It was supposed to be the biggest, most important evening of his life. Last November’s premiere of the highly touted Egyptian film “Heliopolis” was anything but ordinary. The chaos, scuffles and flying insults couldn’t obscure the fact that the star-studded indie was the most attended film of last year’s ill-fated Cairo International Film Festival.
For all the hype, large turnout and warm reception, the film’s young director, Ahmad Abdallah, appeared daunted, unmoved by the grandiosity of the hollow spectacle.
Perhaps it was the trite Q&A, the bad organization or the technical malfunctions that bested the screening. Whatever it was, it seemed to have hit him bad, and for the rest of the evening, Abdallah’s face didn’t crack a smile.
Abdallah’s plump, cheerful face cloaks a deep-seated melancholy, a quality I detected when I first met him in Doha last year. His ostensibly merry exterior, unequivocal cynicism and occasional bouts of haughtiness feel like a cover-up for a minefield of insecurities, losses and doubts; and it’s this downhearted spirit that loom largely over his debut feature film.
Both a quiet meditation on the remains of a fading culture as well as a sharp critique of a nation trapped at a standstill, “Heliopolis” is the first movie in more than two decades to capture what it’s like to be a young middle-class Cairene living today; a perceptive, honest and often moving portrait of a lost generation living, as John Lennon once put it, in a borrowed time.
Set mostly in the once upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis (or Masr El-Gedeeda), Abdallah chronicles a single day in the life of eight characters, all connected to the old district.
Khaled Abol Naga, the best-known name of the large cast, is Ibrahim, a graduate student investigating the various pre-1952 ethnic minorities. After an extended absence, Ibrahim returns to Heliopolis to interview elderly Jewish Roxy denizen Vera (stage veteran Aida Abdel-Aziz).
Among the neighborhood’s young residents are Hany (Wust El-Balad front-man Hany Adel), a Christian physician attempting to sell his apartment to join his family in Canada. His charming young neighbor (Yousra El-Lozy) may, or may not be, his secretive object of affection.
Venturing outside Heliopolis are engaged couple Ali (Atef Yousef) and Maha (Aya Soliman), laboriously navigating their way in the treacherous traffic jungle to make an appointment to see Hany’s flat.
Meanwhile, hotel receptionist Engy (Hanan Motawe) spends her days flipping aimlessly through TV channels, daydreaming and envying the freedoms of her foreign clients.
In the midst of all these cluttered lives stands the lone, silent figure of the unnamed conscript (a scene-stealing Mohamad Brequa, in his first screen role), guarding a large building he cannot identify.
None of these characters are connected in a direct sense; what links them all is a feeling of overpowering helplessness wrought by an invisible force blocking all doors of possibility.
The town of Heliopolis was constructed by Belgian architects in 1905 under the supervision of Boghos Nubar, son of Egyptian Prime Minister Nubar Pasha. Equipped with a wide range of facilities and boasting some of the most lavish buildings of the time, the district boasted a greatly distinctive architectural style, combing Moorish, Arabic and European designs.
The neighborhood was originally populated with top government officials, affluent families, foreigners and various ethnic groups. After the revolution, when Nasser decided to banish most European nationals, the face of Heliopolis started to change, converting into the hub of intellectual middle-class Cairenes in later years.
By the mid-70s, as the shape of the entire capital began to witness radical transformation with internal migration and unprecedented hike in birth rates, Heliopolis began to incorporate more lower classes, allowing for alleyways and shabby quarters to infiltrate the neighborhood.
And although Abdallah doesn’t fully capture the essence of Heliopolis, he comes quite close.
The glaring presence of Korba and Roxy facades stands in sharp contrast to the current reality of its new residents, augmenting the ubiquitous ambiance of chaos and imbalance. Abdallah punctuates interior shots of the neighborhood’s old apartments and stores with traffic jams, scuffles, inane conversations with idiotic drug dealers and despotic police officers. The combination of documentary-like footage and silent panoramic shots of the area are rendered from an elegiac perspective, mourning the remains of a distant past.
But the film is no exercise in nostalgia, and it’s in Abdallah’s perceptive anatomy of the present that “Heliopolis” really soars.
Abdallah’s characters are directionless drifters roaming a post-modern dystopia. The loose goals each seems to follow are illusionary, set forth by a desire to inject meaning into their meaningless life.
