Director Ahmed Fawzi Saleh managed to collect three different Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) prizes with his narrative debut, Poisonous Roses: Best Arab Film, Special Jury Award, UN Youth Fund Award. The film had been screened in several festivals before CIFF, and won the best film award at the African Film Festival of Cordoba, Spain.
The film is set in the tanneries of Old Cairo, a choice that reflects Saleh’s experience in the area seven years ago when he made his long documentary Living Skin (Living Skin also won numerous prizes including the Special Jury Award at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s New Horizons section, the jury prize at the Luxor African Film Festival and the best first documentary prize at the 2011 Tetouan International Film Festival.)
The truth is the idea of the narrative film preceded that of the documentary by several years, Saleh says: “I first got the idea at the time of my Cinema Institute graduation project. At the time I was crazy about the novel Poisonous Roses for Saqr by Ahmed Zaghloul Al-Shiti, which I dreamt of making into a long narrative film. Of course this was next to impossible. That’s how I ended up making Living Skin at the Tanneries, as the area is called. No doubt I did benefit technically from Living Skin when I made Poisonous Roses, in the use of a handheld camera on a shoulder mount and the lack of music in the soundtrack.”
In Poisonous Roses the image takes centre-stage, with both the obvious and the hidden aspects of the story told in a more or less purely visual language. The film opens with a high-angle shot of sewage water running along a narrow street (known in the area as Water Street) behind the Magra Al-Uyoun wall in Old Cairo. A fixed shot, it says much about the difficult conditions to which the residents of the Tanneries are used. Saleh conveys such day-to-day details so convincingly that the viewer ends up conjuring up the smell of the leather and the chemicals used to produce it. Yet he also manages to use the picture in such a way that he generates his own aesthetics within this harsh reality.
It is something to which he readily owns: “My first, second, up to 10th priority is the picture and all its details. The history of Egyptian cinema relies principally on the story and the plot with a few exceptions by great directors like Youssef Chahine and Shadi Abdel-Salam. Most filmmakers are great because they tell a great story. My goal, on the other hand, was to make use of a minimalist aesthetic whether in the plot or the picture and sound. We were aware of our artistic choices. But because I am an Egyptian filmmaker I’ve had the misfortune of being judged by different standards.”
With his unstable handheld camera the director trails a young woman in hijab, Taheya, down the narrow, winding alleyways into the Tanneries until she reaches her brother Saqr, whom she’s bringing lunch. There is no clue as to how the two characters are related at first, which may prove confusing since the look on Taheya’s face is closer to romantic than brotherly love.
This journey is repeated in more than one scene, with Taheya bearing the traditional tiered lunchbox as she shuttles from the house to Saqr’s place of work, suggesting that this display of devotion is all that defines her relationship with her brother. The camera also trails Taheya at her own work as a toilet cleaning woman in what appears to be a mall, and while she cleans and cooks at the cramped, poor house. Such repetition seems to have a poetic function.
“It’s a poetic, Sufi motif,” Saleh agrees.
“I derive my cinematic aesthetic from grassroots culture. I had a strong desire to invest the film with a sense of Sufism, but how should I do that. Should I film a dhikr ritual, for example? Certainly not. My aim was to inject the intellectual, philosophical depth of Sufism into the structure of the film. I am enamoured of the Sufi idea of a visible or exterior as well as an occult or interior world, so I don’t want the viewer to see the exterior of the story, I want them to enter into its interior. Not just a brother and sister, in other words, but something deeper: until roughly the middle of the film you don’t know what the relations are between the characters, then the story starts to reveal itself. Even the tanning trade is an expression of such Sufism: a piece of hide has an exterior character and qualities. In tanning it enters into various stages of processing, each of which removes a layer, until a new, interior essence is revealed and it becomes a usable piece of leather. But it’s possible to interpret the film in various other ways as well: as a variation on Electra, or even the myth of Osiris.”
Indeed the dramatic complex arises when Taheya finds out that Saqr is in a relationship with a young woman and hopes to emigrate to Italy. Saleh evokes a sense of possessiveness in Taheya’s relationship to her brother. Though it is explicitly stated that it is Taheya who provides for the family, since both Saqr and their mother have only seasonal jobs, it seems she needs the male presence to feel safe or fulfilled.
Womanhood is one of Saleh’s central concerns: “For me women are the world, whether at the level of symbol or myth — it is Isis who acts and is heroic, not Osiris — or in terms of exposing the current, patriarchal culture. Taheya is more of a breadwinner than her brother and mother, and in the house we see her doing housework as well, another labour force as it were, yet she cannot do without the man in her life. I want to present Egyptian women with the question of why that’s the case. Why do they believe such traditional sayings as ‘A man’s shadow is better than a wall’s shadow’ and ‘A man is a man even if he’s bones in a basket’? The film wants to have that argument with the structure of society, but without being explicit and polemical.”
It is thus the story of women who can only see their men, and so believe the men will save them from hell. That is why Taheya tries in various ways to prevent her brother from obtaining the money he will pay for his passage to Italy. She quarrels with her mother when the latter tries to borrow some money to that end. She tries to contact his girlfriend. She contracts the services of a magician. The film shows how their relationship is affected as a result of this when she brings him his lunch and he throws it on the floor. The determination on her face is unwavering.
The character of the magician (Mahmoud Hemeida) — a man who sits on a gilt, throne-like chair with his eyes in the middle distance, who doesn’t interfere or react until Taheya seeks him out — looks like something out of a Greek tragedy. According to Saleh, “This character’s exterior is magic or charlatanism, but its interior is derived from Brechtian estrangement. It’s an element that is alien to the world around it. Though for the record the throne on which he sits was an abandoned chair that we found in the Tanneries which we used to complete the mythic state.”
Other significant aspects of the film include the faded palette. As Saleh explains, “The director of photography Maged Nader and I made a comprehensive study of colour in the setting and an essential part of our work was to specify the colours in each frame. Red and green for example signify danger and they only appear in exceptional cases for an obvious dramatic reason: when one of the tanners falls unconscious, for example, Saqr is wearing red. Still, it is not bright red, of course. There were general rules. But no colour appears by accident. There is a kind of colour narrative throughout: each part of the story has a colour, until Taheya enters a very dark-coloured world when she goes looking for her brother.”
The music-less soundtrack is among the most important elements of the film, and it relies largely on the noise of machinery: “The soundtrack communicates Taheya’s emotional state to a great extent. Sometimes it overpowers the picture to underline Taheya’s feelings of weakness, her pain or anger or desire for revenge. You find the same Sufi state in the score: the rhythm is derived from dhikr, I gave the sound designer Sara Qaddouri Sufi music: inshad and madih. The soundtrack was the most expensive element of the film, especially since we had no interest in using music. I’ve started something and I should finish it: this is the artistic challenge as far as I’m concerned.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tannery art
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