You gotta hand it to Khaled Youssef; each and every one of his last four films has stirred heated debate.
Youssef Chahin’s protégé became an almost overnight sensation with films that dove headfirst into the traditional taboos of sex, violence and religion.
Simultaneously released at the end of 2007, the surprising success of “Heya Fawda? (Is It Chaos?) and “Hena Maysara (In Time) transformed Youssef into the voice of the underprivileged, the voiceless and the oppressed and the sworn enemy of the conservatives and the ruling party.
His latest film “Dokkan Shehata, already a massive commercial success in its third week of release, has been met with the same blazing criticism and widespread condemnation from some religious groups, not to mention the usual lawsuits.
Over the past couple of weeks, notorious lawyer Nabih El Wahsh, the self-proclaimed protector of our holy nation, filed a lawsuit to have the film banned for tarnishing Egypt’s reputation. A group of Al-Azhar scholars, reports claim, have called the film’s lead actress Haifaa Wahby a “whore, also called on President Mubarak to pull the film from theaters, citing an offensive scene featuring dancing at Al Hussein mosque and an offensive dialogue line. (Both the scene and dialogue are, in fact, not in the film.) The latest denunciation was issued by a Sufi group who objected to a scene that sees a group of Sufi chanters peering at Wahby’s bare thighs.
Like “Maysara, his finest work to date, Youssef sets his story in a Cairo slum. In “Maysara, he put this deserted world under the microscope, carefully highlighting hardships and cruelties residents face every day. Although melodramatic, sensational and somewhat lacking focus, “Maysara was raw, authentic and uncompromising in its vision.
In “Shehata – also penned by “Maysara and “Chaos scriptwriter Nasser Abdel Rahman – the slums are employed merely as a secondary backdrop for Youssef’s mythical yarn that’s largely based on the Biblical/Quran story of Joseph. And that’s what “Shehata essentially is: A hackneyed, feel-bad melodrama that initially promises to make revealing social and political commentary but ends up saying absolutely nothing about present-day society.
The film opens in the early ’80s with the death of Sadat. Haj Hagag (Mahmoud Hemieda, one of its few saving graces) who has two sons, and a daughter from a previous marriage. His new wife dies while giving birth to his youngest son, Shehata, who immediately becomes his favorite.
Hagag befriends a former aristocratic physician turned communist when most of his property was sequestered after Egypt’s 1952 revolution. As a sign of comradeship, the doctor grants Hagag part of his villa to set us a small fruit store.
Hagag’s decision to name his store after his youngest son spurs hatred and jealousy in the elder sons towards Shehata. Over the years, the store becomes the center of contention between the brothers, or rather between the two greedy, depraved and spiteful older brothers and the young, loving, idealistic and forgiving Shehata (“Maysara star Amr Saad).
Since this is a Khaled Youssef film, a woman must enter the equation to intensify the conflict. Here the girl is Bissa, played by sultry Lebanese singer/seductress Wahby. Shehata is in love with Bissa and wants to marry her. What prevents their union is Bissa’s brother Karam Ghabawa (Karam Stupidity, played by Khaled Abdel Gelil) who insists that Haj Hagag transfer the ownership of the store to Shehata before he agrees to give away his sister.
The kindhearted and faithful Shehata naturally declines and before the issue is resolved, the father dies. Shaken and disillusioned, Shehata falls prey to a trap conjured by his brothers who throw him in jail and sell the store to the Israeli embassy that acquired the villa from the doctor’s son (a hint that everything in Egypt is sold to Israel these days).
To make his life more miserable, Bissa is literary forced into marrying Hagag’s middle son who beats and rapes her in front of his family.
A few years later, Shehata, unaware that Bissa was married, is released from jail and starts to look for his brothers. Astonishingly, Saint Shehata is unfettered by what his brothers did to him; revenge doesn’t even cross his mind.
“Shehata is, more or less, the plain old story of a group of brothers quarrelling over a store and a girl. That’s basically it; there’s nothing more to it.
Youssef’s so-called politics is at best infantile and trivial. He is an unabashed Nasserist. The focus of “Shehata is the lost generation of the ’80s; my generation. Born from the ruins of the Sadat’s failed policies and into Mubarak’s inferno of corruption and bedlam, Youssef uses blatant symbolism (Hagag asking his son to place Nasser’s photo over a “crack in the wall before the latter tells him that it’s too big for the picture to hide) and in-your-face dramatic threads (the friendship between the aristocrat and the peasant) to mourn the gap left by Nasser’s death.
Borrowing the dated dramatic device of his mentor, Bissa (usually called Baheya in Chahine’s movies), figuratively stands for Egypt that is exploited, raped and spoilt by the gluttony of self-serving men.
The titular character represents the presumed inherent innocence and dying values of Egyptians; values born on hostile, carnivorous land.
Youssef’s strange penchant for puerile symbolism has blinded him to creating believable characters. Apart from Haj Hagag, all characters are cartoonish and one-dimensional. The brothers are rotten to the core; Shehata is innocent as a new-born. The icing on the cake is Bissa of course, every Egyptian man’s object of fantasy. Youssef’s puppet theater is peppered with the standard clichés (a parade of flashbacks popping the moment Shehata meets Bissa for the first time following his release), an unbearably heavy dose of quintessential Egyptian misery, and the obligatory dance scene whose sole function is to spice up the film.
Yet the strangest facet of Youssef’s film is the swarm of irrelevant political and social events forced into the fabric of the story. Youssef said in a TV interview that he intended to “put all the major political and social events of the past 30 years into his film. And indeed he did.
The April 6 demonstrations, the rigged presidential elections, the bread and water crises and the African Cup of Nation victory, are briefly glimpsed by Shehata. None of these events have any connection whatsoever to the story. Youssef has simply attempted to use these events to give his film a significance it clearly lacks.
The last scene, set in 2013, predicts that the country will fall into further chaos. Religious extremists and criminals will rule, crime and violence will skyrocket; security will become a thing of the past.
Youssef has previously said that judging by the course Egypt is taking; these should be the inevitable consequences. What is this course? What led us to such a state? What killed the innocence of my generation? All these fundamental questions have been left unanswered.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been heavily contemplating the reasons for Egypt’s moral, cultural and social decadence. I went to see “Dokkan Shehata foolishly seeking an answer. What I found instead was a bunch of people screaming, wailing and unjustifiably eradicating each other.
I left the film in despair, revolted not by the disfigured, scrappy portrait Youssef paints of Egypt, but by the ghastly story and the unsightly filmmaking. The entire hubbub triggered by the lawsuits is an indication of the future of our cinema. As for those critics complaining about showing “our dirty laundry to the world, they need a reality check.
Egypt needs filmmakers like the late Atef El Tayeb; filmmakers who lay bare the reality of our time with no blemishes; filmmakers intelligent enough to explore the reasons for the country’s breakdown.
Youssef is not that filmmaker and although Egypt needs someone like him, it certainly deserves better.