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Entries in Arab film (6)

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.

Tuesday
Jun052012

The Postman (1968): An Unmitigated Tragedy, an Unqualified Triumph

“Tell me, Khalil, what did the king’s daughter do?”

“The king’s daughter fled with him and they went to another kingdom”

 

Hussein KamalI wonder what it would have been like for a cinephile to have lived in Cairo in the early 1970s, to have marveled at what director Hussein Kamal had accomplished in under a decade and to have mused over what would be in store for him. It would have seemed likely that he would bring to himself and by association to his national cinema unprecedented esteem and recognition. Egyptian cinema would indeed garner recognition in the years to come, though mostly for the work of Kamal’s senior Yousef Shaheen. Kamal’s own output since would not match the blazing success of his early films, most of which still stand among the most notable works of the Egyptian cinema.

Kamal’s first film The Impossible (1965)—nay, its first shot, a tracking shot of the troubled protagonist walking a shopping district pavement —declared his talent. The Impossible was the first in a trilogy that would come to represent his first period as filmmaker, a trilogy whose unsettling stories illustrated in resplendent black and white photography and complex sound design. To call Kamal’s fourth film a departure would be an understatement. My Father above the Tree (1969) was a lurid, extravagant revue in vivid color that set a standard for the genre that the Egyptian cinema has arguably not reached since1. Kamal would make several more notable films, including the highly regarded satire Chatter on the Nile (1970) and family melodrama Emipre of “M” (1972).

It has been argued that Hussein Kamal’s films lost much or their luster once he had been compelled to abandon black and white photography for color2. (The iconoclastic, almost entirely black and white burlesque Chatter on the Nile hints at Kamal’s disgruntlement with the imposed transition to color, in boasting a single scene in color wherein a music video director lauds the color treatment of a comically cruddy song and dance production.) Others have contended that Kamal’s career descent had to do with his opting for decidedly commercial projects3, perhaps having realized the rewards of the colossal commercial success of My Father above the Tree. Having watched films of Kamal’s from the 1980s I found myself bemoaning that though Kamal’s knack had persisted, his virtuosity had considerably depleted. The singular success of the latter part of his career would be in his direction of a hilarious theatrical rendition of Raya and Sakina.

The Postman (1968)Not that I grieve Kamal’s career. Quite the contrary: I would be delighted to review at least half a dozen of his films and think that his oeuvre rivals those of the greats of Egyptian cinema Salah Abu Seif, Youseff Chahine and Henri Barakat. It is his second film, however, that left my head hanging with humility at its end. It is The Postman (1968, البوسطجي) whose scenes for days replayed as I drove, through one eye, as the other was relegated to minding the road.

The Postman is based on a novella by the same name, written by Yahya Haqqi, one of Egypt’s most admired literary figures of the last century. Haqqi’s influence on Egyptian culture realized primarily in his having edited the state owned and by now legendary journal Al-Majallah, during most of the 1960s. (The journal, whose publication had ceased by the Sadat regime, along with other publications, in what came to be known as the campaign to “put out cultural lanterns,” has relaunched recently in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution.4) The Postman is one of four works of Haqqi’s to have been adapted for film and one of two to whose adaptations he had contributed.

The Postman (1968)The Postman tells of the experience of ‘Abbas a postal worker from Cairo who is assigned to a post in Koum Annahl (literally “heap of bees”) a village in the Central Si’eed. ‘Abbas is soon appalled with the provinciality of the village, with the vulgarity of its population and with the dilapidations of his own meager quarters that he rents exorbitantly, to his own mind, from the mayor. As ‘Abbas’s despair mounts, he resorts to mollifying the hateful quiet of rural nights with the drink, which then expectedly distorts his temperament in the days following, eventuating in his unclosing letters and peeping into the lives of others, desperate for a semblance of community.

The Postman (1968)A particular regular exchange interests ‘Abbas, that between Khalil and Jamilah, an exchange whose peculiarity and intrigue beguile him into an ongoing voyeurism of their epistolary romance.  As it were, ‘Abbas underestimates the consequence of having interpolated himself. He soon learns of Jamilah’s desperation, of her unplanned pregnancy. He might have managed to assuage a conscience guilty over his not having moved to help her, only that he mistakenly stamps an opened letter from Khalil, one that he had read with great anticipation, while in the office, instead of waiting to read it at home in the evening, as usual. ‘Abbas, unable to come up with a way to conceal or remove the stamp on the letter makes a decision that proves fateful, a decision that would ultimately implicate him in an unmitigated tragedy.

