On Sunday evening semi-famous actors, out-of-work directors, bloated critics, and an entire gaggle of parasitic journalists, as well as various other curious moviegoers and industry hangers-on, descended upon Maadi’s Family Land cinema to witness the world premiere of Khaled El Haggar’s El Shooq (Lust), Egypt’s only main competition entry at this year’s Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF).
Accurately translated as ‘Desire’ or ‘Longing’, the film’s title has been translated into the more sensationalistic ‘Lust’ in its marketing campaign, and sensationalism was undoubtedly what most of the antsy audience was expecting, especially given El Haggar's history of courting controversy, and the participation of provocative pop star Ruby in a supporting role.
What viewers were in fact treated to was a quiescent exploration of a poverty-stricken and unnamed Alexandrian alleyway - referred to throughout the film as “the street” - and the lives of its inhabitants. The story centers around Fatma, or Om Shooq, and her two daughters, Shooq and Awatef, as their lives take an unexpected turn following the death of the family’s only son.
A bleak story
El Haggar admirably throws out his old playbook, and challenges himself to surpass the manageable tones of his previous work - be it the forced peppiness of Hob El Banat (Girl’s Love) or his attempt at racy sophistication with Qubulat Masrouqa (Stolen Kisses). Employing well-chosen collaborators, his first attempt at a serious, uncompromisingly heavy and, despite moments of hilarity and brazen sexual charge, decidedly bleak story, is a marked success.
Nestor Calvo's mesmeric cinematography honors the beauty and charm of Alexandria, even its more impoverished corners, bathing the quotidian and mundane with a wondrously unearthly glow, only to then deftly contrast that ambience with a starkly-lit and frightfully inhospitable downtown Cairo. Calvo’s regular recourse to tight angles is also intelligent, permitting viewers unobtrusive access to the characters' intimate moments.
Walid Saad's uninspired melodramatic score, however, is perhaps the film’s weakest link. Simply too on-the-nose, it accentuates nothing that’s not already implied by the narrative, and only serves to further draw out the film’s already languorous pace.
A gallant and heartfelt exploration
Sayed Ragab’s first film script may well be looked back on as a gallant and heartfelt exploration of simple lives, but it still suffers flaws that betray the writer’s inexperience with the medium. Tangential departures from the central story lines - such as in the case of the frustrated housewife who solicits the attention of a much younger neighbor, or the street vendor that harbors Om Shooq in Cairo delving into her back story - while providing interesting additional color, needlessly diffuse and detract from an otherwise compelling but already unconventionally structured story.
Furthermore, the sexual tension brewing between the sisters, strongly suggested but never explicitly stated in Ragab’s original - and in this reviewer’s opinion more focused and daring - short story, is dropped in this adaptation, robbing the sisters’ story line of what was an understated and much-needed climax, that elegantly illustrated the extent of the oppression they suffered at the hands of their mother.
Ragab, however, who also plays Shooq’s father in the film, is a pleasant surprise as an actor. A stage actor by trade, he shrewdly evades the easy pitfall of delivering his lines to the back of the stalls; his restrained performance demonstrates his understanding of the intimacy of the camera. His interpretation of the patriarch - broken, unassuming and resigned - is refreshing. In one scene, as his daughters seek his support in a scheme to warm their mother towards Shooq’s suitor, his status dwindles until he becomes the girls’ playmate, complicit in their game - few, if any, local actors would have the humility, or the imagination, to make such a choice.
The film’s supporting cast is equally effectual, with no off-key performances to be found, a testament to El Haggar’s exceptional casting. Real-life sisters Ruby and Kooky employ a shorthand that serves them well as Shooq and Awatef, as do the street’s residents, the majority of whom are played by stage actors who have worked together closely for decades.
A towering performance
The film's true gem, however, is Sawsan Badr's towering performance as Om Shooq. A consummate actress, whether she is cowering from a confrontation with the past, bluffing through a Turkish coffee cup fortune reading to delve into a neighbour’s private life, begging for charity, negotiating influence, or surrendering to demonic possession, her commitment to the moment is absolute. And the haunting ghoulish look etched on her chiseled features is bound to leave an indelible imprint on viewers’ minds that will be difficult to shake off for weeks.
Badr’s craft has matured to the point where her agile technique is now seamless, and this career-defining performance makes her a shoo-in for the CIFF’s best actress prize, especially given the festival’s history of desperately trying to validate local work - luckily for the organizers, this time their shameless self-congratulation will actually be merited.
In the question and answer session that followed the screening, drama critic Rafiq El Sabban wasted half the allotted time lavishing the film’s cast and crew, especially Badr, with saccharine praise. Producer Mohamed Yasin's boldness was applauded, but a general sentiment of disappointment (even, at times, heartbreak) at the film's unrelenting darkness surfaced. Its pace and length (2hrs10mins) were vehemently criticized, and witnessing the portrayal of so many complacently emasculated men - in this film, male gumption belongs only to the young - struck a deeply uncomfortable chord with many of the men in attendance. One loud and misguided journalist, belonging to the clan forever fearful of anyone besmirching Egypt's good name, went as far as to imply conspiracy; the French co-production, he claimed, painted an unflattering portrait of Egypt by depicting poverty.
These expressions were mostly symptoms of an unfortunate circumstance: A film, put in an unfair position by a simple-minded local media crippled with ignorance, where (especially given its status in the festival) it must shoulder the odious burden of “representing Egypt” - a film that stands for all Egyptian filmmaking. Even following the film’s local cinematic release, in all likelihood rant-starved critics will pick up their idle pens to further embroil the film in trumped-up controversy. Perhaps when the din finally dies down - and it may take years - audiences will appreciate the tale, confident in its simplicity, of a woman dealt a harsh blow by fate trying to exert some control over her life, and two sisters, with life’s odds stacked against them, daring to dream of fulfillment.
El Shooq (Lust), 2010
Directed by: Khaled El Hagar; Produced by: Mohamed Yassin; Written By: Sayed Ragab;
Director of Photography: Nestor Calvo; Songs: Walid Saad; Music by: Hisham Gabr; Music Mixing: Alaa El Kashef
Cast: Sausan Badr, Ruby, Kooky, Ahmed Azmy, Ahmed Kamal, Mohamed Ramadan, Sayed Ragab, Doaa Te’ama, Boutrous Boutrous Ghali.