Set for release just weeks after a landmark Egyptian court verdict sentenced two police officers to three-year prison terms for torture, Youssef Chahine’s comeback film “Heya Fawda (Is it Chaos?) demonstrates a strange prescience.
Jointly directed by Khaled Youssef (“The Storm, “Enta Omry, “Khiyana Mashro’a ) and starring “The Yacoubian Building’s Khaled Saleh, the film explores themes of frustrated love and violence.
Hatem (Saleh) is a low-ranking police officer who bullies his neighbors in the poor town of Shubra. Hatem is in love with Nour (Menna Shalaby) and resorts to terror tactics in an attempt to control and possess her.
Producer Gaby Khoury told Daily News Egypt that the film’s timing is entirely coincidental. “After ‘Alexandria, New York,’ (Chahine’s last work, released in 2004) we spent a long time trying to think of a new idea. About a year and a half ago Nasser Abdel Rahman (the screenwriter who co-wrote Yousry Nasrallah’s film “Al Madeena ) approached us with the idea of a policeman who abuses his power. The idea appealed to Chahine, partly because it was a departure from the autobiographical theme of his last films.
Despite the repugnance of his actions, Khoury says Hatem’s character is more than simply a heartless thug and a deviously updated version of Qenawy in Chahine’s masterpiece “Cairo Station.
“Amin El-shorta (or low-ranking police officer) stays in the same area all his life, holding the same post and is never promoted. Somehow you justify Hatem’s actions because of his frustration. The way Hatem misuses his authority illustrates the way power corrupts anyone who holds public office for long periods of time.
This theme is echoed by Nasser Abdel Rahman, himself a Shubra native. He told Daily News Egypt that he sensed there was something critically wrong in the Egyptian street, and this is was the inspiration for the plot.
“Everyday you open the newspaper and read about chaos. When I walk down the street in Shubra, I see police officers everywhere. Ordinary people don’t deal with higher-ranking police officers; they deal with amin El-shorta, who has enormous influence. He has assumed the role of the fetewa (or bully), who maintained order in the old days and who was brought to life in Naguib Mahfouz novels, said Abdel Rahman.
The low-ranking police officer enjoys what little influence he has, and “it is as if the ant has become the elephant, he added.
Abdel Rahman says that the chaos permeating Egyptian society has even resulted in “love becoming hatred – with the result that a police officer is prepared to torture his girlfriend simply because violence is the only thing he knows. It is like the school teacher who thinks that in order to educate children you have to beat them up.
Some of the scenes were filmed on location in Cairo’s streets. One scene was shot with 1,500 extras, at 6 am on a freezing Cairo morning.
“The scene was set in summer, and we were wearing summer clothes. Menna (Shalaby) and I were shivering so much that our voices were trembling, and we did several takes to get the scene right, Youssef El-Sherif, one of the main characters, told Daily News Egypt. In his first collaboration with Chahine, the actor plays the role of Sherif, the principled young district attorney who stands up to Hatem’s tyranny.
“Working with Youssef Chahine was like a dream. When I first heard that I had the role, I was ecstatic for about 15 minutes until I realized what would be demanded of me, he said. “After filming, I was expected to do the homework Chahine gave me, to study my character from birth. he said.
Chahine suffered health problems during the filming of “Heya Fawda and shares directing credits with Khaled Youssef. Still, El-Sherif says, Chahine was present in “all but a few of the film’s scenes.
Veteran actress Hala Sedky seemed less at ease with this arrangement. She told Daily News Egypt that a large number of the scenes she was featured in were cut from the final version.
“Of course I was angry. These are scenes I really cared about. How would you feel if Youssef Chahine tells you that you’re the best actress he’s ever met, the crew clap as if you were in a theater when you act a scene, and in the end, the scene is cut from the film?
When asked why she thought the scenes were cut, she said, “Ask Khaled Youssef.
Youssef did not comment on the issue, still overwhelmed by the fact that he co-directed a film with his revered mentor.
“When Chahine and Mr Khoury called me to participate in the film, I was ready, as usual, to work as an assistant producer, Youssef told Daily News Egypt. “I was surprised and shocked [when Chahine suggested he co-direct]. I totally rejected his offer because . there isn t a single filmmaker in my generation, the generation before me or even the generation before them whose body of work can match the value and significance of Chahine’s films.
Chahine told him that he can’t deceive his fans, and himself, by claiming that he directed the film alone. Still, it was months before Youssef caved in.
Youssef has always said that his directorial vision is different from Chahine’s, and that’s why the pair spent months preparing, unifying their vision about everything from the color patterns to the camera angles.
Youssef said the film is more than a reflection of our current reality or a commentary about particular incidents. “The film is about oppression in general, he said. “It’s about social injustice. It’s about contradictions in our human nature. It’s about many things that exist in our society.
The production team will have to wait until next Wednesday to see if any more scenes will be cut – this time by government censors. However, Gader Khoury is optimistic that there won’t be any problems. He says “Chaos has been a labor of love.
Youssef asserted that he “will not remove a single frame, even if [the censors] insist. Honestly though, I’m certain they won’t.
“Chaos received mixed reviews at the Venice Film Festival, partly because of the unfortunate slot it received at the end of the program, said Khoury.
While Khaled Saleh received excellent reviews, Khoury said some members of Chahine’s loyal European audience could not relate to the film because it was “too local.
While Khoury is slightly uncertain about the film’s commercial prospects, Youssef is confident it will be a smashing success. Additional reporting by Joseph Fahim..