Yahya HaqqiThe novella’s elegant, meticulous prose conveys what struck me as a detached familiarity with its milieu. I would later learn what explained this. Haqqi, long aware of his non-Egyptian ethnicity (Turkish and Albanian lineage) urbane and ambitious as he was, had been compelled to take up a legal post in Manfulout in Asyout province, where he spent two years that must have proven challenging, but whose experience would figure mightily in his writing, including in The Postaman5. Haqqi by his own testament absorbed all that was Egypt throughout his life, a bent which coupled with his feelings of displacement while in his rural post must have contributed to the noted detached familiarity.

Whereas in the novella Haqqi seems at pains to subtly disinvolve, his screenplay is at pains to contain its fury. The screenplay accommodatingly expands on the novella in ways that suggest Kamal’s influence. The story is made linear in its narrative, dispensing with the flashback story telling by ‘Abbas in the novella, which aids in the steadily accelerating tempo to the drama. More significantly, the screenplay incorporates a subplot wherein Jamilah’s father rapes the maid (who doesn’t exist in the novel). Jamilah’s mother, instead of castigating her husband, arranges for the victim to be taken away by her family, under the pretext that she had behaved shamefully, knowing that her accusation against the maid would near certainly subject her to another round of severe victimization.

The Postman (1968)Kamal in the first decade of his career exhibited a marked interest in women’s struggles and not only as victims of the oppression within the systems that men have created. We Do not Plant Thorns (1970) and Empire of “M” enabled their top billed stars, Shadyah and Faten Hamama respectively, to deliver performances that became standouts of their careers. Female characters in The Impossible, in A Thing of Fear (1969) and in the mentioned Emipre of “M” strike me as some of the most complex and willful in classic Egyptian cinema. It is also notable that Kamal worked regularly with legendary editor of Egyptian cinema Rashidah Abdussalam, including on all films of his mentioned in this review. Kamal also worked with screenwriters Kawthar Haikal and once, on The Postman, with Dunya Al-Baba.

The Postman (1968)The Postman’s screenplay is not the sole well crafted component, for the film is a tour de force.  The acting is credible and precise throughout. The casting of Shukri Sarhan to play ‘Abbas comes off as particularly apt. Sarhan’s enduring strength as an actor was his manifest sense of dignity, a trait that serves The Postman in that the audience is convinced that ‘Abbas is a victim himself, a victim of economic and social need, that he had once been a well-adjusted, functional member of society. The location, not far from Cairo6, with its uneven clay laden landscape, palms and mud houses suggests the misery that an urbanite would experience living in Koum an-Nahl. And editing by Rashidah Abdussalam propels the steadily rising anxiety, especially in the crosscutting between scenes involving ‘Abbas and Jamilah.

The Postman (1968)It is the compositional scheme and audio design of the film that smite and stamp, however. The Postman’s photographic composition is mostly conventional in the first half of the film, with occasional flourishes that suggest a filmmaker making his restraint known, foreshadowing the tumult to come. As ‘Abbas’s and Jamilah’s (as well as Khalil’s, though mostly through his letters) disaffections begin to mount, the photography and sound design become more expressive and more evocative. Unusual camera angles and stylized mis-en-scene alert us to the topsy-turvy world that the principle characters have come to inhabit, while a looping, echoing, mournful mantra, in Jamilah’s voice, quoting from a fairytale that Khalil had earlier recounted punctuates the pain with the ellipses of ruin: “in another kingdom.”

