As part of its ‘Short Revisited’ programme, which ran from 13 to 15 June, arthouse cinema initiative Zawya was scheduled to screen Aida El-Kashef’s 2011 short film 'Hadouta Men Sag' (A Tin Tale).
However, in the beginning of the evening, and to the audience’s surprise, Alia Ayman, the programme’s curator and one of the forces behind Zawya, announced that the film would not be screened. “We know 'A Tin Tale' was the first title on tonight’s programme and that many of you were looking forward to see it,” she said. “However, we regret to inform you that the film has not been passed by censorship authorities, and therefore we cannot screen it.”
The news was met by an animated murmur from the crowd.
“We cannot break the law, but we are totally against censorship and believe in your right to watch the film,” Ayman continued. “This is why we will be posting a (Vimeo) link to A Tin Tale on our Facebook page tonight, and it can be accessed by everyone.”
Ayman then handed the microphone to El-Kashef, who had been standing next to her as she made the announcement. El-Kashef assured the audience that the reasons the film had not been passed were not political.
“There’s just one curse word or two,” she said. “I think the state felt the need to protect your morals and delicate sensibilities,” she joked.
Ironically, the film was screened as part of the short film competition in the 2012 Ismailia International Festival for Documentary and Short Films, which is sponsored by the government.
Although it’s not clear what drove censors to reject the film this time, when they’d passed it before, the decision is not surprising. 'A Tin Tale,' after all, follows the true story of a "whore" — or so she proclaims herself.
Mona Farkha, the protagonist (played by musician Maryam Saleh), is the subject of a project that two filmmakers, Aida and Omar (named after the actual director and writer of the film), are working on. In a ramshackle room with tin walls and cardboard across the floor, Aida and Omar interview Mona, the young, spirited prostitute, slowly prompting her story in an attempt to bring together a script for their movie.
Although 'A Tin Tale,' opening with a scene of a police officer patronising Mona, at first seems like just film attempting to portray a prostitute in a sympathetic light, it later proves relatively unconventional in its approach. The film is dark yet quirky at the same time, pairing rape scenes with laidback accordion tunes (music by Zeid Hamdan) and accentuating Mona’s tempestuous walk down memory lane with bursts of colour in almost comical settings, often weaved together through rapid, non-linear cuts.
Mona takes us through selected stops in her life, from a day she was gang-raped by a group of boys from her neighbourhood and later blamed by her mother, to a violent confrontation with a husband who treated her like property and shared her body with his friends, to falling in love with a man she met while working in a Downtown cabaret. Through it all, Mona is the victim, and it is never apparent when she actually becomes a prostitute; other than her own admission in the beginning of the film that she works in prostitution, it is never directly conveyed that Mona has sex with anyone in exchange for money.
On the surface, this seems like one of the film’s weaknesses, defying its whole purpose: To label Mona a prostitute because she is repeatedly coerced into sex or because she performs in a sketchy nightspot seems like surrendering to the stereotype. Yet it later becomes apparent that perhaps the blurred lines permeating the film are intentional. As Mona tells her story, she is sometimes shown wearing Aida’s earrings, while Aida, as she listens, is wrapped in Mona’s headscarf and smoking her cigarette.
Aida and Omar, the filmmakers within the film, are subtly and intelligently shown to contribute to the challenges faced by the Monas of the world. Omar, in addition to looking down on the film’s subject matter (he is not very fond of the idea of making a film about a prostitute), is eager to finish the job, listening with unsympathetic ears and asking Mona to fast forward to a part of her life when she felt happy. Aida, too, has placed the character in a box: she complains that Omar’s script makes her sound weak; she should be more feisty; going head to head with the police, etc. Through it all, Mona is sitting in a corner, watching and laughing.
Films have been made about prostitutes before, many of them more striking and memorable than 'A Tin Tale.' Yet the real virtue in El-Kashef’s work lies in how, as an artist, she managed to avoid the trap of taking herself too seriously. Not only is the film infused with a refreshing lightness sometimes, despite being cruel — even brutal. In the final scene, as Mona sings to console herself, the way her mother used to do earlier, the wall behind her collapses, revealing itself to be the studio set that it is, and bringing the full crew of the film, who had been standing behind it, into view. A smiling El-Kashef announces: “That’s a wrap!” and everyone claps. It’s a thoughtful and modest reminder that what we have just witnessed is only a film, and therefore nowhere close to the actual ugliness of reality.
You can watch Aida El-Kashef’s 'A Tin Tale' below: