With a staggering eight films participating in the fest’s numerous competitions and section, Egypt has made a triumphant return to Dubai with a solid selection of some of the most hyped movies of this year’s edition.
Critical reception of the four major participating films — Mohamed Diab’s “678,” Ahmad Abdalla’s “Microphone,” Hesham Issawi’s “Cairo Exit” and Marianne Khoury’s “Zelal” (Shadows) — has been mixed.
“Microphone” received enthusiastically positive notes from critics and audiences alike. Khoury’s documentary — about mental asylums in Egypt — stirred plenty of controversy and opinions have been sharply divided, although the majority seems to admire the film.
“678” and “Cairo Exit” were, on the other hand, rightfully drubbed by critics and have little to no chance of snatching any awards at Sunday’s closing ceremony.
In the numbers
After scribing some of the biggest blockbusters of the past five years, Diab (“The Island,” “A Thousand Congratulations”) takes a stab at directing with “678,” his first “serious, non-commercial” film as he described it earlier this week. Contrary to Diab’s claims, his approach is, in fact, purely commercial even though the subject matter is indeed of grave seriousness.
“678” is officially the first Egyptian film to directly focus on the increasing phenomena of sexual harassment. Adopting Iñárritu’s multi-character narrative structure; the film centers on three women (Bushra, Nelly Karim and Nahed El-Sibae) from different social, economic and cultural strata. All have been subjected to sexual harassment, all have been victims of a patriarchal, hypocritical society denying women their rights, all have been scarred by the damage inflicted upon them and their significant others, and all decide to act upon their anger by taking the law into their own hands.
On the plus side, Diab’s film is honest, sincere and powerful in distant sporadic parts. It wears its heart, or rather message, on its sleeves. Its primary goal is not only to dramatize the unspeakable horrors Egyptian women encounter every day, but to empower them to speak out and fight for their rights.
In catering his film to the lowest common denominator, Diab has resorted to an overly contrived, and obvious, Hollywoodish structure that exploits karma and destiny to cover its serious limitations and convey its blunt point. It all goes downhill when the film turns into a crime drama reminiscent of Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One” before it descends into a tattered, wobbling melodrama that betrays the main cause.
The end result is an oversimplified look at an exceedingly complex debacle realized via an unremarkable direction. Diab doesn’t uncover the roots of the crises, taking this indiscretion at face value, as if it’s a fact of life requiring no explanation.
The social, economic and religious factors that have led to the outbreak of sexual harassment in Egypt are never explained.
Yet the most exasperating aspect of the “678” is its palpable traditionalism, promoting a particular lifestyle hugely based on religious values and a fixed set of morals. Women’s liberty, the impact of growing conservatism and sexual frustration are never brought into question.
While “678” may have little merits, Issawi’s “Cairo Exit” certainly has none. An exploitative piece of poverty porn, “Exit” — which made headlines in Egypt for its long struggle with the censorship — revolves around a forbidden romance between a young Muslim man (Mohamed Ramadan) and an 18-year-old Coptic girl (newcomer Maryhan) residing in one of Cairo’s countless impoverished neighborhoods.
Shot in actual locations, Issawi, directing the follow-up to the ill-received American indie “AmericanEast,” paints an extraordinarily bleak, dejected portrait of modern Cairo devoid of any hope. He does it though with no tact, no purpose, no vision…nothing. What Issawi fundamentally offers foreign audience is a parade of poverty set up to elicit cheap sympathy.
Every conceivable ailment plaguing current Egyptian society — premarital sex, unemployment, low wages, prostitution, arranged Gulf marriages, illegal immigration, police brutality, animosity between Copts and Muslims — is lumped in a thin context masquerading the film’s manipulative intentions.
Every conceivable cliché is embraced by Issawi: the Coptic girl’s abusive, gambling father in law, the struggling sister forced into prostitution to make ends meet, the cruel-hearted employer of the pair, the judgmental society and even the usual slanders members of both faiths throw at each other. There isn’t a single decent character in the film; not a single human character.
Everything seems to be conspiring against those two guiltless souls: destiny, society, family, God. All dreaming of fleeing the country, of a place that respects their humanity. And while all this is nice and dandy, Issawi brings nothing new to the table while his shallow treatment of his characters eliminates any viable possibility for empathy.
There’s nothing wrong with tackling poverty and despair; but it all depends on how it’s realized. The one name that instantly popped in my head is great Portuguese director Pedro Costa whose poetic chronicles of Lisbon’s marginalized lives set the standard for similar stories. Issawi’s direction, on other hand, doesn’t have an ounce of ingenuity; his storytelling is tediously workmanlike.
“Cairo Exit” has been misleadingly advertised as an incisive, bold dissection of the Coptic-Muslim relations. The fact of the matter, the film says nothing about Coptic-Muslim relations, nor does it have any understanding whatsoever of the Christian mentality. Religion plays absolutely no role in the lives of these characters. And for a film striving desperately for authenticity, this is a major unforgivable lapse.
The one bright spot about this shamble of a film is the depiction of Copts as flawed, sinning humans, no different than their Muslim counterparts. But that’s a minor footnote in a very murky picture that left this reviewer cold and indifferent. By far, “Cairo Exit” is the worst film screened at the fest.
Taking the mic
By contrast, Abdalla’s film is everything “Cairo Exit” is not: Fresh, buoyant, perceptive and incredibly entertaining. Abdalla’s sophomore effort, and the follow-up to last year’s “Heliopolis,” is a dirty, brisk and genuine exploration of the underground art scene in Alexandria. And it could very well be the most exciting Egyptian film in a generation.
Featuring a diverse group of some of the coastal city’s hottest talents, Abdalla interweaves two main storylines involving failed romances with three other subplots involving the artists peppered music performances from featured bands. Confusion never creeps in though and the intermingling of these stories is done quite skillfully.
The film has its flaws: the storyline of Magdy Ahmed Ali and Youssra El-Lozy’s characters is weak and doesn’t add much to the drama; the depiction of the bands as struggling musicians striving for venues is inaccurate (there are more venues in both Alexandria and Cairo for indie musicians than ever before) while performances are hit and miss (the film’s leading star, Khaled Abol Naga, is highly uneven).
But the energy, the spirit and general ambiance of the film is fantastically upbeat. The music is simply great: vivacious, cynical and bittersweet. The subplot involving Abol Naga and guest star Menna Shalaby, presented in non-chronological order, is beautiful and heartfelt.
“Microphone” is a portrait of a city in transition; of an angry, defiant generation relentless in its desire to change. This is a film you either fall in love with while forgiving its flaws — or you don’t. I did, and I can’t wait to see it again.
As in all Arab fests, the Arab film selection has been so-so, although the diversity and knack for experimentation is making up for the sub-standard quality of some of the films we’ve witnessed so far. The clear standout of Dubai’s seventh edition is Abdullatif Abdelhamid’s “Septmeber Rain,” the front-runner for the best Arabic film award and the most original Arabic film I’ve seen this year.
For a full review of “September Rain” and a round-up of the Arabic films, follow our full report next week. For more information about the Dubai International Film Fest, visit www.dubaifilmfest.com.
Magdy Ahmed Ali and Youssra El-Lozy.