In the recently released Ahmed Fouad Negm biopic “El-Fagoumy,” director Essam El-Shamaa ventured to capitalize on the January 25 Revolution by inserting footage of the protests at the very end of the film. The footage bore no connection to the narrative which ends in 1979; this was simply a disgraceful stunt to put more bums on seats.
Sameh Abdel-Aziz’s critically mauled “Sarkhet Namla” (An Ant’s Cry) ups the volume considerably, manipulating the entire third act to lead up to the mass demonstrations in Tahrir. A loud Khaled Youssef-like melodrama with a whiff of humorless comedy, profusion of vulgarity and a veiled religious agenda, the addition of Jan. 25 events to the conclusion results in what is, by miles, the worst Egyptian film of the year. A new low for a local film industry that is adamant on milking the revolution to the very last drop.
Sameh Abdel Aziz, the man who brought us the blatant religious sermons “Cabaret” and “El-Farah” (The Wedding), returns to the grimy Cairo slums that made his fortune, with another tale about a down-on-his-luck smartass trying to find his place in a country crushed by corruption. The new addition to this stale cocktail is a heavy layer of naive politics that, unintentionally, descends the film into triviality.
Irksome comedian Amr Abdel Gelil (“Kalemni Shokran”) is the hangdog former émigré Gouda El-Masry who has returned penniless from Iraq where he was imprisoned by American troops for refusing to hand in the keys for the electric utilities store he worked at.
Believing him to be dead, his wife, Wafaa (Rania Youssef), runs home to work at — surprise, surprise — a nightclub as a belly dancer, leaving their only son in the custody of her callous, two-faced uncle. Her sister follows a similar path, marrying wealthy, sex-hungry Gulf men for limited periods, a practice that obliges her to have multiple hymen reconstruction surgeries. Having crossed the foreboding age of 30, his sister, on the other hand, decides to marry the first man who would take her; in her case, this man happens to be a much-older unemployed junkie.
With nowhere to go, Gouda accepts a low-paying job as a waiter in a rundown local ahwa where young idle men stab each other casually for the most insignificant of reasons. Suddenly, the poorly-educated, politically-apathetic Gouda takes interest in finance after the government decides to transfer the ownership of public sector companies into bonds owned by the people (a real initiative that, contrary to what the film suggests, never materialized).
When he realizes that the whole affair is one big scam, he temporally rebels and — gasp — attempts to sue the president (a first in the entire history of Egyptian cinema).
Unrelenting scriptwriter Tarek Abdel Gelil, writer of dim-witted wannabe political satires “Ayez Haky” and “Zaza” and also Amr’s brother, continues his niggling flirtation with politics, touching upon a variety of issues such as water shortages (he imagines that the water company has been privatized and that supply is controlled by pre-paid charge cards), gas exports to Israel and the housing crisis.
Gouda’s brief foray into the perilous realms of politics ends prematurely when a crooked MP (aren’t they all?) takes him under his wing to be the front of shady property sales. Since vice must be sternly punished in Abdel-Aziz’s strictly-governed moral universe, Gouda’s predestined downfall is only a matter of time.
Veering unevenly between drama and comedy, Abdel-Aziz sets out to create a mainstream “message” film presenting an “important” subject while offering sufficient entertaining attractions to justify the unsolicited seriousness of whatever reality he’s depicting.
By resorting to outlandish farce, Abdel-Aziz shows a lack of confidence in the real reasons that led to the revolution, as if saying that the sorry state of the country was not dire enough.
Simplification aside, Abdel-Aziz doesn’t seem to know what he wants Gouda to represent exactly. Gouda is most certainly not the defiant spirit that fueled the revolution; Gouda is a defeatist who doesn’t give a dime about the greater good of his community. At his most rebellious fits, Gouda refers to himself as “an ant” in need of sugar. The central question of dignity, arguably the real motor behind the revolution, is never proposed.
Gouda is not the quintessential hapless spirit trampled by the unforgiving system either. Gouda is an unsympathetic opportunist who snatches the first foreseeable chance to plunder the riches of the country. He might be a small fry, but that does not justify his actions.
Gouda is also not the victim Abdel-Aziz portrays him to be, not the minor-league scapegoat the government has used to cover up its dirty laundry. He is equally complicit in those crimes. The sense of powerlessness, self-interest and self-pity Gouda vividly embodies is contrary to what Abdel-Aziz believes, what has allowed corruption to run amok for more than 20 years.
The only thing Gouda surely represents is Abdel-Aziz’s absent-mindedness, a lack of vision from an inept filmmaker in frantic search of something significant to say.
The muddled vision, naive politics and sensationalistic drama are, nonetheless, no match for the film’s underlying moralistic implications that cross the line of offensiveness. The essence of the film’s characters, whether it’s good or rotten, is the barometer with which Abdel-Aziz uses to impose his unyielding sentences on his characters. Abdel-Aziz embodies everything that is bad with religious practice in Egypt; a shallow religiosity basing its judgments on external appearances, questionable traditions and mind-numbing rituals.
As in his past works, Abdel-Aziz shows Egypt as a massive hedonistic wonderland where all financially-struggling women, taking a cue from their cinematic forbearers, seek refuge in nightclubs.
In one telling scene, Gouda is prevented from entering the mosque by a group of police officers. “You’ve attended the Friday sermon five weeks ago, why do you need to go in now?” they ask him. When they finally allow him to enter, he finds himself all alone in the entire mosque, addressed by a desperate preacher hailing the president.
In another, Gouda’s buddy (Ahmed Wafiq) explicitly tells him: “God has inflicted this regime upon us to punish us for transgressions.” This is the precise argument dozens of cab drivers used to throw at me whenever the regretful condition of the country was brought up in conversation, a belief that one of the most religious nations on earth has abandoned God and succumbed to the temptations of the world (which, according to this logic, must be offered in abundance!).
News flash to Abdel-Aziz: God had nothing to do with it. The indifference and submission of older generations to half a century of totalitarian rule are what made the country the way it was. And I can’t bring myself to believe that following God’s “orders” or adhering closely to the religious principles, as Abdel-Aziz advocates us to, will solve all of the country’s problems in a blink of an eye.
As in “El-Fagoumy,” the film concludes with the Tahrir protests. Footage of Mubarak’s ill-fated last speech makes an appearance as Gouda wonders if Mubarak is aware of the rampant corruption that has taken over the land. And out of nowhere, Gouda starts chasing down Mubarak’s lavish vehicle to “wake him up,” only to find out that the automobile is empty.
Even at the peak of the uprising, when the vast majority of Egyptians decided to take their fate into their own hands, Gouda remains a slave to the system, begging the man responsible for the suffering of the country to listen and perhaps reach reconciliation.
“An Ant’s Cry” was originally titled “Elha’na Ya Rayes” (Save Us, President), a more fitting title for a film that can’t seem to fathom, or acknowledge, the strength of Egyptians. “An Ant’s Cry” is an anti-revolution film, carrying the old backward mentality many filmmakers adopted to exercise their superiority over a public they long deemed dormant.