Not since 2004’s “Baheb El-Cima (I Love Cinema) has a film triggered widespread condemnation from Coptic groups like “Wahed-Sifr (One-Zero).
The film is the latest ensemble drama from “Malek we Ketaba’s (Heads and Tails) helmer Kamla Abu Zekry.
For all the near-unanimous acclaim “Baheb El-Cima (from Oussama Fawzi) was showered with, no other film in modern Egyptian cinema was received with such hostility from the Egyptian Coptic community.
Since its release, I’ve found myself forced into defending the first Egyptian film featuring Christian leading characters in long debates with Coptic groups from different backgrounds. Artistic value aside, I firmly believe that Fawzi had the right to tell his story any which way he liked. Apparently, most Copts don’t agree.
The majority believe it was downright disrespectful, wondering why the filmmakers would choose such deeply flawed characters “to represent Christians for the first film of its kind. Others believe it purposely ridiculed Christian rites; that the dramatic approach employed was blunt and insensitive.
When I bring out the freedom of expression card, I am constantly told that creative freedom shouldn’t disregard social responsibility; that the type of unconditional freedom I was advocating does not and cannot exist in Egypt; that filmmakers can’t simply offend others in the name of creativity.
I’ve listened to these arguments dozens of times over the past four years from both liberal and conservative Copts, including a famous Coptic actor who rejected a role in the film based on these grounds.
Similarly, “Wahed-Sifr arrives on the heels of a number of complaints from Coptic lawyers who condemn the film for allegedly criticizing the sanctity of Christian marriage by portraying a Coptic divorced woman getting pregnant out of wedlock after being denied a marriage license by the church.
Unlike “Baheb El-Cima, the pre-release disapproval of the film has petered out since its debut, not only because the film is truly remarkable and sincere, but also because the Christian character plotline occupies a rather small part of the plot.
The film centers on several characters with interconnected stories unfolding in the day Egypt won the African Cup of Nation in 2006.
Elham Shahin plays the aforementioned rich Coptic divorcee Neveen who has just found out she’s pregnant. Since she’s the one who asked for divorce (the Coptic Church only grants divorce in cases of adultery or if the husband is gay), Neveen can’t remarry unless she converts to Islam, an option she rejects.
Obtaining a marriage license is the least of Neveen’s problems. For starters, her lover, Sherif (Khaled Abol Naga), does not want to get married nor does he wish to have a baby. For a woman in her early 40s, this might be her last chance to have a baby.
Sherif is a popular entertainment talk show host who seems disdainful of his work and the incessant hypocrisy he must swallow. Unable to overcome his sense of shame and weakness, he drowns himself in alcohol.
On the day of the big game, Sherif shreds to pieces a talentless pop singer named Nina (Nadia) who’s sleeping with her seedy producer (Hussein El-Imam).
Her fame, sold-out concerts and chart-topping records aside, Nadia, as a matter of fact, only earns LE 2000 a month, half of which she hands over to her mother and ultra-conservative sister Riham (Nelly Karim).
Riham despises her sister, telling her at one point that the focus of her singing is “to turn men on. The financially deprived Riham has a fetish for clothes, spending hours staring at fancy dresses she can’t afford. She also takes a liking to the local fuul restaurant worker and the pair decide to meet on the day of the game for their first date.
On the same day, Nadia bumps into her former boyfriend Adel (Ahmed El-Fishawy), a hairdresser aspiring to open up his own salon. Hours before the start of the game, the hair salon owner learns that Adel is trying to steal his clients and ends up firing him following a heated scuffle.
Several other events occur during the day, including a car accident, numerous confrontations, a bar brawl and a sexual harassment incident, all leading to Egypt’s big victory.
Mariam Naoum’s script – which won the Sawiris Foundation Prize a number of years ago – weaves these storylines to paint an intimate, albeit slightly disjointed, portrait of today’s Egyptian society. She tackles a number of pressing issues: sexual frustration, police corruption and abuse of authority, decaying morals and the spread of brutality, the overwhelming hunger for quick fame and, yes, the quandary of Coptic divorce.
What elevates “Wahed-Sifr above the new strain of Egyptian ensemble dramas is the honesty of Naoum’s script. Apart from few implausible details, Naoum’s story is genuine, directly lifted from the current perplexing reality of a society bursting with contradictions.
Abou Zekry’s shaky hand-held camera doesn’t flinch from depicting the ugliness of both its characters and the implications of their actions. Rarely has an Egyptian film dared to portray with simmering candidacy such hysterical altercations like the ones between Adel and his mother, Nadia and Riham and Nadia and her producer. There’s nothing redemptive in those scenes, and like real life, a neat, straightforward resolution is out of reach.
Like many of the recent ensemble dramas though, the film contains a number of drawbacks. Some characters, such as Sherif and Adel, aren’t developed properly enough, occasionally appearing vague with deeper motivations that are not revealed. Some incidents don’t have a strong dramatic relation to the general framework of the story and hence the film loses both focus and coherence near the end.
As for the infamous Christian character, there’s nothing much to spur the resentment of the Coptic community, mainly because the rather complex Coptic divorce issue is reduced to a number of brief, shallow dialogue pieces that fail to penetrate the heart of the problem.
Performance wise, “Wahed-Sifr is easily the best acted Egyptian film since 2007’s “The Island. Apart from the overly praised Intisar, who often comes off cold and remote as Adel’s mother, nearly all actors hit the right note.
Zeina gives a surprisingly emotionally naked performance as the mortified Nadia who must endure constant humiliation and self-shame to save her ungrateful family from poverty. Ahmed El-Fishawy, on the other hand, is uncompromisingly fierce as Adel, a typical loud-mouthed, self-deceptive Egyptian young man who does recognize his digressions but is too proud to admit them.
In the midst of all these exceptional performances, two in particular stand out: Khaled Abol Naga and Nelly Karim. Abol Naga returns to form following his last forgettable turn in “Habibi Na’eman with a thoughtful, internalized performance, moving in its subtly and the diverse emotions it silently utters.
Karim has simply never given a performance like this before or exhibited such outstanding range in her previous works. Her Riham is filled with contradictions: fragile yet cruel sometimes, dreamy yet realistic, religious yet hides deep-seated yearnings. Despite these inconsistencies, Riham never feels fake or unbelievable. Instead, Karim renders her as a sympathetic character; an organic product of these confused times.
“Wahed-Sifr is a commendable, truthful and overambitious collage of sad Egyptian lives attempting, and failing, to adapt in a world that doesn’t care much for them. By the end of the film, when Egypt snatches that golden goal, the cheers of victory feel subdued, empty and fallacious; a mere, quick distraction from a struggle with no end.