When popular actor, comedian and musician Hussein Alimam sadly and suddenly died in May of this year, no one predicted the artist had an unfinished project under his belt. But this wasn't the only surprise: no one expected the project would be the comedian's first – and last – film as a screenwriter and director.
Thankfully, the 36th Cairo International Film Festival's selection team was aware, and so with the support of Alimam's son Youssef, who is also a filmmaker and musician, Like a Matchstick made its world premiere on the first day of the festival and was widely attended and enjoyed by audiences on both of its screening days.
Like a Matchstick pays tribute to Hussein Aliman's father, Hassan – one of Egypt's most acclaimed directors, with almost 100 films to his name, including Souad Hosny's classic Khali Balak Min Zuzu (Take Care of Zuzu) and the three film adaptations for Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's trilogy.
Hussein used five of his father's films to recreate a new story, in which he stars as the main character, Wahid Ezzat, joined by his wife, actress Sahar Ramy as Madame Zizette. Besides a few more characters, the main protagonists of the film are stars of Egypt's golden era of cinema – Faten Hamama, Hind Rostom, Magda El-Khateeb and Laila Fawzy, along with appearances from Farid Shawky, Hussein Riad and Emad Hamdy.
The black and white film shifts through archival footage of his father's films, along with new footage, creating a parallel and hilarious reality.
It starts with archival footage of Cairo, with Alimam's animated voice narrating the story of Wahid Ezzat, a young kid who has no parents and is raised by a female drug dealer, El-Mea'lima Mabahig.
As he grows up and becomes successful in the drug business, he goes to prison, where he learns that there is a hidden treasure outside. Upon his release he finds it and sets up a night club through which he runs his drug business. This is when he introduces us to the girls who help him sell the drugs: Lola (Hind Rustom), Laila (Faten Hamama) and Aneesa (Magda El-Khateeb).
Throughout the film, which is full of humour with a high level of absurdity, Ezzat and Madame Zizette (Sahar Ramy) are out to find the "big man" – the drug lord who killed Maalima Mabaheg – and along the way, their quest is met with re-edited scenes of actors from the golden era – some of which fit into the main storyline, while others divert from it – but none fail to amuse.
According to Youssef Alimam, the idea of turning these actors into drug dealers and characters in the new script is funny in itself, as audiences are used to seeing them in a certain manner. "But the film is also about the changes that have happened in Egyptian society since the 1950s, and [my father] uses this highly satirical comedic style to highlight this,” he adds.
The phrase "Like a Matchstick" is a reference to a line that the Egyptian iconic actor Youssef Wahbi said in one of his plays: "A woman's chastity is like a matchstick, you can only light it once."
According to Youssef, his father used the title to show how everything has changed dramatically to the extent that this line, which dominated Egyptian cinema for a long time, is no longer relevant.
"Even the matchstick is now a lighter," Alimam says during the film.
Like a Matchstick started as a project where Hussein tried to pay homage to his father's work. As he died before finishing the film, his son Youssef completed it, paying homage to his own father, even though they had never worked together before, despite both of them being involved in filmmaking and music.
"It's quite beautiful as it's almost like my father, my grandfather and I made a film together," Youssef told Ahram Online.
The young filmmaker is planning to have Like a Matchstick commercially released in cinemas. The film is sure to score well with Egyptian audiences, not only due to Alimam's popularity and strong sense of comedy, but also because it's a highly innovative film which switches between the audience's feeling of nostalgia and their laughter at the same nostalgia within a new context.
The low budget unconventional film mixes the comedy of commercial cinema with archival footage from the 1950s – it's almost as if Egypt's old, commercial and independent cinemas were all put in a blender.
And the result?
Hussein Alimam's first and last film as a screenwriter and director.
Check the festival's complete programme and Ahram Online's recommendations.