Breaking the Waves (1996)And then there’s the final shot, a shot for the books (spoiler alert!) I readily recalled the final shot from Breaking the Waves, Lars Von Tier’s masterpiece. Like The Postman, Breaking the Waves told the tale of a woman who is sacrificed because she had dared to love according to her own impulses. The final shot of Breaking the Waves depicts bells sounding in the heavens, in acknowledgement of such sacrifice. (Curiously, the finale in the novella, which I read after watching the film, has the bell of Koum Annahl’s small church announce Jamilah’s death. The film does not indicate the religious background of her family—Coptic—for then concerns about potential offense7)

The Postman (1968)As evocative as the last shot in Breaking the Waves is, The Postman’s last betters it. Arriving on the scene to find Jamilah having been stabbed to death by her father, ‘Abbas loses his bearings. Reaching into his satchel, he extracts letters that he flings into the air in anguish, as if to protest the futility of human agency against seemingly fateful injustice. He continues to hurl the letters as he passes by the camera and out of the frame, so that the letters momentarily thereafter appear as if to drop from the sky, as if God, rejecting ‘Abbas’s fatalism, has sent letters of protest to the people of Koum Annahl, indicting all of complicity in the unconscionable murder—thesis then antithesis manifest in a single, lingering, heart piercing shot. The Postman is among the finest works to ever come out of the Egyptian cinema.

The Postman (1968)

* My Father above the Tree and Chatter on the Nile are available in the US through Arab Film Distribution.

Works Cited:

1.  Kamal, Hussein. "Episode 22: Special Discussion with Hussein Kamal" (in Arabic) Interview by Ammar Ashsherei'i. An Evening with Sherei'i. Dream TV. 22 Sept. 2011. YouTube. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA4D62VxXKY>.

 2.  Assabban, Rafiq. Hussein Kamal: Lover of the Impossible (in Arabic). Cairo: The Cultural Development Fund, 1997. Digital Assets Repository. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://dar.bibalex.org/webpages/mainpage.jsf?BibID=28951>.

3.  Hassan, Mahir. The Passing of Director Hussein Kamal(in Arabic). Al-Masry Al-Youm, n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://today.almasryalyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=291428&IssueID=2084>.

4.  Ali, Sa'd. "Return of Egyptian Cultural Magazine Al-Majallah after an Absence of 40 Years (in Arabic)." Reuters. Thomson Reuters Corporate, n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://today.almasryalyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=291428&IssueID=2084>.

5.  "Egyptian Figures: Yahya Haqqi (in Arabic)." Egyptian State Information Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://www.sis.gov.eg/VR/figures/arabic/html/3p.htm>.

6.  See reference # 2.

7.   See reference # 2.

Wednesday
May162012

Where Do We Go Now? (2011): Not very far I'm Afraid

There is a village in Lebanon whose Muslim and Christian residents have long co-existed, in which each of the respective religious groups' house of worship is a stone throw’s distance away from the other’s. It is a village whose relative isolation, thanks to its remoteness and protectionism, has shielded it from interfaith strife and sanguinary chauvinism—until now. The story thus begs the question announcing the title of Nadine Labaki’s second feature, winner of the Toronto International Film Festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award, Where Do We Go Now?

Labaki has impressively asserted her talent as actor and especially as director on the international film scene, not only having won the most prestigious audience award in world cinema for Where Do We Go Now? (2011, Et maintenant, on va où, وهلّأ لوين؟), but also for having debuted with a film that would secure theatrical distribution in the considerable US market and garner an enviable return on investment.

Caramel, Labaki’s first film, was a charming piece of melodrama that showcased her ability to elevate sentimental, even maudlin fare through delicate direction, incorporating many more uninvasive long shots than typical to dialogue scenes in melodramas. The film also illustrated Labaki’s (as co-screenwriter) adroit appreciation for how people communicate—perfunctorily, obliquely and fallaciously—as they aim to protect themselves and others. Caramel also demonstrated Labaki's deft humorism in both the situational and linguistic senses, having focused on the stories of select women, intimately and revealingly.

Where Do We Go Now? does much of the same, but instead of focusing on the romantic and domestic lives of its female characters, it tackles communal and societal challenges. Whereas the first film suggested and lamented patriarchic society’s suppression and oppression of women, the latter suggests a solution to their subjugation: Women should take charge, especially considering how human life has been undermined by the machinations of the macho.

Where Do We Go Now? tells the story of denizens of an unnamed village somewhere in Lebanon, sometime in the late 1990s. The village’s relative remoteness is communicated in an establishing shot depicting a crossing bridge drawn to a misty hillside, early in the film and again later. Such remoteness has for years served the villagers in having supported their ostensible collective wish to sustain the cohabitation of Muslims and Christians, while war waged in their surroundings, and to disallow the sectarian strife that had propelled the Lebanese Civil War from spoiling life for themselves, an effort that proves futile when long simmering sectarian tension rises in the wake of vandalism of church and mosque respectively then boils over when a young man returns to the village having met the worst of a sectarian skirmish.

