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Friday
May102013

Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1969): It's in the Script

Bassem YoussefI was watching a news-of-the-week panel discussion program on BBC Arabic a few of weeks ago and the discussion turned to news of Bassem Youssef’s arrest by Egyptian authorities for insulting the president, denigrating Islam and undermining authority on his popular satirical TV show El Bernameg (البرنامج, The Program). In a case to whose fanfare Jon Stewert had added by discussing it in his own The Daily Show (Youssef had been scheduled to appear in court to face the stated charges, before the assigned judge dismissed the case) the topicality of satire in the Arab World was certainly given a potent shot in the arm.

The discussion turned to the cultural prevalence and utility of satire as a medium of sociopolitical defiance when a panelist remarked that he had searched for a direct translation for satire in the Arabic dictionary and could not find one. Indeed, the term used most to refer to satire is sukhriyah (سخرية), which more accurately means sarcasm. And even though the Arabic literary tradition incorporates a form named Hija’ (هجاء) whose modes of function and purpose paralleled satirical literature in the English tradition, Hija’ was mostly, though not exclusively practiced in poetry1. Nevertheless, the panelist’s inference that Arabs had been collectively repressed so staunchly over the centuries, so as to have stripped them of the capacity to humorously mock while making pointed sociopolitical commentary hardly holds water for anybody who has grown up hearing endless mockery of Arab rulers and regimes. Words need not be written—or performed—to stand for culture.

Not that notable satirical Arabic works have not been written or performed. Syrian Dureid Lahham’s film Al-Hudoud (الحدود, The Border, 1987) is required viewing for any Arab cinema enthusiast and Kuwaiti Abdulhussain Abdulredha’s play Bye Bye London (1981) was watched in my home repeatedly when guests attended, so that the adults visiting could riff on the jokes and declare their keen interpretations of the meaning behind the punch lines.

Tawfiq al-HakimDecades before these two works saw the light a satirical novel of the first order castigated the daylights out of the Egyptian government system. It was Diary of a Country Prosecutor (يوميات نائب في الأرياف), written by Tawfiq al-Hakim, one of the most important figures of 20th century Arab literature2. Al-Hakim is remembered primarily for his plays—he wrote around seventy full length plays—a few of which I read in my youth. I distinctly recall  how impacted I was by al-Hakim’s Journey to Tomorrow (رحلة إلى الغد), a science fiction play ascribed to his theater of the mind ('théâtre des idées', المسرح الذهني) (which I’ve seen translated as intellectual theatre, a misleading translation, since the term refers to the destination of the works, their being written without intent to have them performed).

Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1969)Indeed, al-Hakim’s standing resides in his having ushered drama into the text of Arabic literature vividly and assertively. The prolific al-Hakim wrote more than plays, including philosophical and theological treatises, political essays, biographies, and novels the second of which Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1937) would be made into a film in a drastically different Egypt 32 years later.

Tawfiq al-Hakim, who had been sent to France to pursue graduate studies in law, and had failed to earn a degree as he focused on cultural enrichment istead3, would fatefully land a post in the Egyptian countryside as a prosecutor4. By then, al-Hakim had begun writing and would find ample fodder in his prosecutorial experience.

Diary of a Country Prosecutor is such a formatively varied novel. It involves elements of folkloric storytelling, dramatic suspense, satire, and realism whereas its adapted screenplay folds the first three into the last, from a cinematic formative standpoint, toning down the satire to accommodate the censor in ways predictable and not. The film’s plot unfolds in an unnamed village in an unnamed year and involves many characters, most of whom are unnamed, including the Prosecutor, the protagonist, whose journal entries over the course of twelve days, October 11 to 22, tell the story. Storytelling through journal entries facilely justifies the use of first person if nothing else and the paucity of names… Well, perhaps such details don’t mean that much when one is as jaded as the Prosecutor and besides, who needs names when titles will do.

The ProsecutorThe Prosecutor is awakened in the middle of the first night to attend the scene of a shooting in a distant marsh. Upon arrival with his prosecutorial team along with the Sherriff and his team, the Prosecutor is proud to demonstrate the meticulousness of his method in assessing the crime scene and in questioning the shooting victim, who shockingly was left to suffer in the scene of the attack by the constable to first arrive upon the scene, while the latter waited for the crime investigation unit to arrive! Ahem, but the prosecutor’s meticulousness has nothing to do with his commitment to fulfilling the cause of justice, rather with a compultion to shield himself from any criticism from his higher-ups. He admonishes his assistant to fulfill all bureaucratic expectations, recalling an occasion when he himself had been chastised by a superior for submitting a dossier on a murder case that was too light—too physically light.

Among the rewards of Diary is that the whodunit turns out merely a vehicle for sustained reading. The shooting investigation acts as an exposition of much rot in government: in the judicial, police, and electoral systems. The problem of the prosecutor’s jadedness is uncorrectable just as the murder case is unsolvable, not that they couldn’t be. Oh, but where does a lone country prosecutor begin to mend the rot … He doesn’t.

Diary the film preserves much of the story, not surprising since with a 150-page novel adapted for a near 2-hr film, little abridging was necessary if one considered that the typical manifestation rate of a screenplay is a minute in film per page. At least one macabre scene is omitted, since it likely could not have been filmable in Egypt at the time, one involving crime scene brain extraction and a frivolous, grotesque shared search for a deadly bullet.

The Sheriff, making a persuasive case Tawfiq Saleh, director of Diary, is one whose work I have long admired and whose best film The Dupes I elected to discuss in launching this blog. Saleh worked on Diary’s screenplay as he did on most of his films’, which leaves me mulling how concerned he was about potential trouble with the censor. As I had noted in my extended review of The Dupes, Diary of a Country Prosecutor was reportedly banned by the censor until Nasser himself permitted its release in full. I now suspect this account is apocryphal. What I did not know when I wrote that review over a year ago is the extent of Nasser’s admiration for al-Hakim, particularly Hakim’s Return of the Soul (عودة الروح, his first novel)5. Moreover, having read the book since, I have noted that the film’s very last shot depicts the prosecutor scribing his final journal note: “22 October 1935.” Not only did the novel not end in such a fashion, but the deliberate insertion of the year of the story in the pivotal final frame of the film suggests the extent to which the screenplay writers were concerned about having the film construed as an unsuccessfully veiled attack on the Nasser regime.

Diary’s principle participants are competent but not particularly enthralling. Tawfiq ad-Daqn is his vivid self as the Sherriff and Abdul’athim Abdulhaq is convincingly queer as the mystic-cum-village-crazy Sheikh ‘Asfour. The lead role is performed adroitly with coy restraint by the versatile, underappreciated actor Ahmed Abdulhalim. The staging is mannered in the studio-bound sense and the action lacking the élan evident in Saleh’s The Dupes, for example, and this despite a few elaborately staged shots, each over half a minute long.

By Diary’s end, I realized what I didn’t when I referred to the film in my blog’s very first post, over a year ago, that the film’s excellence lies in its source material. I learned what I’ve heard and read from so many film practitioners over the years: “It’s in the script."

Notes:

1. Van Gelder, Geert Jan. The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes towards Invective Poetry (Hija) in Classical Arabic Literature. Brill: E.J., 1988. Print. PP. 2

2. Allen, Roger M. A. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. N. pag. Web.

3. See sourse # 2

4. Johnson-Davies, Denys, ed. The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim: Plays, Fiction, Autobiography. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008. Print. PP. 3

5. Mondal, Anshuman A. Nationalism and Post-Colonial Identity: Culture and Ideology in India and Egypt. London: Routledge, 2003. Print. PP 199

*Diary of a Country Prosecutor the novel has been translated into English.

Thursday
May022013

5 Documentaries--Short Reviews

Dear readers,

Here are short reviews of five films I had watched as a member of the jury for the Best Documentary Film award in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. None of these films is Arab, but I do look forward to posting a long overdue review of Tawfiq Saleh's Diary of a Country Prosecutor next week.

 

The Fruit Hunters:

Bill Pullman stars in The Fruit HuntersFor years I have complained about the subdued taste of fruit in America (as wells as veg and eggs). I have not been as moved by an artistic celebration of fruit in art/literature since reading Chekov’s The Black Monk. The two rather distinct subjects of fruit hunting and of the ills of mass agriculture are well integrated. The photography sensuous as it should be. Two aspects of the doc hamper the effect, regrettably: the affected, self-important narration (reminiscent of that in The Corporation, another memorable doc hampered by its narration) and the unnecessary extended focus on Bill Pullman (who inexplicably appears on the film’s poste. He’s not the star, the fruit is). It’s as if the makers intended to underscore the merit of such fruit fascination by association with celebrity--good for publicity, bad for credibility. 


