An adolescent analysis of Arab emasculation

Sarah El Sirgany
8 Min Read

As the opening credits of “Leilat El Baby Doll (Baby Doll Night) started rolling, my expectations rose with every name of the cast members emerging on screen. Each actor of this star-studded ensemble is capable of carrying a movie on their own – in fact they have done so repeatedly in the past.

The list is endless: Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, Nour El Sherif, Laila Elwi, Gamil Rateb, Gamal Soliman, etc. Even the guest appearances were numerous and high profile. I was wondering how all these stars would fit in one movie.

That’s besides the hype that was surrounding the movie: renowned scriptwriter Abdel Hay Adib, the grand production and the buzz surrounding the heavily-covered Cannes screening. Although it turned out that it only participated in the film market, it is Cannes nonetheless.

The plot, as well as the performances, is admirable. Divided into two major plotlines, the film follows two men over the course of one day – Hossam (Abdel Aziz), an Egyptian tourism expert returning home from the US and attempting to spend some quality time with his wife, played by Solaf Fawakhergy; and Nour El Sherif, a terrorist with a plan at hand and vengeance on his mind.

The first plotline is comedic, while the other is a dramatic thriller. The two stories appear schizophrenic at times, but each provides an interesting backdrop for the other.

In a series of flashbacks, director Adel Adeeb (“Hysteria ) acquaints viewers with the characters, paving the path that would eventually lead them to Cairo on Dec. 31, 2007.

Thumbs up for the direction and cinematography that rendered these dramatic leaps possible and believable. The amount of money put into this production – an estimated LE 40 million – enabled Adeeb to shoot in various locations, injecting the flashbacks with substance and credibility. Flashbacks of the Holocaust and New York on 9/11 in particular exhibit skillful cinematography that forcefully sets itself apart from other local productions and even other mundane scenes in the same movie.

Sadly, this is all the audience should look forward to. Unlike the classic scripts of Abdel Hay Adib (the seasoned scriptwriter died last year reportedly after finishing the script, directed by his son Adel), “Baby Doll’s dialogue couldn’t keep up with the plotline or the grand production.

Exploring Arab problems and Middle East conflicts, the conversations were basic and simplistic at best. They are a world away from the sophisticated scripts that have marked a number of Arab (or joint Arab-European) productions over the past few years like Youssry Nasrallah’s “Bab El Chams (Gate of the Sun) or Hany Abu Assad’s “Paradise Now.

Unlike those films, “Baby Doll vehemently tries to present the other side of the argument in a failed attempt to be balanced and fair – this is where the Holocaust flashback comes in place. The film tries too hard and unfortunately invests its effort in the wrong place.

As the film undisputedly proves, the mere presentation of the other point of view doesn’t elevate a debate to a higher intellectual level and doesn’t make it relevant to international audiences. This requires a sophisticated exploration of our own issues first that can then be incorporated in the type of literary scripts audiences from all walks can relate to.

Watching the film and listening to the novice and childish dialogue, I’m convinced that the script was written with the Arab audience in mind, designed to appeal to the lowest common dominator. The ideas presented don’t move beyond a regular chitchat on a local ahwa and, at many times, doesn’t even live up to the thorough analysis one could eavesdrop on at any local Downtown coffeeshop.

The film idiotically staggers between symbolism and realism. The only scene that skillfully treads this fine line is Nour El Sherif’s torture in Abu Ghraib Prison. A series of scenes that are a reenactment of the photos disclosed in 2004 progress towards a shocking peak that makes a strong statement on the emasculation of Arabs and its consequences. The actress who played Lynndie England demonstrated a devilish zest that contrasted with the American soldier’s infamous dead eyes.

Yet what makes this continuous hubbub staggering between symbolism and realism even worse is the heroism involved. It’s easy to meet a lot of people with war memories if you are going around with a camera in a war-torn city. But claiming that each Egyptian has a relative who participated and heroically died in another Arab country is a stretch. Each of these “heroic sacrifices could make unrealistic movies on their own. It was at the flashback in which Nicole Saba portraying an Egyptian journalist in Palestine – with full makeup, manicured nails and dressed in the latest fashion – who turns into a freedom fighter, following of course a family death and a disfiguring accident, that I began struggling to restrain myself from screaming “kefaya (enough) at the screen.

To make things worse, the film tried to relate these fictional stories to real life events. Saba’s story, for example, is inspired by the Israeli siege of the Nativity Church in Palestine.

In another story, and the worst stab at heroism, a 40-something Egyptian/American poses as Rachel Corrie, the 20-something American activist who lost her life trying to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from destroying a Palestinian house. Not to mention the change of the main elements in Corrie’s character that pushed her death to international headlines. The scene in the Palestinian territory is again too simplistic, naively heroic and plainly unrealistic.

Simply put, it’s a shame all this money went into a script that religiously follows the substandard formula of bad films that have discussed similar issues.

Perhaps the good news is that the film shined the light on two popular actors who stepped out of their shells to prove that they are multi-layered artists.

Ahmed Mekky is known for his popular role of an Americanized teen in the sitcom “Tamer wa Shawkeya and played the same character in his cinematic debut in Adel Imam’s “Morgan Ahmed Morgan.

In “Baby Doll though, he takes off the wig and the cool attitude to pose as an impoverished taxi-driver whose only way of coping with life is drugs. It’s even difficult to recognize him at first glance. Sulaf Fawakhergy, who was introduced to Egyptian viewers as Abdel Halim Hafez’s love interest in “Halim, gracefully moved from romantic drama to enduring comedy. I caught myself waiting for her scenes in the film as the Egyptian wife who hadn’t seen her husband in a year, in spite of Fawakhergy’s obvious attempts to suppress her Syrian accent.

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