Five writing credits is unusual and perhaps for good reason, for it is in the writing that Where Do We Go Now? falters, though the film does well elsewhere. The film is handsomely shot. Labaki aptly moves the camera much more than in Caramel, apt because Where Do We Go Now? includes far more scenes of the outdoors and scenes of frenzy than the more reserved Caramel (not that Caramel is particularly reserved.) Labaki elicits impassioned performances from her large cast and turns in a vital, charismatic performance herself. (Labaki was an actor before taking on directing.) The film is infused with effectively expressive music, heightening the emotional stakes of many scenes in the film. What Labaki’s film accomplishes most notably, however, what explains its audience appeal (as well as that of Caramel’s) is its thoroughgoing adherence to the classical Hollywood style. Indeed, Where Do We Go Now? does recall the work of Almadovar and Fellini, but the film so points to “social problem” films of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood that I couldn’t help but think that if the village had lain in a boarder state during The Civil War in the United States, a village whose population’s loyalty had been split between the Union and the Confederacy, that Where Do We Go Now? could well have been made by Hollywood then. The film even boasts a reproachful speech, typical to the genre, in which Labaki’s character Amal excoriates the men, Christian and Muslim, in the village café over the anguish they have brought upon the village.

The film often comes off as a parable. After all, the remote village is never named and in many ways is made to seem suspended in time. The broad categorization of factions in the village as Muslim and Christian does not reflect the complex conflict and convoluted alliances that characterized the Lebanese Civil War. The film also incorporates touches of magic realism and of lyrical dance, adding to its uncanniness. Yet the parable is thwarted by at least one detail—the year of its story. If the film’s story had been set in the 1930s then it would have seemed plausible that the women and religious leaders had managed to ward off the surrounding tumult by striving to keep the men ignorant about it, but not in the late 1990s! The dating of the film presents another problem: The Lebanese Civil War had ended in 1990 and no significant event of sectarian confrontation that I can think of took place in the late nineties. The dating of the story remains inexplicable to me.

Where Do We Go Now? also contains problems of moral congruity, which suggest a lack of command of the material on the part of the writers. The first of these is in the scathing attack against the town’s men, most of whom are reduced to sums of their hormonal urges. Only that one of these obdurate sectarian characters happens to be Christian Amal’s (Labaki) Muslim love interest, which undercuts scenes of courtship between them that could have otherwise been successful. Moreover, the only two reasonable, likeable adult males are made to be the imam and the priest. Thus, we are expected to believe that the religious leadership in Lebanon has not only contributed nothing to strife wrought by its followers, but has also contrived to prevent such corrosive behavior on the part of its followers—naïve.

Another moral incongruity involves the Ukrainian belly dance troupe that the women of the village contrive to invite and with whom they then scheme to thwart a palpable escalation in sectarian tension between the men representing both religious groups, one that could turn to bloody confrontation, now that talk about armaments has taken hold. Yet, not only does the cockamamie scheme, involving hashish, pills, belly dance and playacting serve as little more than a temporary distraction for the men, but it does nothing to benefit the Ukrainian dancers. If Labaki’s film is a call for women’s empowerment then why are the Ukrainian dancers permitted, by the women of the village and by the writers, having exhibited solidarity with their Lebanese sisters, to depart the village, along with their “gig manager,” having experienced no amelioration in their occupational situation, considering their evident exploitation within the international (soft) sex industry. If anything, the women of the village appear to have participated in such exploitation.

Where Do We Go Now? impresses despite its faulty writing. Yet, I find myself considering that with rigorous, politically conscious writing the film could have more credibly suggested an answer to the question that its title poses.

Sunday
Apr292012

Love in the Medina (2011): Hotter than Sex and the City

I knew next to nothing about Love in the Medina (2011, جناح الهوى) when I went in to see it, nothing other than what I had read in the film synopsis on the website to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. I don’t impetuously attend festival screenings as I used to—spontaneity undercut by schedule.

I didn’t know that Love in the Medina starred Omar Lotfi, whose name I hadn’t recognized but whose face I then did from Casanegra, a Dutch/Moroccan production I had watched a couple of years ago. I didn’t know that it had been the Moroccan box office champion of 20111, nor that it was the first Moroccan film (a joint Italian-Moroccan production) to depict a nude actor in the act of love making2.