 Charles Lloyd: Arrows into Infinity:

Musician extraordinair Charles LloydA fascinating, underappreciated artist not served by a ho-hum biographic documentary film. In its chronological approach, its stuffing itself with archival footage and in its well-trodden commentary on the iconoclastic 60s the film waxes far too familiar. Moreover, near two hours in length, Charles Lloyd the doc seems to aim for fervent jazz fans for its comprehensive disquisition on an American legend. Lloyd deserves another attempt at his story. I nominate Spike Lee.

 

Off Label:

Bearing the psychotropic cross in Off LabelA pedantic exposition about the mendacious psychotropic drug industry that does not manage to deliver on its thesis, because of its diffuse structure and its heavy-handedness. There are moments of genuine poignancy and pathos, especially regarding one luckless Korean American chap—so bright, so wretched. The mother’s account of her son’s suicide is heart-piercing and the delay in its account is one of the best editing decisions that the makers have made. Yet what of the overbearing symbolism: cross bearing, smiley faces on the shirts of miserable people—hackneyed.

If the film is trying to differentiate itself from films such as Sicko by focusing on the plight of the consumers, instead of on the machinations and manipulations of the drug companies then why include the account of an ex-pharmaceutical sales rep? To support the thesis that the business of psychotropic drugs is rotten? Such a point would have been argued for more convincingly by physicians and prominently stationed whistle blowers instead. Moreover, if the film’s conclusion is that we the masses are better off dumping such drugs if at all possible then why include the testimony of the “guinea pig” who managed to get his book, the vehicle of his salvation, completed because he wrote it while on ADHD medication!

 

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear:

Seeking stardom in The Machine Which Makes Everything DisappearIt is curious to compare this film to Off Label, in that both docs are topically and structurally disintegrated and both involve personalities based on a single criterion; in the case of The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear it is a seemingly arbitrary age group—15 to 25 (though with a single exception, just like Off Label). Yet, whereas diffusive fragmentation hampers the former it only enhances the mood of The Machine. Its eerie composition of the interview segments (most are based on 90 degree shots, generally a no-no in photography) and in its elliptical structure only deepen the pathos and entrench the melancholy. There are shots of remarkable ethereal beauty in this film. Yet, what really leaves an indelible mark is the honesty and self-awareness of young people, whose profundity in truth is a staunch rebuttal against superficial, patronizing youth cinema to which we have become so accustomed. The final testimony of the film in particular I found remarkable and canny at once—an epitaph inscribed on the tombstone of disaffected youth.

 

These Birds Walk:

Flying if only momentarily in These Birds WalkThere is a candlelit conversation scene in These Birds Walk that's the stuff of great realist novels. The film is poignant insight into the lives of children seeking refuge and those adults who have come around to realizing not only that the state is unwilling to move to shelter its citizenry (intimations of drone strikes anyone?) but more importantly, that assisting children in dealing with their misery is an effectual way to keep such adults’ own misery in check. Despite the heart-rending milieu exposed, These Birds Walk never turns maudlin. The kids curse, bully and attempt escape and in the case of the lead character Omar, even falsify their identities (his real name turns out to be Fuad). The earnest but jaded “ambulance driver” (It’s more than an ambulance and he is much more than a driver) is a fascinating and compelling portrait of social worker in an environ that could use with so much social work than, as the “driver” knows, Edhi Foundation could ever provide. The photography suffers from the inadequate lighting, especially in so many nighttime shots, yet makes up for it in its composition and verite style movement. 

 

Tuesday
Feb122013

60 Second Scoop: Whad'Ya Know about the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival?

Dear readers,

I have been on blog haietus, because of my work schedule, which has involved curating and directing the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. Once the festival is concluded--it is scheduled for March 13-17--I intend to return to writing film reviews, including of films that I will have selected for the festival itself.

In the meantime, I hope that you may enjoy the first of a few promtional videos that we have created for the festival and encourage you to learn more about the festival, by going to the Mizna festival website.

