With the television series Wahet El-Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis), based on Bahaa Taher’s novel of the same name, director Kamla Abu Zekry presents an innovative, sad and nostalgic work, a fascinating adventure told through beautiful imagery.
In 2008, El-Shorouk publications released Taher’s Sunset Oasis, for which the author received the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The television series, produced by Al Adl group, directed by Kamla Abu Zekry, and written for TV by Mariam Naoum, transports us into the world of the novel, with characters and scenery very different from that which we are accustomed to seeing in Ramadan television series.
Visuals are central to this adaptation, which, while closely following the events of the novel, stray from them slightly by way of several visual techniques.
Taher’s novel is set in the late nineteenth century, at a time marked by the British colonization of Egypt and the abortion of Ahmed Orabi’s revolution.
Two police officers, Mahmoud Abdelzaher and Talaat, enthusiastically take part in events. They are subjected to an inquiry by their British superiors after the failed uprising, which left all Egyptians hoping for a new era of independence and autonomy.
They each to try to escape a military trial. Talaat bluntly denies all the evidence, while Mahmoud only vaguely replies to accusations. Mahmoud is exiled to Siwa Oasis, where he is made district commissioner – at once a promotion and a punishment – with responsibility for collecting taxes from the underprivileged people of Siwa on behalf of the British.
Along with his Irish wife, Catherine, he goes on a perilous adventure to reach Siwa. In this original setting, Kamla Abu Zekry and director of photography Nancy Abdel Fattah choose framings and rhythms that go along perfectly with the motion of the desert sand and the different hours of day and night; a world which seems monotonous, but which reflects the inner struggles of the characters. Viewers sit entranced by the profound beauty of these images.
Throughout their journey, Mahmoud revisits his past, marked by treason, defeat, dreams and desires that still haunt his present. In this passage, caught between the past and the present, revolt and helplessness, Kamla Abu Zekry uses quotes from the book; however, he mostly employs lighting to capture the character’s facial expressions, and bring out the beauty of Rim El-Adl’s costumes, beautifully fitted and with colors matching those of the inhabitants of this isolated world.
Tamer Karouan’s music adds an essential touch of complexity to this world, the apparent serenity of which is broken by the quarrels of the people of Siwa, disputes between the people of the North and those of the East – a quiet violence tinted with the sadness and nostalgia which inhabit the souls of all the characters.
In adapting the novel, Mariam Naoum chose a linear narrative, with occasional flashbacks into the stories of the people living in the oasis.
In Taher’s original, the story is told by multiple narrators, allowing for the in-depth expression of each character.
Death, as the main protagonist, is omnipresent in both narratives. Through snippets of narration, or shots of storms and long, insomniac nights, Nancy Abdel Salam’s camera leaps into the restless souls of those who long only for a liberating death.
The details and precision in Fawzy El-Awamry’s settings render each scene akin to a painting. This meticulous work is in no way comparable to ordinary television series in which actors make exaggerated gesticulations in an attempt to compensate for the mediocrity of cliched works.
Here, the actors’ work is refined and subtle; life and suffering flow along in a movement akin to that of the desert, calm in appearance, but never delivering all of its secrets, as the convoy guide states before his death.
The actors have equally created captivating characters, from Khaled El-Nabawi, who incarnates a troubled soul with much mastery and discretion, to Menna Shalaby, in the role of a young Irish woman, who seems to be a native of this country.
There is also Sayed Ragab, in the role of a helpless policeman, but one who knows how to follow orders; and Ahmed Kamal, in the role of Sheikh Yehia, wise and dedicated, but helpless in the face of a world headed towards its own demise.
Two stars who stand out are young Jordanian actress Rakim Saad and Siham Abdel Salam in the role of the maid in Mahmoud Abdel Zaher’s house, a small role in which she is just as brilliant as in her first roles.
However, it would have been preferable to see the people of Siwa speak their native dialect rather than the Egyptian dialect, or at least speak in a language close to that of the people of that area. A difficult enterprise, certainly, since it would have required much research and learning.
That point aside, the work of this talented team is an ongoing pleasure, one that is highly appealing to all senses.
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