Love in the Medina, whose script was adapted from Choice Cuts, a novel by Mahmed Nedali (غراميات متعلم جزار لمحمد نيد علي), is a sultry melodrama about a young man’s irrepressible affinity for the flesh that continually pits him against traditional patriarchy and societal stricture. Love in the Medina mostly succeeds in generating a particular sort of heat, a combination of provocation and titillation, thanks to its photography and to its actors’ intrepid performances.

The story of Love in the Medina is centered on Thami (التهامي) whose adolescent fascination with flesh in the kitchen grows into a fascination with flesh in the bedroom. Well, not just in the bedroom, since the frolicking in Love in the Medina, all of which involving Thami, takes place in a variety of stimulating spots. Ah, but this of course is a melodrama, which means that Thami can’t get off without trouble. The trouble is primarily personified by his father, a religious judge and stern patriarch, whose strictures are Islamic in flavor, but familiar to patriarchic family life everywhere. The father who rarely communicates with his son other than to admonish, resents his son’s wanting to become a butcher, having ideas for a more respectable profession for Thami, before coming around to establishing a stall of a butcher’s shop for Thami in Casablanca’s Medina (the old city) market, enabling himself to exert control over his son’s life as he grows into manhood. The father would later attempt to consummate this control by marrying off his son to a select girl from the countryside named Keltoum, only to encounter inevitable disappointment upon learning of his married son’s affair with a married woman, resulting in Thami’s repudiation and excommunication.

The father, though having intimations of his son’s disregard for god and tradition, never learns of the contribution the butcher’s shop makes to his son’s sex life, which had up to the point of its founding been restricted to self love and the perfunctory pleasure offered by communal bath attendant and prostitute Halima. The butcher’s introduces Thami to a hitherto unavailable world of carnal prospects, pursued in charged and provocative sex scenes, featuring food, both raw and cooked, as well as fetching conveniently Oriental settings: the stall in the market, a Moroccan traditional parlor festooned with mosaic tile, and a traditional communal bath.

The boinking session inside of Thami’s stall (Don’t ask me how!) involves a French tourist who seems particularly interested in Thami’s trade, confiding in him that she had always been fascinated by raw meat. For decades I have known of the utility of tongues in love making, only that I had been under the impression that they necessarily came attached. I later would recall the love scene in the Itami classic Tampopo, with its raw egg swapping.

Tampopo (1985)

The parlor scene certainly had me tingling more than the butcher’s scene, in part because I am partial to ripe, raw tomato over ripe raw cow tongue, but also because the lovemaking between Thami and Zineb, his paramour, evidently consummates a long raging mutual desire, one in which I had become invested. Also notable is the photography of this scene, what with its soft focus and its mosaic backdrop. It’s the editing that makes the scene though, at whose beginning, Zineb appears in close-up brandishing what seems a lip sore, puzzling until she soon thereafter grabs for a tomato and bites into it, as she straddles Thami, suggesting a dissonant temporality. As such, editing the shots in this sequence in a temporally non-linear fashion enhances the suspense and aptly replicates the characters’ hazy temporal perception, while in the throes of passion.

The bathhouse sequence, delicately shot and convincingly performed as it is, suffers not only from its nodding to Orientalists tropes of exoticizing the mundane, eroticizing it whenever possible, but also from exposing Zineb’s body, in the only instance of nudity in the film, but not Thami’s, even though she had taken a markedly greater risk than he in participating in their affair. Instead, exposing Thami’s body alone would have not only proven less typical than as done, but also more faithful to the characters’ individual contributions to their romance.

Other than arousing nice and well, Laraki does elicit precise and revealing performances from his talented cast and does effectively recall the oppressive mood of 1990s Morocco, during which most of the story takes place. (Upon mentioning the film and its surrounding controversy to my Moroccan barber, he quipped to a visiting friend that if they had dared screen this film in Morocco in the days of Hasan II then it would have been “Oh, hou, hoou!”) Expectedly, the film’s production design does suffer for the small budget (a million dollars, reportedly)3. Moreover, editing so as to abruptly move back and forth in time, though effective in the discussed parlor sex scene, does not serve the telling of the story, which moves rather abruptly as if, as my companion had remarked, missing key scenes that had been edited out of the final picture.