All characters embody this social impotency; some better than others. The most successful of the lot is the engaged couple. Drawn with brilliantly attentive realism, the pair (newcomers Soliman and Yousef) walk, talk and behave like zombies. Both are buried under exhaustive obligations, burned by asinine daily details like finding a parking spot or saving a few hundred pounds for their home appliances. What’s left of the love they once shared is a bunch of memories; marriage is just another advanced step for a lifetime of more responsibilities and by the end of the film, they must decide whether they’re strong enough to endure carrying this heavy burden.
The film is not without flaws though and all in all, “Heliopolis” is a film whose parts work mostly better than its sum. The couple’s segment aside, the majority of the stories feel incomplete and undeveloped. Abol Naga’s character — Abdallah’s alter-ego — is seen for most part of the film wandering around the neighborhood, meeting old and new residents and observing the changes that took over the place. His storyline doesn’t have a dramatic ark and by the time we learn about his ex-girlfriend at the end of the film, all interest in him is lost.
Similarly, nothing much is revealed about Hany’s character, and in the process, he emerges as another archetypical Christian waiting to leave the country. The small exchanges he has with his neighbor don’t amount to anything; their rapport is too thin to illicit any kind of impression and ultimately, the whole affair appears rather hollow, shallow even.
Acting represents another major gaffe. While the film boasts some stellar performances from the likes of Soliman, Yousef and much-praised Brequa, Abdallah fails to harmonize the acting styles of the professional thespian and novice performers. Performances of amateur players is distinguished for a finely tuned naturalism, a quality experienced actors do not possess.
The discrepancy between different types of acting is jarring to the point of distraction. And it doesn’t quite serve the film’s stars. Abol Naga has some beautiful, nuanced moments, especially near the end. In general though, he looks pale and confused. Motawe, an ingénue, struggles to curb her theatrical impulses, appearing lost throughout.
Another problem is frame compositions and editing. The vast majority of Heliopolis’ vistas are confined, seldom capturing the grandiosity of the neighborhood. The view is always partial, rarely comprehensive.
And although it’s somewhat unfair to draw comparisons with a director making his first film, I couldn’t help weighting “Heliopolis” against the works of Jia Zhang Ke, China’s foremost poet of change, and Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien. The films of both filmmakers are slow-paced, pensive and strikingly framed. Like “Heliopolis,” their films are beautifully melancholic, using the most subtle of moments to form a large canvas of a people, a place or a generation (as in Hsiao-hsien’s “Goodbye, South, Goodbye”).
Measured pace requires a heightened degree of aesthetic soulfulness, an element chiefly missing from Abdallah’s frames that, on occasion, appear devoid of emotion. Some scenes outstay their welcome (especially those of Brequa), gradually becoming redundant. Rarely do Abdallah’s sceneries reach the sweeping effect of Hsiao-hsien’s achingly beautiful “Café Lumière,” another film where nothing happens.
It also doesn’t help that the film is founded on an Iñárritu-like serendipitous structure — where characters go in and out of each other’s lives without leaving any impact — eschewing the more sophisticated approach of Robert Altman, the unrivaled master of ensemble dramas. Abdallah also doesn’t put the social and historical factors that changed the neighborhood into a tangible context, showing instead a bunch of shallow talking heads to reminisce about the past.
Abdallah wrote the film’s script — which went on to win the Sawiris Foundation prize for best script — after suffering what seems to be a traumatic break-up with a former girlfriend who happened to be a Heliopolis resident. He didn’t write the film to have closure; he simply wanted to return to the neighborhood.
A musician turned film editor, Abdallah — editor of Ibrahim El Batout’s highly acclaimed “Eye of the Sun” — was stuck in dead-end jobs, earning his living with working on sub-par projects. “I was harming the actors with my own hand, and I knew it, and I couldn’t do much about it,” he once told me. And in many ways, making “Heliopolis” was his way out; an effort to understand his world and create something meaningful at last.
I’ve watched “Heliopolis” several times, and have resisted writing about it for months. The characters populating Abdallah’s world are no different from my friends, and we all seem to be stuck in the same deadlock, scurrying for an illusion of change.
Every week, I take a slow walk from beginning of Baghdad Street to Roxy and through this stroll, I witness the entire historical course of this city: from the luxurious old buildings, the bakeries and Swiss restaurants, to the new characterless edifices, unsightly groceries and clothing stores.
The sense of nostalgia embracing me at the beginning of my walk is eventually suppressed by grief. My past, present and perhaps future lies in different corners of this street. I’m not confident whether we’re still capable of change; all I know is what’s left now of this history of ours is a bunch of memories and a place that seems to be giving up the fight.
Khaled Abol Naga plays Ibrahim in "Heliopolis".
Aya Soliman and Atef Yousef play the couple Maha and Ali.