In a year defined by numerous disappointments, “Heya Fawda? (Is it Chaos?) – the latest picture by Egypt’s foremost filmmaker Youssef Chahine – magically succeeds in topping the pile.
Compared to the rest of the year’s soiled crop, the film is superior nearly in every artistic avenue. Yet the chief reason behind this letdown that instantly overwhelmed me after the credits started to roll is that it had the potential but failed to make a strong political comment at a turning point in our history.
Both Chahine and his protégé and co-director Khaled Youssef astoundingly miss the mark, producing instead a cliche Egyptian melodrama so embroidered that it eclipses and distracts from scriptwriter Nasser Abdel Rahman’s uncharged political and social grenade.
The film opens with footage of a Cairo demonstration but the cameras start rolling with a chasing scene in Shubra. The protesters, composed entirely of college students, are brutally hauled to the local police station by Hatem (Khaled Saleh), a sadistic, tyrannical middle-aged amin shorta (low-ranking police officer) who throws them in an underground dungeon.
Aggressive Hatem however has a soft spot for his young neighbor Nour (Menna Shalaby), an English teacher who has a crush on Sherif (Youssef El Sherif), the District Attorney and son of the school s headmistress Wedad (Hala Sedky).
Sherif is engaged to Sylvia (Dorra), the archetypal spoiled junkie and daughter of an up-class businessman.
As Wedad attempts to break her son’s anomalous relationship with Sylvia by diverting his attention to Nour, Hatem continues to scheme a series of both naïve tactics and vicious plans to win her love.
Weak plotline aside, Hatem s character is the heart and soul of “Chaos.
He is the personification of the evils of absolute power. Everyone knows who he is, and everyone, except Nour and her mother (Hala Fakher), fears him. Hatem has the power to make anyone who fails to obey “the laws of Hatem disappear.
He abuses his power and bullies everyone around him, never paying for services and intimidating people with the mantra “Whoever is ungrateful to Hatem is ungrateful to Egypt.
Attempting to round out Hatem s hideous character, Chahine and Youssef try to inject some human elements into him, rendering him the victim of a harsh social and political reality.
But in short, they fail.
Hatem is quintessentially a pervert; a sexually repressed, unattractive man who spends his evenings peeping through windows to watch Nour shower, fantasizing over a photoshoped picture of her in a bikini or sniffing the nightgown and underwear he stole from her bedroom.
The film’s producer Gaby Khoury reportedly said that Hatem can be seen as an extension or a modern-day version of Qinawy, the lead character in Chahine’s 1958 masterpiece “Bab El Hadid (Cairo Station).
The two are, however, worlds apart.
Qinawy was the product of a cruel and unjust society. His tragic fall resulted from living in an age marred with the aftermath of a semi-fascist rule that planted the seeds of the current forms of oppression.
Hatem, on the other hand, is not the product of the present chaos inflicting Egyptian society despite what Chahine and Youssef might imply.
He’s not the victim both filmmakers portray, but is a man who suffered a harrowing childhood inspired by our favorite Egyptian soaps and the almost facetious horror movies of Rakia Ibrahim.
Chahine and Youssef wasted a golden opportunity to offer an explanation or insight into the reasons behind the widespread police brutality exercised by the Egyptian state had they opted to present a realistic and more complex set of motivations behind Hatem’s actions.
Yet they didn’t, and at times, Hatem emerges as a cartoonish character seeped in the stereotypical figments of an uninspired imagination.
“Chaos’ most unredeemable flaw is the over-the-top approach its filmmakers adopt. Nearly every scene is exaggerated: from the laughable torture scenes to the contrived romantic exchanges between Nour and Sherif and the hysterical back projections of car rides.
The lack of depth behind the few political jabs against the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood reduces these intricate issues to simplistic cognitive sketches.
But flaws aside, “Chaos does succeed in touching upon subjects of imperative concern to our current reality, from the impotent educational system churning out unqualified teachers to the unmonitored power enjoyed by the police.
Chahine and Youssef say it loud and clear: For more than half a century the government has ruled the masses with a whip, lashing anyone with an unprotected back. After years of coercion, Egyptians have been reduced to nodding marionettes too afraid to challenge the system responsible for their misery.
Sexual repression, social hypocrisy, apathy and corruption are some of the many ills that self-righteous Egyptian society is aware of and criticizes everyday but lacks the will, power or even desire to stand up against it.
One of the best scenes of the film is the public riot in front of the police station near the end of the film. The scene induces a strong sense of catharsis. It’s both empowering and awe-inspiring.
Even though this scene came close to redeeming the entire film, it s impact was drowned out by the directors’ highly conventional Chahinesqe ending that left me aggravated. Despite their esteemed stature, the filmmakers didn’t have the vision to create a work that is truly daring or cohesive.
“Is It Choas? discusses many highly contentious issues plaguing Egyptian society today, but unfortunately the high dose of melodrama overshadows any point Chahine, Youssef and Abdel Rahamn tried to make.
One only has to look at Chahine’s many classics such as “Al Asfour (The Sparrow), “Awdet Al Ibn Al Dal (Return of the Prodigal Son) or “Al Ard (The Land) to realize how he has finally succumbed to the multiplex culture by producing a flat film with little vision to woo an audience which has hitherto shunned his work