As I left the cinema, I gauged my state of mind as customary. Recalling the alluring images of food and flesh I noted that I was neither hungry nor particularly aroused. I think that I had too much tongue on my mind.

Works Cited

  1. Simon, Alissa. "Love in the Medina." Rev. of Love in the Medina. Variety.com. Reed Elsevier Inc., 12, 18, 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117946768/>.
  2. Al-Khudeiri, Mohammed. "Moroccan Audacity in Love in the Medina (in Arabic)." Rev. of Love in theMedina. Akhbarona (in Arabic) 6, 12, 2011: n. pag. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://akhbarona.com/news6231.html>.
  3. See reference # 2
Monday
Apr022012

Al-Kitkat (1991): Soaring above the Doldrums

Have you ever watched a film that seemed to encourage you to speak with the characters on the screen or with a neighbor, during its watching? There are films that convey to the audience not to concern themselves with plot so much, though plots come attached, but with the companionship and kinship between the characters portrayed. Such films have often been disparagingly dubbed “buddy flicks,” as if there were something embarrassing about enjoying companionship and kinship.

Films as varied as Renoir’s La Grand Illusion, Hawks’s Rio Bravo, and Spheeris’s Wayne’s World (yes, Wayne’s World) gloriously exemplify such a rhetorical approach, in that they present us with authentic, sincere characters interacting in such a way as not to be in the service of some compulsory plot, but in the service of each other. Yet, these films’ radiance stems from their masterful control of tone, so enrapturing as to irresistibly invite the audience to interact with their characters. Such films also invite repeated viewing, because they are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Al-Kitkat is such a film.

Al-Kitkat (El-Kitkat, الكيت كات) is also notable for being both its auteur director’s most popular film and his best. Daoud Abdel Sayed is one the most accomplished Egyptian directors working today, one whose body of work is arguably rivaled only by Yousri Nasrallah and Mohamed Khan’s. Al-Kitkat is the third of eight films that Abdel Sayed has made, beginning with The Vagabonds in 1985, all of which have I seen. His films, all of whose scripts he has worked on, repeatedly exhibit several bents of their “author”: a potent nostalgia; a love of music and an appreciation for its contribution to film, in both its diagetic and non-diagetic form; an evident adoration of his characters, including of the “villains” among them, and a regard for them that exceeds the demands of plot making; an inclination toward long takes, minutes-long at times; and perhaps most conspicuously his championing of non-conformity that manifests in the depiction of outcasts and rebels, granted, but also obtains in a thoroughgoing depiction of non-conformity as embraced by socially conscious common people who come around to recognizing that the rules have been written to benefit those who’ve written them and, more significantly, that the rules have been written too broadly to mind the unique conditions of the individual.

Daoud Abdel SayedAbdel Sayed’s films to my mind have usually been excellent and have twice approached greatness (the whimsical Land of Dreams, which appropriately became legendary actor Faten Hamama’s cinematic swan song, and the superb crime drama Land of Fear, about which I intend to post). Yet, only al-Kitkat has attained such greatness, due to the superlative contributions of two other personalities involved—Ibrahim Aslan, author of Malik al-Hazin (The Heron, not that one shows up anywhere in the novel. It is perhaps Aslan himself), the novel from which the screenplay was adapted, and Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, who plays Sheikh Husni, the protagonist. Al-Kitkat would showcase the greatest achievements of these three collaborators.

The Heron (1983) is a sprawling novel, which is belied by its unintimidating length of 170 pages or so. Thus, The Heron adapted into screenplay was necessarily condensed (even Altman would have struggled with so many characters and incidents), narratively unified and aptly anchored in the character of a single protagonist—Sheikh Husni. The novel, which took Aslan nearly a decade to write, names tens of characters, progresses by moving ahead and in between a handful or so narrative lines, and seems to distill two centuries in the history of Imbaba district, particularly of its neighborhood dubbed al-Kitkat, which had once been an enormous bar constructed by the locals for land owner Baron Henry Meyer, before it was shut down following the “blessed” revolution ( in 1952) then converted into shops by people who tore into its structure.

