Three years ago, a little indie film with no stars called “Ein Shams” (Eye of the Sun) came out of nowhere to take the Egyptian film industry by storm, challenging censorship, sidestepping shooting permissions’ circle of hell and ultimately becoming the first independently-financed film to acquire a commercial screening in Egypt.
Over the past three years, the film’s director, Ibrahim El-Batout, has been propelled into stardom, scooping awards left and right, introducing a new economical model for producing films. The relative success of Ahmad Abdallah’s “Heliopolis” and “Microphone” announced the long-awaited arrival of Egyptian independent cinema; a serious, determined and rebellious new wave operating via different methods and tackling different themes.
From El-Batout’s little-seen first film “Ithaki” to Tamer El-Said’s upcoming “In the Last Days of the City,” the new indie scene has grown from obscurity into renown, establishing El-Batout as its Godfather.
El-Batout’s follow-up to “Eye of the Sun” was touted to be an adaptation of Essam Youssef’s best-selling novel “1/4 Gram.” For several reasons, the project never took off as El-Batout started to divert his attention to another experiment. The result was “Hawi,” a low-budget production fronted by a cast of amateur performers.
Against the odds, the film went on to win the best Arabic feature award at last year’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival and has since been selected for a number of festivals around the round, including Rotterdam earlier this year where it garnered wide acclaim.
“Hawi’s” successful festival run is far from over — the film received the critics’ award at the Rabat Film Festival on Saturday.
The void left by the absence of Egypt’s box-office heavyweights paved the way for low-profile productions to score a coveted spot in this year’s summer season, and thus, “Hawi,” a challenging art-house fare, becomes the latest unlikely contender to join 2011’s highly unusual rooster.
“Eye of the Sun” was released in few theaters around in Cairo and Alexandria. In light of its budget, the film did respectable business, drawing an audience unaccustomed to the aesthetics of this new cinema. Despite the seemingly ideal timing and the lack of real competitors, “Hawi” is unlikely to repeat the success of El-Batout’s previous effort.
Like both “Ithaki,” Batout’s first picture, and “Eye of the Sun,” “Hawi” is a city-specific multi-character drama built on a twisted narrative. Structurally, the film is less accomplished than “Eye of the Sun,” hampered by distracted, slapdash editing that renders the movie into fragments that rarely unite. Thematically, visually and narratively, “Hawi” is more ambitious than anything El-Batout has produced to date; a meditative insight into a city in ruins and damaged characters in search of illusionary hope.
Set in Alexandria, the film opens in a dark prison cell. A suit is thrown at the floor by an anonymous hand. A minute a later, a man named Youssef (Mohamed El-Sayed) is summoned by an unseen officer with a specific assignment: Youssef will be discharged for only 10 days to retrieve confidential documents, the content of which is never revealed.
From the outset, it’s fair to assume that the film would trace Youssef’s well-defined journey into temporary freedom (which perhaps could’ve produced a better movie). But, as we soon discover, it’s not.
We’re introduced next to Fady, an elderly gentleman who acts as a mentor for indie band Massar Igbari (also featured in “Microphone”) and Ibrahim (played by El-Batout in his first screen performance), a weathered immigrant returning to his hometown with a French passport for the first time in 20 years.
A large chunk of the story follows Ibrahim as he attempts to reconnect with the daughter — the film’s editor Perry Moataz — he left behind for reasons unknown. The link that connects all three characters is concealed until the very end of the picture.
Their destinies interlock as various unglamorous, veiled facets of the coastal town are explored. El-Batout’s Alexandria is not the sunny, youthful municipality of “Microphone,” nor is it the melancholic, romantic dreamscape of Daoud Abdel Sayed’s “Messages from the Sea;” “Hawi’s” Alexandria is a dilapidated dystopia populated with abusive policemen, damaged political detainees, fatherless children and estranged artists.
In “Eye of the Sun,” El-Batout balanced his bleak worldview of marginalized life in the capital with the character of Shams, the eternal optimist kid who manages to find joy in the most joyless of places. In “Hawi,” El-Batout offers no such respite, painting a picture of a hopeless fallen world with no savior.
