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Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Odysseys to scale: Tracing a major theme in this year’s Ramadan TV

The hero’s journey or odyssey is this year Ramadan TV series' new tide, with writers producing the narrowly structured works in a single format

Hani Mustafa , Monday 4 Jun 2018
(Photo: still from Abu Omar Al-Masry)
Views: 5254
Views: 5254

Over some five decades now Ramadan television series have shared a proclivity for social critique and multiple characters-storylines, even though until the end of the 1980s – when 30-episode series and 45-minute episodes became the norm – most of the works in question used to be only 15 episodes.

Only in the late 1980s did TV drama become what it is with Osama Anwar Okasha writing Al-Shahd wal-Dumou’ (Honey and Tears) in two seasons and Layali Al-Helmia (Helmia Nights) in five seasons and Mohamed Galal Abdel-Qawi writing Al-Mal wal-Banoun (Wealth and Progeny) in two seasons.

Leaning on the tragic format that has always underlay Egyptian television and film, these works proved very popular as viewers were drawn to the variety and depth of carefully constructed characters and tightly woven storylines.

This year the tide seems to be turning again, however, with writers producing far more narrowly structured works in a single format: the formula of the hero’s journey or odyssey. Reflecting a production preference for one-star shows – Mohamed Ramadan, Ahmed Ezz, Amir Karara, Yasser Galal – the odyssey formula also lends itself to action and suspense which promise higher ratings.

In Mariam Naoum and Mohamed Al-Masry’s Abu Omar Al-Masry, directed by Ahmed Khaled Moussa and based on two novels by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere – The Killing of Fakhredine (1995) and Abu Omar Al-Masry (2007) – the hero, Fakhredine (Ahmed Ezz), himself a terrorist leader, sets out to rescue his son Omar from the clutches of Abu Hamza (Munzir Riahna), the terrorist emir who has arrested and plans on executing him.

In the first episode, an unarmed Fakhredine penetrates the village Abu Hamza’s Gamaa controls and single-handedly fights his way – Rambo-like – to his archenemy’s lair, where it becomes clear they have known each other for a long time. The scene ends with Fakhredine killing Abu Hamza and escaping with his son. The escape ploy is extremely unconvincing, since Fakhredine manages to walk past Abu Hamza’s guard by declaring he is under the protection of the emir he has just killed.

But it is during the return journey on camel back through the desert, when Fakhredine begins to tell Omar the story of his life, that the flashbacks forming the substance of the story start. A principled young lawyer committed to defending the poor and the working class, Fakhredine clashes with the corrupt and violent businessman Samir Al-Abd (kudos to Fathi Abdel-Wahab for a strong performance), who tries to kill him and ends up killing his cousin instead. But Fakhredine’s friends pretend he was the one who died and use a forged passport to send him to Belgium to study in place of his cousin...

(Photo: still from Handcuffs)

In first season of Kalabsh (Handcuffs) last year, writer Baher Dewidar and director Peter Mimi presented a similar odyssey in the figure of police officer Selim Al-Ansari (Amir Karara). This man’s moral resolve and insistence on implementing the law place various obstacles in his way – until three corrupt figures, a businessman, a lawyer and MP manage to frame him for a murder – and so he becomes a fugitive.

His nemesis is the officer whose job it is to find and arrest him, Salah Al-Toukhi (Mahmoud Al-Bizzawi), and his challenge is to prove his innocence – which he does. In the new season, a terrorist attack that kills a large group of army conscripts on the Fayoum highway sets the tone. Selim the comic-book hero is pitted against a Gulf-connected comic-book villain, Akef Al-Gabalawi (Haitham Ahmed Zaki), who imports weapons with which to supply terrorist groups though he is not himself a terrorist.

Selim ends up arresting Akef’s father Abul Ezz (Abdel-Rahman Abu Zahra), a drug- and arms-dealer who having received a capital punishment sentence is on the run. And so Akef kills Selim’s wife and sister. Kalabsh is notable for dealing frankly with police corruption, but in this season Selim’s betrayal by a major officer involved with the Gabalawis is a bold turn.

One of the weakest examples of the odyssey formula is Nisr Al-Saeed (Upper Egypt Eagle), in which the hero Zain Al-Qinawi (Mohamed Ramadan) is not only a strong and decisive police officer but also a wise and sensitive loyal Upper Egyptian; he is in short everything good and noble, which makes it next to impossible to develop any convincing drama in the modern sense.

Screenwriter Mohamed Abdel-Moati and director Yasser Sami have created an epic devoid of human depth in which Zain’s father Saleh, the head of the city of Qina, is not only the main landowner but also the patriarch and the informal judge, who is killed by an antiquities- and drugs-smuggler named Hitler (Sayed Ragab) trying to replace him as the man in charge.

The series traces Zain’s life story from the death of his mother when he is ten to his father being killed while he is studying at the Police Academy. Yet the obstacles and challenges he faces are all superficial and exaggerated, and the action sequences – like the one in which he leads a small force into a village controlled by a major criminal with seven execution sentences to his name – are more like video game slashers than fast-paced film. 

(Photo: still from Upper Egypt Eagle)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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