Saturday, August 04, 2007

film of 'yacoubian building' at ica in london

When I came out of the press screening of the Egyptian film “The Yacoubian Building” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London last Wednesday afternoon, I felt momentarily disoriented. The long feature film, running for nearly three hours, had taken me so powerfully into Cairo and the lives of its characters that for a time it seemed more real than the traffic-congested streets around Trafalgar Square. The interlocking dramas of the vivid personalities played by riveting actors including Adel Imam, Hend Sabri, Yusra and Nour El Sherif, replayed in my mind on the bus ride home.

The title of the novel and film of “The Yacoubian Building” comes from a 1930s apartment block in Cairo within which the lives of characters intersect in multiple narratives, which tackle some highly sensitive subjects. On the roof of the building are small rooms where poor families live. The block represents a microcosm of Egypt in around 1995. The sweeping cinematography encompasses the vast city with its teeming life, and also focuses on the intimacies of life within apartments.

“The Yacoubian Building” might be over-melodramatic in places, and the volume of the soaring music score by Khalid Hammad occasionally too insistent, but it is a major cinematic achievement. And yet it is only the second film to be directed by Marwan Hamed, who was 27 at the time. (His first film, a short, was based on the novel “Lily”.)

The film’s budget of more than 20 million Egyptian pounds (around 3.5 million US dollars) was the biggest of any Egyptian film to date. The film’s production company, Good News Group, assembled the largest cast of stars to appear in one Egyptian film. The script was adapted by veteran scriptwriter Waheed Hamed, Marwan’s father, from Cairo dentist Alaa Al-Aswany’s 2002 novel.

The press screening was part of the build-up to the launch of the film in Britain. The ICA is holding a special preview on August 29 as the prelude to a season of the film to be held in its arthouse cinema from September 14. The film will also be screened in a number of other British cities. At the same time a new paperback English edition of the novel is being published in the UK by Harper Collins, under the Harper Perennial imprint.

The film caused an outcry when it opened in Egypt last year, with 112 MPs calling for scenes to be cut, especially those involving gay newspaper editor Hatem Rashid (Khaled El Sawy). Some newspapers too decried the negative image of Egypt the film supposedly gave. But Culture minister Farouk Hosni rejected the calls for censorship.

In Al-Ahram Weekly, columnist Salama A Salama commented: “Our society is much more mature than some assume. We are mature enough to decide what we want to watch without having to be told...Those who lashed out at the movie made it sound as if the film was degenerate or pornographic, which it wasn’t.” The film broke box office records in Egypt.

The challenges in making the film arose not only from its highly sensitive subject matter. There were also technical feats to be achieved in for example filming a large university demonstration pitting security forces with batons and shields against Islamist demonstrators. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes shows the torture of demonstrator Taha El Shazly (Mohamed Imam). Bloodied from his beatings he is suspended in the air at the police station. His police interrogator then orders a degrading sexual assault on him that leaves Taha determined to seek revenge. As news reports have frequently shown, torture is a not infrequent occurrence in Egypt.

The film highlights the pressures on women. Corrupt businessman Haj Azzam (played by Nour El-Sherif) consults a sheikh when his middle-aged wife is no longer interested in satisfying his conjugal needs. The sheikh encourages him to find a second wife. He proposes marriage to young widow Soad (Somaya El Khashab) from Alexandria. His conditions are harsh. She must leave her small son behind with her relatives, must keep the marriage secret, and must not expect to have another child. When she tells Azzam she has become pregnant he is furious, and in an episode of great cruelty the fetus is forcibly aborted.

Buthayna, played by Tunisian actress Hend Sabry, is Taha’s fiancée and breadwinner for an impoverished family headed by her mother. She has left her job because the boss sexually pressured her, only to find that in her new job in a clothes shop the owner regularly retreats to the storeroom to physically exploit his female employees.

Taha is an academically bright student who wants to enter the police academy, but at his interview he is turned away when he admits his father’s lowly profession as a janitor. At university he is alienated from the spoilt rich fellow students. He falls under the spell of an Islamist student and a sheikh, and finds new meaning in life. After his torture and sexual assault in the police station he trains at a camp for Islamic militants. In a bloody bullet-ridden scene towards the end of the film he assassinates the policeman who had overseen his torture, and is then killed himself.

Taha’s increasing radicalization causes a breach between him and his unveiled fiancée. During his militant training, he undergoes a marriage ceremony with a young woman chosen for him by his leaders.

The central figure in the film, and in the end its warm heart, is Zaki El Dessouki played by Adel Imam, the 65-year-old son of an ex-pacha. Zaki lives with his sister Dawlat (Isaad Younis), but she throws him out after a young bar girl with whom he has had an assignation steals items including Dawlat’s ring. He is forced to live in the apartment he has been using as an office.

Zaki remembers Haj Azzam when he was only a shoeshine boy. Now he owns a string of shops and car dealerships. It emerges that his fortune has been built on drug dealing. Azzam has political ambitions, and is helped to get elected to the People’s Assembly by a corrupt minister, Kamal El Fouly (Khaled Saleh), who says he has important people behind him. El Fouly demands a large bribe and then blackmails Azzam over his drug dealing to demand a major stake in one of his agencies.

Zaki ‘s servant, Fanous (Ahmed Rateb) plots with his tailor brother Malak (Ahmad Bedeir) to cheat Zaki out of his apartment. They persuade Buthayna to go to work as his secretary, and tell her to get him drunk and then to make him sign a document passing his apartment to the two brothers after his death. Dawlat is complicit in the plot, and arranges for her brother to be caught red-handed with Bothayna.

This scheme falls through when a genuine love grows between Zaki and Buthayna. He is unlike other men in treating her with understanding, respect and charm. There is a happy ending to the film in the marriage of this unlikely couple.

Director Marwan Hamad had been apprehensive about the portrayal of Hatem Rashid, the editor of a French newspaper. A resident of the Yacoubian, he is the son of an aristocratic family and a French mother. In a flashback we learn that his homosexuality was caused by his having been abused by a servant as a child.

Some of the most painful scenes in the film involve Hatem’s pursuing of a naïve, handsome soldier Abd Raboh (Bassem Samra), a migrant from Upper Egypt. Adb Raboh is tormented by his sense of shame and of going against his religion when he succumbs to Hatem. In order to keep Abd Raboh in Cairo, Hatem rents a room for him on the roof so he can bring his wife and young son from Upper Egypt. When the son dies Abd Raboh is filled with remorse and leaves with his wife for home. When Hatem subsequently picks up a young man and takes him home, the man robs and murders him.

Marwan Hamad says: “Khaled El Sawy is the most daring actor I have ever seen. He has agreed to perform a very difficult personality and he has performed it with great intelligence and with a high degree of reality. The same applies to Bassem Samra.”
Susannah Tarbush
(original of the article published in Saudi Gazette on August 9 2007)

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