There is something of an incomplete feeling about “Basra, directed by Ahmed Rashwan and a competitor for both the Arab feature film section and the international competition for digital film features.
Huge hype preceded the film, which stars established and first-time Egyptian actors. The crowds who turned up to see it at the Good News Cinema on Friday virtually had to fight their way through security to get in as journalists competed with ticket-holders who were all buffeted back by the security guards.
I asked a member of staff why the (simple, surely) process of admitting people into a cinema had turned into a stampede. He suggested that it was because of the numbers.
That the Good News auditorium is one of Cairo’s largest seems by the bye, and is yet another of the infinite and mysterious organizational debacles the organizers of the festival like to delight us with each year.
Part of the film’s draw is undoubtedly Bassem Samra.
Samra is consistently sidelined in Egyptian mainstream productions. He gave a brief but mesmerizing performance as a thug in Ahmed Ezz vehicle “El-Shabah and was excellent as Khaled El-Sawy’s unwitting sexual conquest in “The Yacoubian Building.
Samra’s lead roles however are confined to independent films – a shame, considering the limited exposure these films receive.
In “Basra, Samra is Tareq, a photographer who in the opening scene we see going to a ma azoun, or marriage registrar, with his wife for a divorce. They return to their home, where Tareq is packing up his belongings and moving out, only interrupting this process in order to be intimate with his now ex-wife. She protests, and he tells her that this intimacy is “one of the laws of separation – one of the many laws he has devised governing his existence.
We learn that Tareq was formerly a student in France, but abandoned a PhD in law just months before its completion after becoming disillusioned with it, and after a friend asked him “Do you know how long you are going to live? Will you be alive tomorrow?
Tareq returns to Egypt, the country he tells love-interest Nahla (Yara Goubran) he knows “he will spend the rest of his life in.
Distant and more immediate encounters with death forms one of “Basra’s central themes. It is set in 2003, at the time of the US invasion of Iraq, and makes use of news footage of protests in Egypt against the invasion as well as scenes from Iraq. The violence and destruction forms the backdrop – and, I discovered afterwards, the raison d’etre – for the disintegration in Tareq and Nahla’s personal lives.
Tareq’s first act after his divorce is to make use of his little black book. A hilarious split-screen scene ensues when we see Tareq ringing up all his old flames, one of whom is now married to a conservative Muslim who answers the phone and instructs him never to call again.
One of these affairs is with a photographic model who is meant to be coquettish and seductive. The actress completely over-played this, resulting in a ridiculously overblown character who we understand is meant to be the yin to the yang of Nahla, intelligent thoughtful and, supposedly, Tareq’s soul mate.
Nahla – and indeed her relationship with Tareq – was problematic not only because of flaws in the character itself but also as a result of an uninspired performance by Goubran, who makes her debut film appearance.
Tareq is smitten with Nahla the moment he sees her. We are to understand that his attraction to her – while it is clearly visceral and beyond rationalization on a certain level – is overwhelmingly of an intellectual nature due to their shared interests (Nahla is also a photographer) and experiences.
A scene in which the couple travel to Alexandria for the weekend jars uncomfortably with this vision.
Upon arriving at the hotel the hotel clerk winks conspiratorially at Tareq and asks him whether he would like rooms near each other, before giving him two rooms next door to each other.
Nahla storms out, protesting to Tareq that the clerk “probably thought she was a prostitute but this does not prevent Tareq from suggesting that they open the door dividing the rooms, or that he spend the night in her room or she in his, saying – in the tradition of a million prom night dates – that “he just wants them to get closer.
It was difficult to reconcile this lecherous, slightly crass individual, with the sensitive photographer who takes pictures in an attempt to freeze time and who has a collection of corks from wine bottles on which he has written the date when he and his friends consumed the wine.
The scenes in which the couple appeared alone were strangely stilted and passionless. This is in large part due to the poverty of the script, and the meandering, dull, meditation on life and love which the film’s characters spend the majority of the film engaged in.
The film only really came alive with the appearance of Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar. The understated humor of his performance as Tareq’s best friend Hamada was excellent.
The film culminates with the fall of Baghdad and the killing of an Al-Jazeera journalist whose death Tareq watches on television, in floods of tears.
Nahla meanwhile watches the same scenes in her house, severely depressed and also in floods of tears.
Tareq’s and Nahla’s utter devastation is baffling – unless we realize that both have lived in Iraq, a minor detail conveyed with such subtlety that it was missed by me and everyone else I spoke to afterwards.
It is doubtful whether the film would have had more meaning even if the characters’ relationship with Iraq had been explained better.
While watching the events of 2003 with the hindsight of 2008 was strangely emotional, I came away confused both at what, if anything, the film wanted to say, and at what an examination of the US invasion of Iraq through the prism of the love affair at the heart of the film offered exactly.