh for an average state employee. There is no substance to his character apart from such negativity, whether he is berating his subordinates or supervising torture. Nor does the film make up for such two-dimensional humanity. There are very few scenes in the film that are worth stopping at, perhaps only two or three. In one, the officer has arrested the imam of a mosque and has him sitting in his office. He presents him with a cold drink and a glass of water, asking him to drink both, and leaves -- only to present him with a new round. The drinks keep coming in the absence of the officer until the sheikh breaks down and urinates in his clothes. Then the officer reappears and very coolly orders him to stop inciting people who pray the mosque against the state, having rendered him perfectly compliant. Another scene is the interrogation of a group of activists in an abandoned schoolyard, and it is notable for its visual beauty more than anything else. In the end all the film manages to do is remould the discourse of online activism into a fragile drama with a weak storyline.

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