Ibrahim AslanAslan, who passed away at the beginning of this year, published little, over the course of his near half-century-long career. The Heron, his most celebrated work, itself reads as if selected and extracted from a much larger document, which seems confirmed by his having reported that he wrote with an eraser.1 The Heron bombards the reader with names of people and locations, relates events not obviously marked as occurring or remembered, and frequently transitions between subplots, some proving inchoate and all coming to a collective boil as the novel wraps with the assault on al-Kitkat by security forces during the 1977 Bread Riots. Read in 2012, the delicately written and richly detailed story of The Heron turns particularly eerie toward the end as a character examines a protest in Tahrir Square then later collects used teargas canisters inscribed with “Made in the USA.” That the edition of The Heron I had read (in Arabic, though it has been translated into English) had boasted a forward by Suzanne Mubarak only entrenched such eeriness. 

Mahmoud Abdel Aziz at the time of the film’s making was a star. His rugged European good looks had surely supported his talent in positioning him as a romantic/adventure lead in Egyptian cinema (the obvious favoring of European looks, especially among female leads is a worthy topic of a future entry). Although lacking the gravitas of contemporaries Nour El-Sherif (who had co-starred with Abdel Aziz in Abdel Sayed’s first film The Vagabonds) and Ahmed Zaki, Abdel Aziz over the course of the 1980s exhibited a knack for mischievous humor and for folk music performance, both of which would inform Abdel Aziz’s performance in al-Kitkat, a performance effected with such relish as to suggest that the actor had waited his entire career to play Sheikh Husni in a performance that will likely go down as Abdel Aziz’s career best.

Abdel Aziz’s portrayal of the blind deadbeat appears at first affected, until the viewer realizes that this is not a miscalibration on the part of the actor, but a manifest quality of the character’s. Sheikh Husni is a mischievous operator, who could well owe half the neighborhood money, money of which he manages to make a little on the side by guiding blind people around the district (the blind leading the blind?) He affects and exaggerates because he feels he must to get by. The way he had to sell the house that his father had built, home to his mother and his equally work-averse son, to get by, even though he admits when pressed that he sold it to his drug dealer El-Haram (a nickname meaning “the pyramid”) to support his hashish habit. Despite such failing, rather with its aid, Abdel Aziz imbues his Sheikh Husni with such charisma as to make him irresistible and unforgettable.

Abdel Sayed conjoined the talents of Aslan and Abdel Aziz, along with those of other skilled cast and crew members to craft an entertaining, heartwarming film that is visually and auditorily impressive. The three numbers, featuring Sheik Husni’s singing and oud playing, especially the one in duet with his son, not only entertain the viewer, but also illustrate the joy that music brings to people who populate a world that at times seems set against themselves.

As for the imagery, it is pleasantly surprising to learn that the film had been shot entirely in a studio2. The vividness in detail of the set design and the languorous pacing of the action convince us of the authenticity of milieu and invite us to sympathetically regard the lives of the unsuccessfully working class of al-Kitkat. Two standout sequences illustrate this. One is a still camera, minute long shot that begins with Sheikh Husni and his blind client Sheikh Ubeid in extreme long shot, barely visible behind street vendors and pedestrians, though audible, as they shoot the breeze while ambling toward the camera. Another sequence qualifies as one of the few “pure cinema” sequences I have encountered in commercial Arab cinema. In it, Sheikh Husni convinces the owner of a scooter to permit him to take it for a spin, resulting in an exulting moment that feels like a lifetime, all the more impressive considering the havoc that such a stunt wreaks in al-Kitkat.

As I considered my lack of concern for blind Sheikh Husni, joyriding a Vespa in a crowded neighborhood, I realized that it was because I believed what he believed, which was that everything would be alright, as if I were being reassured by an old friend who is much more seeing than given credit for. It is in this good natured, authentic reassurance that al-Kitkat’s distinction is located. Those among us who have seen it and championed it know that whenever in the doldrums, we can pop al-Kitkat in, imagine the sofa a Vespa, pay Sheikh Husni a visit and willingly permit him to drive it, so that, if only for a couple of hours, we may soar above our doldrums.

Works Cited

  1. Qualey, M. Lynx. "Goodbye Ibrahim Aslan." Egypt Independant. Al-Masry Al-Youm, 1, 8, 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/590166
  2. Shafik, Viola. Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. Cairo, Egypt: The American University of Cairo Press, 1998. Print.