Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Green and greener

Hani Mustafa was pleased with Mohamed Hammad’s debut

Withered Green
Withered Green

The last few years have negatively impacted investment in the Egyptian economy, especially at the long and complex revenue cycle. Yet at the same time the last few years have produced filmmakers whose work is honest in substance and adventurous in form. They go beyond the usual commercial approaches to narrative and direction in Egyptian filmmaking. Mohamed Hammad’s debut Withered Green — released last year, and screened this week at Zawya — is one such film. 

Like Hala Lotfi’s Coming Forth by Day (2012), to which it was persuasively likened during the screening, Withered Green is an example of a new mode of filmmaking. Partly to reduce production costs, both films adopt an aesthetic of real-life locations and amateur or first-time actors. But more potently both take a critical approach to reality without relying on the tragic format of 1950s’ realism or 1980s’ neorealism. Both also have minimal dialogue and an abundance of daily-life detail. It is a new stage of realism forming slowly but surely in the midst of conflict, violence and economic recession. And, also like Coming Forth by Day, which won the New Horizons prize at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival — among many other nominations and awards — Withered Green won a number of awards including the best director prize at the Dubai Film Festival last year.

The arts employ metaphor and implication, central elements in what is called the language of cinema, which employs them in the picture and soundtrack as well as the content. Hammad introduces his 30-something heroine, Iman (Heba Ali), watering the plants in her balcony. It’s a panoramic shot revealing that they are all different kinds of cactus — a preliminary indication of the central metaphor of greenery that is the opposite of lush. 

The story begins with Iman at her gynaecologist’s with a strange complaint: she is definitely not pregnant, but she hasn’t had her period for two months. Suspecting a malignant tumour, the doctor asks for tests — something the script never returns to until the end, when on her next visit Iman shows the doctor her test results and, seeing that there is no tumour, he explains to her that a certain proportion of women experience a premature menopause. This sad moment in Iman’s life is arguably the most crucial, but the drama does not dwell it. Instead, the film uses this metaphor to explore the nature of man-woman relations in grassroots Cairo.

Iman lives with her younger sister Noha (Asmaa Fawzi) in a flat at an old popular neighbourhood. This is significant as it determines much of the social and cultural background of the lower middle-class characters. Iman is a branch manager at a chain patisserie, selling Oriental as well as Western deserts. She is a religious and conservative person, who seems to have dedicated her life to raising Noha since her parents passed away. However, at one point Noha refers to Iman’s failed engagement to her cousin Ahmed, shedding a different kind of light on Iman.

The principal dramatic event is Noha’s anticipated engagement. Hammad depicts Iman’s efforts to bring over one of her three paternal uncles to attend the engagement — a long journey in search of a patriarch — evidencing the patriarchal culture. She only needs the man to be present for show, to show dignity before the bridegroom’s family, but her first attempt fails because her uncle’s wife suspects she might require financial as well as moral support. The second uncle will be away in the Gulf, where he works. The third, Ahmed’s father, whose health is failing, agrees to attend only to fall ill the morning of the engagement. While visiting him Iman has a brief, cold encounter with her former fiancé. 

Here as elsewhere the sense of atrophy that surrounds Iman’s life is clear in photographer Mohamed Al-Sharkawi’s brilliant use of pale colours and dim lighting, especially indoors. Hammad relies on the Metro, which breaks the static routine with noise and motion, to punctuate Iman’s forays out of the house, whether to work or in search of her uncles. The image of a turtle very slowly moving its limbs is apt, but when at the end of the film Hammad shows a close-up of the animal on its back struggling to return to its normal position — a more or less clear indication that it has reached the end of its life — one feels that Hammad is getting carried away with his symbolism. Likewise the two sisters buying and installing curtains, which cover and protect them, but the symbolism becomes too in-your-face when in the process they start complaining about the condition of the walls (in Egyptian culture the wall is a direct reference to the man in a woman’s life).  

When Iman finds out she is menopausal she makes the revolutionary decision to lose her virginity, which she does with her own hand in the bathroom. It is a somewhat shocking scene, but it completes the picture of a girl who has saved herself for a man only to be let down, and who no longer has any hope of bearing children. Another possible implication is that she wanted to see herself bleeding one last time. The film ends with her in the Metro again, going through a dark tunnel. The director’s skill is evident not only in pacing and emphasis but also in coaching the actors; Heba Ali had never acted before, but she gives a stunning performance.

The point of independent cinema is not resisting the mainstream but making room for new directors to explore new areas of creativity and imagination. It seems the rate of good independent films is rising in Egyptian cinema and that is cause for optimism. Perhaps we are poised to see several good films being produced every year from now on. 

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