Whilst the pre-Jan. 25 films prefigured the revolution in depicting a tattered nation heading towards insurrection, “Hawi” shows a society broken beyond repair.
The social fabric of a country at odds with its irrelevant history informs the miscellaneous strands of the narrative. For Ibrahim and Youssef, Alexandria is no longer recognizable. The cluttered, indistinguishable streets, characterless buildings and never-ending stream of automobiles stand in contrast with beautiful, deserted churches, old stores and the quiet, indifferent sea.
The one character that boldly embodies the spirit of the present is Hanan (Rina Aref), a proud, respectable belly dancer attempting to survive in a place that regards her as a hooker. Hanan is not the stereotypical belly dancer tormented by guilt over an immoral profession; she’s is an artist and a dance instructor in love with her art and the pleasure it generates.
Like anyone who dares to deviates from the questionable norms, she eventually head-butts with the judgmental, intolerant society represented by an uncouth police offer, in the tensest, most unnerving scene of the film.
Taking a cue from the austere gazes of great Hungarian director Béla Tarr, El-Batout primarily uses long shots to supplement the measured pace of the film, stressing mood over plot.
Few Egyptian filmmakers possess the acute sense of place El-Batout effortlessly brings to his movies. Like Claire Denis, he induces a strong sensory impact with whichever site he chooses to film, standing like a watchful eye staring at an unfathomable city. Alexandria, as portrayed by El-Batout, is at once intimate and distant. You can smell it, touch it, feel it, yet remain alien to it.
The key problem with “Hawi” is the editing. Now, I never reserve criticism for editing simply because I always believed that the best editing is one that does not bring attention to the process, one that is perfectly attuned to the tempo and flow of the narrative. With “Hawi,” it’s the opposite. Perry Moataz’s indeterminate editing is so jumbled, so unfocused that, on occasion, it jeopardizes the logic of the entire film.
The sprawling narrative lacks inner harmony, appearing at times like separate islands different in shapes and sizes. The rhythm of the narrative abruptly shifts every few minutes to the point of irritation. The story marches in a jagged track, abundant with unintentional bumps that constantly force the viewer to redirect his/her attention. Some scenes outstay their welcome, others, like the tremendously moving confrontation between Ibrahim and his daughter, are cut too short.
The gravest downside to this major defect is a reduced emotional involvement with the otherwise deeply empathetic characters. It also results in notable lethargy in some scenes that betrays the depicted reality.
None of the three presumably principal protagonists share equal time on screen; Youssef starts off as the main focus of the story, but then swiftly drifts off, popping up every now and then as interest in him ebbs away. Fady, on the other hand, remains an inactive, peripheral character who adds little to the drama.
Hanan, the most compelling character in the film, has, in fact, no tangible relation to any of the main characters; her storyline, thus, is abandoned, left with no resolution.
In addition, the big revelation at the end, the way things come full circle, doesn’t feel as satisfactory as it should be. El-Batout attempts to pack an emotional wallop with the conclusion, but it doesn’t really materialize. The emotional charge that was so potent in “Ein Shams” is less forceful in here.
The acting is hit or miss. Mohamed El-Sayed is highly inconsistent, veering between subtlety and confusion. The always reliable Hanan Youssef radiates with reassuring naturalism that functions as the sole source of comfort in the film. As for El-Batout, he starts off on shaky ground, trying hard with every sentence and facial expression, initially failing to take command of his reactions. That makes his progression all the more remarkable, ultimately delivering a brilliantly nuanced, heart-felt performance of a profoundly wounded man traumatized by his past.
Despite its flaws, “Hawi” is an audacious work by a filmmaker unafraid to defy mainstream cinema’s aesthetic conventions; an honest portrait of life during the last days of the Mubark era. What Hawi ultimately suggests is that the lesion left by the Mubarak regime is still raw, the damage caused by decades of oppression and injustice will need more than a revolution to fix, the widespread ignorance and intolerance are deeply entrenched in our national psyche. We may have had a successful political revolution, but a social revolution is yet to happen.
“Hawi” is currently showing at Wonderland cinema in Nasr City and Semouha Zahran in Alexandria. The movie is accompanied by English subtitles. Follow Daily News Egypt tomorrow for an in-depth interview with Ibrahim El-Batout.