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Thursday, 09 April 2020

Anticlimax: on Egypt's new film Banat Thanawi

Shada Khaled, a high school girl, provides her take on director Mahmoud Kamel’s new film

Shada Khaled, Tuesday 24 Mar 2020
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I waited for Banat Thanawi (High School Girls) – the new Egyptian movie starring Jamila Awad, Huda El Mufti, Mayan Elsayed, May Elghety, and Hanady Mehanna – for a long time but it was not what I expected. The movie is about five high-school girls , each with a unique personality and lifestyle, who are supposedly representing the reality of our female culture, and what we have to face in our teens.

I thought I’d be able to identify with the characters but the script turned out to be focused on a specific social class and that was my first disappointment. Even though the main character is from a wealthy family that has fallen on hard times, all five girls are clearly from the working class, with plain lifestyles and struggling with money. The film could’ve been much more powerful if it had presented a girl from each class. The stories too were extreme and unconvincing: one girl is married to a man without being told, another tries to kill herself at school, a third has a secret marriage even though she is strictly religious – only to end up with her bridegroom dead. She calls her friend so that she will help her to bury him. But what is the moral of the story? It is easy to misunderstand the purpose of the movie as a way to judge and criticise this underclass, whereas we all know that problems exist all across society.

The lower classes count for a big percentage of the Egyptian population so I understand why the film wants to focus on it. But that has been done many times already: there are many examples including all the superstar Mohamed Ramadan movies. Of course every movie has its own idea and purpose. But working-class mores and problems are too prevalent in film and in maharaganat music these days. What also makes this film a cliche is that we already have Mudhakirat Murahiqa (A Teenage Girl’s Diary) and Al-Gil Al-Rabi’ (Fourth Generation), both high-school flicks, and it is a little too similar to La Muakhza (Excuse me), even though La Muakhza is about religious discrimination. Both have a character that has to move from a private to a state school when their wealthy family goes bankrupt. Unlike La Muakhza’s viewer rating of 7.7, Banat Thanawi has a rating of 2.5, showing that I am not alone in my opinion of the new film.

Based on a true story, though it doesn’t take an interesting angle on it, the film’s choice of actors’ is actually perfect, it’s the choice of characters that is questionable. If the character went to an expensive private school she would be able to speak good English – she doesn’t, and since she keeps reminding her peers of her previous status, it is not because she’s trying to fit in. Still, a positive message in the film is how the characters, all female, manage to help each other. They don’t need a man, they even manage to use the man who helps them bury the corpse illegally, and they remain loyal to each other. This is what I like the most about Banat Thanawi: the young women’s strength and solidarity and their trust for each other, something Egyptians are known for.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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