Friday,23 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)
Friday,23 March, 2018
Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Dream interrupted

Hani Mustafa is disappointed in Egyptian film’s latest take on the American Dream

Dream interrupted
Dream interrupted

For many reasons, the American Dream has presented Egyptian filmmakers with a compelling topic through the years. Immigration in itself is a powerful dramatic element, since the thought of leaving everyone around you and uprooting yourself lends itself to powerful dramatic treatment. This is especially true when the drama centres on preparing for the impending departure as in Dawoud Abdel-Sayed’s 1993 Dream Land, written by Hani Fawzi. In that film the late Faten Hamama plays an elderly woman the day before she leaves for America to join her children. The woman loses her passport, and much of the film follows her as she retraces her steps where she might find it. In this way the film reveals the tension between the woman’s desire to remain and her promise to her son (Hisham Selim) to leave. Another film that deals with the same topic is Khairi Bishara’s 1990 Amrika Shika Bika, written by Medhat Al-Adl, which depicts a group of Egyptian America-bound immigrants-to-be who, betrayed by their travel coordinator, end up stranded in Romania. The value of the film, which depicts their adventures in Romania, resides in the diversity of the characters, who all belong to the poorer echelons of the middle class and were driven to immigrate by economic and personal troubles. 

The desire to immigrate becomes obsessive when a person gives up hope in their own future and so begins to look for an alternative life path. No doubt the idea of immigrating to the US has tempted Egyptians for decades, and no doubt the temptation doubled after the collapse of Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s nationalist project and the two subsequent regimes of Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak being much closer to America, an ally that, as Sadat put it, “controls 99 per cent of the political game”. On the other hand, economic difficulties under these regimes drove people to the American Dream. In Mohamed Amin’s 2013 Black February, a respectable university professor who feels the entire middle class has lost its status and dignity with only security and political parties enjoying any power or ease of living persuades his family of the need to give up their attachment to Egypt and emigrate, even though the US is not specified as their desired destination.

In screenwriter Khaled Diab’s directorial debut Induced Labour, written by Khaled, Shirine and Mohamed Diab, Hussein (Maged Al-Kidwani) and his wife Heba (Horeya Farghali) are at the American Consulate trying to obtain a visa; Heba is at a late stage of her pregnancy with twins. When the immigration officer decides to refuse their request, Hussein asks his wife to step into the toilet and swallow a pill that will induce labour. And so the drama relies on a combination of human crisis and black comedy. The formulae to which Diab resorts could have transported the film into a more effective artistic space had he avoided the strictures of realism. The action escalates as Hussein takes control of the security guard’s weapon and holds everyone at the consulate hostage with the sole demand that a doctor should deliver his twins on the consulate grounds, thereby giving them American citizenship. 

Diab is not in the least interested in providing the human background to explain Hussein and Heba’s motives; focusing on the hostages, he instead concerns himself with detailing the situation and interactions of a small number of people in a confined space — a well-worn theatrical and cinematic tactic that he previously employed in Clash (2016), directed by his brother Mohamed. Yet it was the political subject matter that helped the latter film to succeed, covering up the Diab brothers’ use of clichés and over-explanation. Such weaknesses are far more evident in Induced Labour, in which the general atmosphere and theme are not as compelling. The script is filled with the stories and the lies that the characters tell in order to obtain a visa, the comic potential of which Diab tries to exploit. But this is overdone. Mustafa Khater plays a young man who failed his medical exams and forged a university degree in order to get the visa, but — too eager to demonstrate his comic abilities — he ends up sounding less like a semi-educated salesman (which is what he is) than a tok-tok driver who never went to primary school. 

Diab wants to showcase the kinds of people who seek out a visa to America with a view to making us laugh: two macho hoodlums trying to pass themselves off as a persecuted gay couple, for example, one of whom tries to pick up a transvestite in the conviction that he is dealing with a woman only to back off when he realises it’s a man. But his efforts are not only unconvincing, they are also positively unpleasant. Another young man says he has converted to Christianity: he was Mohamed and he became Shenouda; when asked to pray for those being held hostages, however, he can only begin a Christian prayer before lapsing into purely Islamic devotions and exposing himself. Diab’s mawkishness knows no bounds: the transvestite turns out to be more courageous than the fake gay man, and so another hostage calls the latter a lesbian. 

The script also covers the crisis management efforts underway outside the consulate, with the American ambassador (played by the Tunisian actor Nejib Belhassen) and the Cairo security chief (Sayed Ragab) coordinating with each other. Diab uses the relationship between these to characters to comically summarise the relationship between the American and the Egyptian governments: when a sniper targets Hussein and the security chief thinks she hit him he brags to the ambassador about Egypt having the best snipers in the world; but when he realises that the bullet merely brushed Hussein’s shoulder, making the situation worse, he declares that “we have no snipers in Egypt in the first place” — a statement made by then minister of interior Mansour Al-Eissawi after the 25 January Revolution.

In more general terms the director’s desire to present a cast of characters accompanying the hero on his quest for a visa surpasses his concern with creating tightly knit drama or rational narrative. A comparison with Sherif Arafa’s 1992 landmark Terrorism and Kebab shows just how ineffective Diab’s effort is, compared to Arafa’s ability to construct a coherent plot around the idea of an ordinary citizen ending up in Hussein’s shoes. When Hussein leaves his weapon aside, for example — which happens frequently — no one bothers to pick it up. The mawkish superficiality is carried through to the end when the ambassador halts the security forces’ advance on the consulate after Heba gives birth to one of the twins — presumably now that he’s worried about the violence affecting the lives of two American citizens. But then Heba gives birth to the second twin outside the consulate. And so on.

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