The trials and tribulations of leaving Khaled al-Hager’s ‘Al-Shooq’ tackles the emotions behind emigration
By Jim Quilty Daily Star staff
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
CAIRO: Emigration has been one of the prevailing themes of the cultural production of the Middle East and North Africa for decades now. The first pillar in this tradition is usually attributed to Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih and the 1966 publication of his novel “Season of Migration to the North.”
Arab and Turkish cinema have since followed Salih to Europe – and gone further afield to the Americas and beyond – telling stories of migration and migrant communities with more or less success.
Among the successes are the films of Germany’s Fatih Akin, who has delighted in fictionalizing the tragic-comic spectrum of German-Turkish experience.
The more equivocal efforts, and noble failures, include the work of recognized talents like Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah, whose “Al-Madina” (1999), a tale of one Cairene’s migration from Shoubra to the French demi-monde and back, suffers from the radical discontinuities of having had to stuff two filmic languages into a single movie.
“Al-Shooq” (Lust), by Egyptian filmmaker Khaled al-Hager, also begins as a film about migration.
“When you look at the sea, you think of migration,” a voiceover intones as the frame opens upon a Mediterranean vista. “When a bird migrates, you know it will eventually return. Not so for people, who never return once they leave, and end up belonging nowhere.”
Voice over done, an invisible orchestra springs into action and the rest of the film’s credits unwind to the accompaniment of Hesham Gabr’s bombastic score.
In fact, Hager’s film is not about migration from Egypt, but a handful of families in a desperately poor neighborhood in Alexandria, and the contradictory yearnings that face the poor – the urge to utterly sever ties with their background in order to escape poverty versus the desire to remain at home, poor but comfortable.
At the center of the story is a destitute family from the village of Tanta in the Nile delta. The neighbors know the father, a whiskey-swilling cobbler, as Abu Shooq, literally “Father of Lust” (Sayed Ragab, who appears to have written the script as well).
The principal breadwinner of the family is Umm Shooq, “Mother of Lust” (Sawsan Badr), a self-styled mystic who roasts coffee beans at home, then brews them for the quarter’s residents so she can read the coffee grounds to foretell their future.
The couple are rearing three children. Two are comely young women – Shooq (Egyptian pop-star Ruby), presumably the oldest daughter, and Awatif (Merehan, an aspiring pop star). Many years younger is little Saad, whose brief role in the film requires him to wheeze and moan. He needs dialysis three times a week, which costs a fortune and forces the family to sell all their meager possessions.
Desperate to fund the dialysis, Umm Shooq returns to Tanta to ask for money from her family. She’s full of trepidation – alluding to the past shame of having had to flee the village with Abu Shooq – and in the end she can’t do it.
Instead she wanders onto a Cairo-bound train, where she staggers about until a passer-by stuffs an Egyptian banknote into her hand. Shocked at being mistaken for a beggar, Umm Shooq steels herself to the ends-justifying-the-means logic of her situation and panhandles her way through Cairo, raising the money for Saad’s treatment.
She returns to Alexandria to find Saad has died. “I won’t lose another child to poverty,” the traumatized Umm Shooq resolves. “One is enough.”
On the pretence that she’s returning to Tanta she undertakes weekly forays into Cairo, where, far away from her quarter’s gossip, she resumes panhandling, hoping to raise the money to secure Shooq and Awatif good marriages, saving them the indignity of poverty.
Both daughters already have chaste neighborhood suitors. Salem, Awatif’s boyfriend, flees the field early on. Studying engineering at university, he feels suffocated in the quarter and leaves both his family and Awatif behind. Hussein, Shooq’s beau, is awaiting a government job so he can propose to her.
Umm Shooq’s venture proves remarkably successful, which in turn alters her personality. Using her role as fortune-teller to get the dirt on all her neighbors, she surreptitiously invests in the quarter’s struggling businesses, with the aim of blackmailing the men into doing her bidding.
When Hussein gets a job with an oil company and brings his family to ask for Shooq’s hand, Umm Shooq pre-empts the expected celebrations. Now attuned to her daughters’ retail value, she demands that Hussein’s family put the bride price, two-room flat and so forth, up front.
Hubris tends to be rewarded with tragedy, of course, especially the hubris of the powerless.
There is something at once familiar and peculiar about “Al-Shooq.” The most unexpected thing – which occurs to you only after the film is done – arises from the film’s credits.
Though CIFF’s festival catalogue doesn’t depict it as such, “Al-Shooq” is an international co-production whose major partners appear to be French and Lebanese-Egyptian.
The Egyptian producer is listed as Arabica Productions, a relatively new music label run by Lebanon-born Mohammad Yassine. This isn’t Yassine’s first Egyptian film, and in 2000 he produced Tony Abu Eliyas’ Lebanese melodrama called “Al-Fajr.”
Arabica’s main co-producer is France’s 3B Productions, and the credits cite many of those names that audiences will associate with trans-Mediterranean art house co-productions – the Rotterdam film festival Cinemart, CNC (Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image Animée), Fond Sud and America’s Sundance and Jordan’s RAWI (Royal Film Commission) screenwriting labs.
“Al-Shooq” is one of three high-profile feature-length festival films to emerge from Egypt this year that are set predominantly in Alexandria.
In form, it is representative of dozens of Egyptian melodramas set among the downtrodden. These tend to be discursive works – progressive, high-minded morality tales packaged in the emotionally-charged language of popular cinema.
That film language is characterized by photogenic, emotionally over-wrought characters swerving from happiness to misery, with lots of screaming and wailing in between (roles into which pop stars Ruby and Merehan throw themselves with gusto), against scenic interiors and exteriors, to the accompaniment of a pounding soundtrack.
The form is not without its noble practitioners. “Heya Fawda” (Chaos), the last film of Youssef Chahine (Egypt’s best-known filmmaker overseas), from 2007, is such a film.
Appreciating this sort of thing is still very much a matter of taste and, based on the ample sniggers and guffaws arising from members of the largely Egyptian audience at Sunday evening’s world premier of “Al-Shooq,” it doesn’t speak to everyone in this country.
As is the case with film, “Al-Shooq” is not without its redeeming features. All the weeping and gnashing of teeth is offset by some solid acting on the part of the cast’s experienced actors.
Sayed Ragab does a creditable, minimalist rendering of the kindly, ineffectual drunk Abu Shooq. But the force that prevents the film from running aground immediately is the acclaimed Sawsan Badr, a physically beautiful woman with a talent for looking down-at-heel. There is a grim determination in Badr’s depiction of Umm Shooq that occasionally survives the absurd physical demands to which Hager subjects her.
One example of the disconnect between the direction and the acting is a dramatic trope Badr is made to repeat several times over the course of the film. When the demi-mystic is outraged, she falls into an incantation of hatred – sitting, back to the wall, cursing friends and family while repeatedly knocking the back of her head against the wall. The first few times there’s a kindly neighbor present with a pillow to prevent concussion.
Hager is, alas, unable to see that, no matter who’s performing it, this gesture is essentially comic.
The Cairo International Film Festival continues until December 9.