After months of endless speculation on the short-term fate of Egyptian cinema, the summer season finally arrives with a new batch of medium-sized, star-free films, all of which produced before the January 25 Revolution. And what would be more fitting than kick-starting the season with a biopic of Ahmed Fouad Negm, Egypt’s foremost anti-establishment vernacular poet?
“El Fagoumy” (the poet’s alias) boasts the ingredients of a great film: A flawed, larger-than-life hero, a knotty relationship with an equally strong-headed character, Negm’s lifelong artistic partner El Shiekh Emam, a tremendously rich backdrop (Egypt’s turbulent modern history) and magnificent music.
Regretfully, television director Essam El-Shamaa chose to adopt an exasperating, tiresome approach to his subject, turning what could have been an exceptional musical biopic strongly resonating with the post-revolution culture into a listless chronicle of Egyptian history. “El Fagoumy” is filmmaking at its most conventional: a dull, forgettable TV movie brought to the big screen by an unadventurous director with little skill and no visual signature.
Based on Negm’s memories of the same name, the film opens in 1959, the pinnacle of the post-1952 jubilation hangover. In an erroneous, silly move, El-Shamaa decided, for no sensible reason, to change the name of his protagonists, and thus Ahmed Fouad Negm becomes Ahmed Fouad Nesr, El-Shiekh Emam becomes El-Shiekh Hammam, Negm’s first wife, journalist Safinaz Kazem, becomes Mahitab Kadry and his second wife, singer Azza Balbaa, becomes Menna. At the same time, El-Shamaa keeps the real names of other characters like caricature artist Hegazy or novelist Youssef El-Sebai.
Acclaimed character actor Khaled El-Sawy plays Negm, a baffling casting choice since El-Sawy bears no physical resemblance whatsoever to the venerated poet. El-Shamaa traces Negm’s beginnings as a manual worker and an amateur poet. He’s caught forging textile bills with a coworker and receives a three-year jail sentence. In prison, he authors his first known poetry collection which wins him the first prize in a competition organized by the Supreme Council for the Arts.
After his release, he’s appointed at the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization where he meets his mentor Hegazy, who helps shape his mutinous politics. In 1962, a friend shortly introduces him to musician Shiekh Emam (Salah Abdallah) who would put the music to Negm’s most famous poems for the following 20 years.
Negm’s famous amorous quests take up a substantial part of the narrative: first his fling with his sex-kitten neighbor (Jihan Fadel), his first marriage to journalist and political activist Kadry (Kenda Allouch) with whom he would have his first daughter Nawara and his second marriage to Menna (Farah Youssef), rebellious descendant of an aristocratic family who marries him against her parents’ will.
“El Fagoumy” is El-Shamaa’s third feature and his first film since 1996’s largely forgotten Farouk El-Fishway vehicle “Ragol Mohem Gedan” (A Very Important Man). Since then, he’s been involved with TV dramas, scoring a number of hits with the likes of “Ragol Men Zamn El-Awlama” (A Man from the Age of Globalization, 2002) and “Nafeza Ala El-Alam” (A View on the World, 2007).
The long years of working in television have clearly taken their toll on El-Shamaa. Despite its expansive scope, “El Fagoumy” offers a narrow and predictable perspective not only on Negm but on the oppressive politics of both Nasser and Sadat. In fact, the film contains no point of view; El-Shamaa tells his story in the manner of a schoolboy reciting out loud a history lesson he doesn’t fully comprehend. He doesn’t attempt to impart a different, inquisitive analysis of a contentious period abundant with hope, disappointment, triumph and despair.
El-Shamaa thoughtlessly crams in so many historical events in the two-hour duration of the film: the 1967 defeat, the death of Nasser, the 1973 victory, the Camp David Accords, the bread riots, the open-door policy and the rise of radical Islam. He predictably hints that fascistic policies of the post-monarchy regimes were the main reasons for the various political, social and economic upheavals Egypt underwent, but does not present any argument or proof to substantiate his indistinctly-sketched theory.
This leaves no room for the fascinating relationship between Negm and El-Shiekh Emam. The latter is rendered as a peripheral, one-dimensional character, a side-kick overshadowed by Negm’s self-conscious grandeur. Negm and Emam’s friendship was fraught with many disagreements. The one episode that gets a mention is when Emam, against Negm’s will, decides to cave in to commercial temptations; a ploy orchestrated by Nasser to buy the pair out and divert their direction from protest song to harmless entertainment.
Since the film abruptly ends in 1979, El-Shamaa doesn’t approach the most secretive chapter in the Negm/Emam book: their ugly split in the mid 1980s. As depicted in “El Fagoumy,” their flat, non-engaging relationship appears too rosy to be true, deficient of tension and nuance.
As a character study of Negm, the film fails as well. A counterculture icon, a folk hero and a bohemian rebel, Negm was one of the few artists who dared to challenge the government and voice the people’s unarticulated frustrations at a time when contrary opinions had no space to be expressed except in detention. Negm has always been a controversial figure; a fact El-Shamaa seems oblivious to. He portrays Negm as a playful but righteous martyr with few flaws, beatifying a man who built a reputation for being discourteous and provocative.
Time has not diminished the powerful impact of Negm’s words; his poetry has lost none of its originality, wit, derisiveness and emotional impact. Despite the tedious staging, the songs are splendid and commanding as ever, perhaps the sole highlight of the entire movie. As in all Egyptian biopics though, the creative process is completely disregarded. El-Shamaa does not reveal how Negm found his vocation; neither does he explain what made Negm and Emam’s partnership so singular and successful.
Negm’s personal life is treated as casually as the music and politics. His time at the orphanage is only shown in truncated flashbacks; his encounter with singer and cultural icon Abdel Halim Hafez is not even mentioned. His romances follow the trajectory of soap operas: an unattractive, penniless, if charismatic, man, irresistible to women, leads an unstable personal life caused by the stern demands of his fiercely political work.
The acting doesn’t fare any better. With all characters not fleshed out properly, it’s difficult to judge the performers when they have such weak material to work with. As for El-Sawy, he may be a fine actor, but as Negm, he doesn’t convince for one second. El-Sawy makes no effort to capture the spirit or mannerisms of Negm, a man who treads the thin line between outspokenness and insolence. Sporting a ridiculous afro wig for most of the film, El Sawy, is too animated, too loud, emerging at times as the lost link between Benny Hill and TV series spy hero Ra’fat El Haggan.
“El Fagoumy” remains largely inoffensive until the last scene when recent footage from Tahrir unexpectedly pops up, an act of unabashed opportunism forced upon a narrative that ends before the Mubarak reign. El-Shamaa seems to insinuate that Egypt’s long, continuous struggle for freedom and justice, guided by Negm’s anthems, eventually paid off with the recent revolution.
In this film, El-Shamaa perpetrates a great crime: condensing the politics of the past 30 years in two minutes in a shameful effort to illicit an emotional reaction from the audience. Instead of honoring one of Egypt’s most influential cultural figures, “El Fagoumy” ultimately tarnishes his legacy thanks to this stunt. El-Shamaa abuses the revolution to lend Negm a prominence he already enjoyed and so never required, distrusting his great accomplishments and underestimating his lifelong struggle that had him behind bars for years.
Celebrated Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.