Tuesday, February 05, 2008


I like watching films, which is a problem in Egyptian cinemas when it comes to foreign productions because the concern of Baba Raqaba and his busy scissors that we shouldn’t be exposed to breastage, or nooky, frequently takes priority over the film actually making sense. (See: American Gangster, where huge swathes of crucial scenes were cut because of female topless cocaine cutters).

This has driven me to seek out alternative sources of film entertainment; Sharshar, and the British Council.

Sharshar has a huge stock of pirated films but alas is rarely these days in the country because of his new hobby: ‘safarayaat lel sho3’l ma3andahaash aih lazma khaaaaless’ or seeking out work-related conferences/training/workshops abroad. In the space of approximately four months he has been to Uruguay, Morocco, the United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Greece in transit, Qatar and Lebanon (about 87 times) - and already has trips planned to the UK and Lebanon again (surprise surprise). I asked him about his trips to Beirut, whether he enjoyed the conference etc and his comment was that all Lebanese women are “mozaz gamdeen ta7n” [really fit] - which may be true, but does little to enlighten me about the peace process in the country.

The British Council is more reliable in that it doesn’t tend to lust after Lebanese women, but its downside is that it has an odd, and restricted selection of titles on offer. The one criterion governing which DVDs are selected for inclusion in the library is some kind of link with the Fatherland, and the result is a weird collection of crappy 70s sitcoms, Ealing Studio comedies, Fawlty Towers and independent arthouse films, only some of which are endurable.

On the plus side desperation has driven me to choose films I would never otherwise have gone for (I once applied a similar policy to gentlemen friends) and I have found some right gems (didn’t work with the boyfriends). Last month it was Alfie, with Michael Caine, which I had thought was a cheerful Cockney bonk-romp but which turned out to be a really quite sad, if not sinister, reflection on the pointlessness of life and loneliness and other cheerful themes. Last week I borrowed Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer, which I had thought was a cheerful Cockney bonk-romp – only kidding!

The film is a documentary directed by Nick Broomfield and is excellent but disturbing, mostly because Aileen was very clearly a sandwich short of a picnic and they executed her anyway. Broomfield aired the interesting fact (? – is it? I don’t know) that contrary to claims that it acts as a deterrent, murder rates are higher in US states which have the death penalty than those which don’t.

Death was the theme of another film I watched last week, this time in a special screening which director Ibrahim el-Batout kindly organised for journos. I was approximately 39 hours late but luckily so was someone else because Cairo’s traffic circulation had ground to a halt in the catastrophic weather of a spot of rain, and they waited for us.

We watched the film, Ain Shams, round a narrow table. I sat opposite a woman journalist and my muddied shoe accidentally and ever so lightly grazed her trousers while I was in the process of uncrossing my Amazon warrier-like 6 ft foot-long legs. I apologised but she very pointedly looked at her trousers, and then silently looked at me as if I was an untouchable who had just wiped his nose on her face. Why are women like this???

But back to the film. Regular readers will recall that I enthused about el-Batout’s last offering, Ithaki which was inventive, exquisitely sad and made me almost choke on my snot and tears - which is one of the highest accolades I can give a film.

Ithaki was a short film, Ain Shams is feature-length, and fantastic. As he did in Ithaki, el-Batout uses a layered approach to the film’s central theme by gradually putting together the inter-connected stories of the film’s protagonists a la Babel, or 21 Grams; the effect is like watching someone sketch a portrait before your eyes.

Set in the Cairene district from which it takes its name, the film revolves around a family who live in the impoverished area. The father works as a driver for a millionaire drowning in debts. The millionaire’s niece is a doctor who was in Iraq and witnessed the incidences of Cancer caused by the chemical bombs used by the Allied forces during the first Gulf war. She returns to Egypt and is confronted by a similar picture of illnesses caused by the assorted toxicants which Egyptians are forced to imbibe through their food, water and oxygen.

These (and other) events are presented by a cast of both professional and (excellent) first-time actors, and the acting had a naturalness which is often missing from contemporary Egyptian mainstream productions, where certain actors deliver dialogue as if they are reading an optician’s eye chart. A scene in which two of the characters chat over a coffee is so real, so unaffected, that watching it is like eavesdropping on your neighbour. This naturalness is only enhanced by both the film’s set –Ain Shams – and el-Batout’s creative use of various media such as news footage, documentary extracts and fantastic scenes from a real-life neighbourhood wedding complete with sha3by MCs and the beer-drinking, joint-rolling guests.

Despite its realism there is a certain dreamlike quality about the film created by the voiceover narrator we hear and never see (and who himself asks ‘who am I? It doesn’t matter who I am’). The narration is almost fairy tale-like, and the soundtrack only adds to this. (In Ain Shams El-Batout again collaborates with Egypt’s own Enrico Morricone, the fantastically gifted Amir Khalaf, who wrote the score for Ithaki.)

Annoyingly, Ain Shams cannot be released in cinemas at the moment. This is firstly because 1. Egyptian censors require Egyptian filmmakers to present a script for approval in advance of shooting. Ain Shams wasn’t filmed with a script, and to me demanding one seems a bit like requiring a cook to produce potato peelings for mashed potato he has made out of a packet, but what do I know, and 2. because anyone who appears in an Egyptian film must be members of the Actors’ Union or else the film’s producers are fined hefty amounts. Some of the actors in Ain Shams are not members of the Union.

Read this for more details.

Here’s hoping that the excellence of Ain Shams and the warm reception it will hopefully receive in the Cannes Film Festival will persuade the bureaucratic dinosaurs of Egypt’s film establishment that imposing inflexible, nonsensical rules about scripts and so on is like forcing filmmakers to tap-dance in flippers.


Anonymous said...

how could one in Canada get a copy of this movie?

Amnesiac said...

Salma - email Ibrahim on batoutfilms@gmail.com

Amir Khalaf said...

i really appreciate your words!thanks a lot!
amir khalaf

Anonymous said...

I saw the film at London Film Fest, it was brilliant.
I found your (very good) article looking for info about the film that I could link to on my own blog.