Yousry Nasrallah, one of Egypt’s greatest filmmakers, has crafted not only this year’s best Egyptian film of the year so far, but one of the most important movies of the decade. A brilliantly provoking, fierce and audacious cinematic document about Egyptian women, “Ehky ya Scheherazade (Tell Me a Story Scheherazade) is the rarest of creatures in Egyptian cinema: an entertainment that looks, feels and moves like art-house pictures.
Released amid a flurry of aggressive criticism targeted toward actress Mona Zaki – the Julia Roberts, girl-next-door of Egyptian cinema – for her involvement in scenes some rendered “steamy (more than 10,000 people are signed in two facebook group that condemns Zaki for “selling out and “compromising her values for fame and cheap bucks), “Scheherazade has attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.
The film is indeed candid with the themes it discusses, presenting a frighteningly honest and stark account of Egyptian women. Nasrallah and the film’s scriptwriter, Wahid Hamed, dabble in sex, politics, violence and social mores with a confident, unshaken pen; an approach some have found to be somehow emotionally strenuous.
Politics and controversy aside, what distinguishes the film is its sense of urgency.
Nasrallah and Hamed’s stories might not be revelatory for intellectuals who have grown numb with the daily coverage of harassment and the socially-ingrained injustices Egyptian women have been enduring for decades. What Nasrallah essentially does is magnify these issues in a tightly controlled dramatic form, concluding with a strong statement neither direct nor preachy. There’s no uniformed message; just a stern picture of the reality of our times. Nasrallah doesn’t look for reasons, nor is he interested in the future implications of the crises at hand; “Scheherazade is more interpretational than indicative.
Adopting the story-within-a-story framing device of “Arabian Nights, the titular heroine of the “1001 tales is incarnated in popular, poised Mona Shazly-like TV presenter Hoda Younis (Zaki) who hosts a daily political talk show on a satellite TV station. Hoda is married to Karim Hassan (newcomer Hassan Saeed), a needy, insecure and opportunistic paper editor in a government-owned daily. In order for Karim to become the paper’s chief editor, government officials tell him, he must persuade his wife to soften her blazingly critical tone.
Hoda complies with her husband’s pleas, primarily in order to avoid threatening her marriage. Instead, she diverts her attention to light women s problems after she encounters a pretty and stylish department store vendor named Salma who leads a double life between the plush world of the store she works in and the grimy neighborhood she inhabits.
From then on, the film branches into three separate, interconnected stories of women Hoda hosts in her show. The first is of Amany (Sawsan Badr), a middle-aged, middle-class spinster recounting a particular dire marriage proposal that sums up her reasons for staying single.
The second – based on a true story – features three lower-class fatherless young women who, unbeknownst to each other, have an affair with their young employer; a sexually- ravenous swindler who promises each of them that he will marry her.
The third story sees a rich dentist falling prey to a businessman/economist (Mahmoud Hemeida) who manipulates her into sleeping with him before the official wedding is held and then later abandons her when he she becomes pregnant.
In between these stories, Hoda fails to confront the fact that her marriage is falling apart. She and her husband seem to be on entirely different wavelengths in terms of the way they regard politics, success and social responsibility.
The unwholesome nature of Hoda’s relationship with her husband is found, with various modifications, in each of the three stories. Hoda has little communication with her husband; what governs her relationship, and the other female protagonists, with her man is sex; the one thing every male character in the film is chasing after. All male characters treat their women as toys, fodders for their sexual fulfillment. In all stories, including Hoda’s, men go to extreme lengths to seize full control of their women. All men never question their actions; they simply act according to social norms. The female characters initially abide by these norms as well. But they ultimately decide to rebel, partially through speaking out on Hoda’s show, but their mutiny is somewhat belated, each leaving behind a shattered life, damaged beyond repair. The idea that sex has become the foremost purpose for marriage in Egypt is no far-fetched theory. The fact that a divorce takes place every six minutes says it all. Combine that with lack of sexual awareness and the regard of sex as a taboo, an instinct any decent women isn’t supposed to express. None of the women are depicted as saint-like figures; each one is deeply flawed and real, full of burning sexual desires and rage. Each has transgressed and made bad choices. Some are too stubborn, too proud to face up to the misdeeds they’ve committed.
The dynamic between Hoda’s relationships with her subjects is also not as straightforward and unambiguous as it seems. Hoda needs her subjects as much as her subjects need her. At times, Nasrallah depicts her as a wily predator through the giant TV screens of the studio; at others, the dynamic is reversed.
The biggest strength of “Scheherazade is in the small details; in the manner by which it challenges long-held social norms.
The most contentious territory Hamed and Nasrallah venture in is the issue of hijab. The double life Salma entails that she wear a trendy, short costume at work while donning the hijab on her way home. In one of the most telling scenes of the film, Salma and Hoda take the metro. Salma wears the hijab, Hoda doesn’t. The women in the metro gape at her in perplexity, that borders on contempt. Hoda fails to resist and eventually throws a scarf on her head.
The hijab, Nasrallah points out, has been transformed from a private and spiritual custom willingly adopted by the truly devout into another agent of conformity. The distance between the social and the religious, the personal and the public, is being completely obliterated.
Pointless, unjust traditions is another factor, from the wary look unmarried women over 30 receive from potential suitors and surrounding community to the socially enforced demands to please and “obey the man. Deviation from the norm is not deemed by society at large as justified insubordination but as depravity.
Nasrallah conceives his stories and themes through his usual striking lens. As in his previous works, the pace of the film is measured, replete with expressive gestures, haunting gazes and silent ellipses. His particular use of mirrors and screens reflect the temporary paradigm shift in the relationship between women and men. The intrusive close-ups, gliding tracking shots and aesthetic frame compositions foster the impact of both the beautiful and quiet scenes (a subtle conversation in the dark between Hoda and Amany) and the stridently shocking ones (an abortion).
The potency of the film is found not only in what it says, but also in what it doesn’t say.
The film is not without flaws. I wanted Nasrallah to get dirtier, to be more political and more abrasive. The film also contains no positive male characters, no three-dimensional ones. Yet, truth be told, it’s quite difficult to encompass everything about a topic of such wide magnitude in the span of two and a half hours. Nasrallah has a clear goal, and in order to reach it, some sacrifices had to be made.
Nasrallah has accomplished in one film what proclaimed-feminist filmmaker Inas Al Degheidy failed to achieve in her entire career. A week after release, “Scheherazade has already become Nasrallah’s biggest commercial success to date and it’s well-deserved.
“Scheherazade is a film that Egypt thoroughly needs; a wake-up call to the sordid world our leaders, religious guides and
fathers have created.