Monday
Nov262012

For the Love of Film in Doha

I have just returned from Doha, having attended the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF). Energy and enthusiasm suffused the city, which seemed to have been wrapped in its celebration of film.

Photo credit: Doha Film Institute

Of course, I expected the abundantly funded festival to exude lavishness and glamor, but what I didn’t expect and what has driven me to post a day after my return is the community engagement, which manifested in ways that surprised and delighted me.

Museum of Islamic Art. Photo credit: riy

This year’s edition was held in three locations: the Museum of Islamic Art, an architectural marvel I unfortunately did not have the time to visit; Katara cultural village, which houses the Doha Film Institute, the organization behind DTFF; and Souq Waqef, a century-old shopping district that has recently been restored and expanded to include restaurants and fashionable boutique hotels wherein the festival guests stayed. Yet, physical signifiers of the festival—signs, posters, and billboards, some enormous—were strategically positioned throughout the capital city.

Souq Waqef. Photo credit: Jan Smith

The festival boasted much that I’ve encountered in other festivals: film screenings, Q&A sessions with filmmakers, panel discussions, workshops, award ceremonies, red carpet events, and, of course, parties. What really impressed me, however, was the engagement of youth in the festival. Beside supporting and celebrating many young local filmmakers in the “Made in Qatar” competition, the festival presented Family Days, a four-day program of family focused events aiming not only to expose kids to art, including film, but also to have them participate in creative workshops, including photography and filmmaking. All non-screening Family Days programs were free of charge. Family Days also presented free screenings of two wonderful films which long ago had me in memorable weeping sessions--E.T. and Cinema Paradiso--both of which were screened in the stupendous, beachside Sony Open-Air Cinema within Katara.

Sony Open-Air Cinema. Photo credit: Ayman Itani

The festival cultivated a youth reporter core, dubbed the DFI Kids Access Reporting Team, which covered red carpet events, proudly displaying their press badges as they interviewed guests then reporting on such events on the festival website—charming!

Katara. Photo credit: Karen Blumberg Ultimately, it was my encounters with young DTFF volunteers and guest service providers that left the deepest impression. One morning, I was heading to Katara for a meeting and thought to catch the festival shuttle bus. As I boarded, I asked the driver about going there and was told that it would take an hour. “That’s too long,” I responded, before turning to see a teenage boy, in festival T-shirt and badge, who had followed with “That’s too late for me too.” The transportation coordinator at this station (like most, in his early twenties), upon checking my credentials, availed me a car within the festival’s transportation fleet. When the car arrived, I asked the transportation coordinator if it would be OK if the teen came along, which he appreciated, as did my new companion.

On the way, I asked my companion what he was doing for the festival. I could sense the enthusiasm in his voice as he conveyed that he was in a hurry to get to Katara because he was volunteering in a Family Days event.

Next day, after spending a couple of hours watching films in a room designated for press viewing, at independent stations, of films exhibited in the festival, I walked over to the room supervisor, a woman in her early twenties. I handed her back the DVD of Rafea: Solar Mama as I poured praise over the irresistible documentary film, to which she said that she hadn’t seen it, but that she thought the winner of the Best Documentary Filmmaker Award In the Shadow of a Man was a really special, moving film. She then emphatically encouraged me to see it when I had the chance. She wasn’t just checking out DVDs; she was a film enthusiast.

And she wasn’t the only twenty-something female film enthusiast that I encountered in the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Indeed, nothing has warmed my heart in attending DTFF more than this evident vitality among young people involved in one capacity or another in the festival. I was readily convinced that the Doha Film Institute was earnest and determined in its proclamation that it aimed to fashion a community centered international film festival. Many large events claim to be community based, few have struck me as such as much as DTFF—well done.

Thursday
Oct112012

Article for Al-Monitor: Little Film Festival That Could: Beirut Beats the Odds

Dear readers,

Forgive me for not blogging for a few months. I have been utterly consumed in work. In addition to my fulltime college gig, I am curating the current round of the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, organised by Mizna. In addition, in summer I joined Levantine Films in development affairs. Nevertheless, I hope to post in the weeks to come about my activities, and if fortunate enough, a film review or two!

For now, my interview with Colette Naufal, director of the Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF).

Yours

Mohannad