THE REEL ESTATE: A question of morality in ‘Haram Street’

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The talk of Egyptian film circles for the past couple of weeks has been entirely focused on one topic and one topic only: The unexpected success of the newly released comedy “Sharea’ El-Haram” (Haram Street).

Slammed by every single critic in the nation, the Eid release shattered Egyptian box-office records, scoring the biggest single day gross in Egyptian cinema history at a time when most observers believed that Egyptians have turned their back on cinema.

Along with the Mohamed Saad farce “Tick-tick Bom,” the hefty earnings of “Haram Street” make the 2011 Eid season the most successful in recent memory.

No critic, producer or media watcher saw this coming.

Produced by Ahmed El-Sobky, the reigning patron of crass entertainment, “Harm Street” is the lowest of low-brow comedies; a hodge-podge of a film with a flimsy, frayed plot, tasteless humor and staggering vulgarity.

After Jan. 25, the ever-so-deluded film critics of our beloved nation were certain that the poisonous culture climate will be cleansed of such cinematic transgressions; that Egyptians will shun “petty cinema” for serious art mirroring the importance of this pivotal moment in Arab history. Judging by the enormous success of the Eid films, Egyptians clearly didn’t.

The fascinating aspect of the “Haram Street” success story for me is the ever-green question of morality, refracted via multiple boycott campaigns that almost overshadowed the movie itself. The reaction of both critics and disgruntled audience members is more telling of the reality of Egyptian society than the actual product on offer.

Starring popular shaabi singer Saad El-Soghayar and Egypt’s most popular belly-dancer Dina — the same duo responsible for previous chart-topping hits “Awlad El-balad” (Sons of the Country) and “Alia El-Tarab bel Talata” — “Haram Street” takes place in the classic cabaret setting made popular in the 30s and 40s films. The drastic transformations that went in the representation of this world from the pre-Nasser age and the Mubarak era are quite telling of the changing morality of then and now.

In early Egyptian films, the posh city cabaret stood in for theater; an entertainment nirvana sought after by aspiring singers such as Farid Al-Atrash and Mohamed Fawzy and talented dancers like Tahiya Karioka and Samia Gamal dreaming of making it big in showbiz. By the 60s, the cabaret had become a rotten hellhole for pimps and fallen women rejected by society.

“Haram Street” strangely treads a fine line between the two. In most of the film, the cabaret is depicted as a joyful, care-free haven for pleasure-seekers, only tarnished by the malice of a bad few. Yet, by the end of the movie, Sobky exercises his favorite hobby of forcing an out-of-place religious message via his characters, who renounce their past in spite of the fact that their integrity and morals remain uncompromised throughout the movie.

Dina plays Zizi, a folk dancer working in government-owned theater and struggling to attract an audience. Out of nowhere, she gets abducted and raped by a sadistic businessman (Ahmed Salama) whose hatred for women is never explained.

Shortly after, she gets introduced to El-Soghayar’s wannabe singer/composer who convinces her that the only way to achieve fame is by belly dancing in Haram Street, the disreputable hub of nightlife in Egypt. In little time, she becomes a dancing sensation, attracting the warranted attention of a shifty ambulance-chasing lawyer (Ahmed Bedeir) and her former rapist.

There isn’t much to say about the plot really. The film follows the same route that dozens of Egyptian films before it have closely followed: the bad guys threaten to close down Zizi’s business, Zizi swindles them and avenges her honor and the rest of her clan give up their ‘sinful’ life for decent professions that don’t pay much.

It’s pointless to criticize “Haram Street” artistically. In fact, I find it quite difficult putting “Haram Street” and ‘film’ in one sentence.

The deformed creature that is “Haram Street” is essentially composed of botched sequences spliced together in baffling, chaotic order. Basic editing is non-existent; blocking, lighting and continuity gradually emerge as lofty assets beyond the absent skills of TV director Shoura.

Yet, as strange as this may sound, I found “Haram” more tolerable than Mohamed Saad’s repulsive, opportunistic jab at flag-waving patriotism. “Haram,” for all its cinematic misdeeds, doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s a big, greasy Eid meal that knows how to please audiences.
Several media pundits took the success of “Haram Street” as a sign of unprecedented deterioration of public taste. “We’ve become addicted to ugliness,” popular talk-show host Amr Adeeb declared.

“The impact the revolution had on society at large was not entirely positive,” political columnist Ibrahim Eissa wrote. “The chaos, fear and division taking over society have driven people to head to ‘Haram Street,’ to distract themselves from the graver reality of the present.”
I mentioned in an article published in July that Egyptians will seek brainless comedies, fueled by an insatiable desire to escape the tumultuous political and economic climate of the present. That’s pretty much what happened this month. Egyptians went for the easiest, dumbest and trashiest product on offer, and it wasn’t just the ‘modestly-educated’ downtown denizens as some critics claimed.

“Haram Street” attracted viewers from across the social spectrum, a rarity for a Sobky release. It performed especially well in more upscale theaters such as Galaxy and City Stars, two venues that hardly ever have Sobky’s processed goods on their screens.

Any sane person would acknowledge the fact that public taste cannot change overnight. In addition, higher education, better living conditions and political freedom wouldn’t necessarily lead to improved appreciation of arts.

Great cinema everywhere, including France — the last shrine for art-house film — will never be able to compete with Hollywood fares and local mainstream films. The commercial success of “Haram Street” is no less dispiriting than that of the “Transformers” franchise in the US, the “Brice de Nice” movies in France or the “Valley of the Wolves” sequels in Turkey.

The truly disquieting part of the “Haram Street” saga is the aforementioned campaign attacking it from a predominantly moral perspective.

More than 20 groups on Facebook, boasting more than 30,000 members, called for banning “Haram Street” before its release. Members of these groups claimed that it violates public conduct with sex scenes and base language.

“Egypt is no longer a nation of frivolity, singing and triviality,” one member wrote, “we have to wisen up now.”

Another said that the film misrepresents Egypt, painting a poor picture of the country. The tone of most reviews didn’t veer far from that course, also citing a number of moral reasons in their criticism.

The personal moral objections I have about “Haram Street” are centered on the aftermath of rape scenes. Rape is treated so casually by Shoura, forgotten five minutes later. I found the jokes of Zizi’s sisters about wishing to have been raped like her by multiple men to be not only distasteful but insensitive. That, for me, was unintentionally more unnerving than the unbroken graphic 15-minute rape of Monica Bellucci in Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible.”

Another problem is the portrayal of women. The characters of Dina, Ayten Amer and Madeline Tabar are portrayed as objects existing solely for the enjoyment of sex-starved men. The objections I have stem from my opposition to negative representation rather than a sense of morality, and this is where my main reservation lies.

Simply put, I firmly believe that religious or moral beliefs cannot have a place in criticism. Sex, bad language and vulgarity are elements filmmakers should have the complete freedom to use if they want. The whiff of sex featured in “Haram Street” is tame and not gratuitous and I did not find it offensive. Unlike similar films from the past where the camera, representing the male gaze, closes in on the chests and bottoms of the women, the female actors in “Haram Street” are shot in long and medium shots that do not titillate.

I’m not defending the bad art of “Haram Street;” in fact, I highly recommend that everyone skip it and every other picture with a Sobky stamp on it. I’m defending the right of filmmakers to create their stories using whichever methods or elements they choose, including sex and bad language.

Moral judgments should not be brought on the table in the first place; the ban of a film, no matter how abusive, artless or “immoral” it may be, is a clamp on freedom of expression that must always be protected, even when it comes to the unwatchable products of El-Sobky.

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