Since his long narrative debut Heliopolis in 2009, Ahmed Abdalla has made a huge leap as a filmmaker, having been known as an editor. Most of his work has received recognition if not acclaim, and the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) has been one of his most rewarding platforms to Abdalla’s films: in 2009 Heliopolis received a special mention; his second film Microphone won the best Arabic film award in 2010, while his film Lail - Khargy (Exterior/Night) won the best actor award (Sherief El Desouky) in 2018.
Last week at the 44th CIFF (13 - 22 November), Abdalla’s new film 19B won the best Arabic film award, the best cinematography award (Mustafa Al-Kashef), and the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) award.
With every film Abdalla is keen to experiment with some new narrative technique. For example in Heliopolis he wanted to illustrate the different layers of Cairo society through several stories that never intersect with one another, the only common factor between them being that they take place in the upper class neighbourhood of Heliopolis. Of course dealing with this old neighbourhood added a fair amount of nostalgia to the drama of the film. In Microphone, he was more interested in discovering the underground music activities in Alexandria and managed to portray the hidden rebellious spirit that was growing months before the 25 January Revolution.
Perhaps the 2013 Farsh wa Ghata (Rags and Tatters) is his most interesting experiment, however. In it he more or less totally eschews dialogue to tell the story of a prisoner who escapes during the famous massive breakouts of the Egyptian jails immediately after the outbreak of the January Revolution.
In his new film, 19B, which he also wrote, Abdalla tells the story of an old villa gatekeeper (Sayed Ragab) still living inside a dilapidated building in an upper class neighbourhood over 50 years after the owners immigrated.
The film starts with an interesting scene, following a street cat as it tries to enter the villa from a broken kitchen window on the first floor where the gatekeeper sleeps. When he wakes up he starts to feed many cats and some street dogs in the garden of the villa. The first few scenes give the audience an overview of some of the protagonist’s traits. He never leaves except to buy supplies.
One of Abdalla’s talents is his choice of soundtrack. In Farsh wa Ghata he used the distinctive style of Upper Egyptian music performed by Sheikh Ahmed Barrain and Mohamed Al-Agouz. In 19B he uses famous songs from the 1950s and 1960s, especially the first song in the film (which is also repeated during the closing credits), Mohamed Abdel-Motteleb’s Fi Alby Gharam (Love in my heart). The radio of the gatekeeper becomes his device for indulging such nostalgia.
But the development of the story relies more on traditional dramatic conflict between the the gatekeeper and the antagonist, Nasr (Ahmed Khaled Saleh), an informal valet. Recently released from jail – the script doesn’t say for what – Nasr is a thug who encroaches on the gatekeeper’s space, disregarding his request not to park the cars in front of the gate. Nasr and his coworkers listen to Mahraganat songs, the new generation of electro urban folk music, which many older people find unsavoury.
The situation gradually escalates when Nasr breaks into the gatekeeper’s life and uses his influence to store smuggled goods in the villa. The family lawyer refuses to interfere in the absence of the owners – he has been paying him out of his own pocket. Nasr also seduces the gatekeeper’s daughter Yara (Nahed El Sebai), though this incomplete subplot ultimately becomes a distraction. Another unnecessarily banal scene involves Nasr confessing having been abused to the gatekeeper.
The drama climaxes when Nasr kills the gatekeeper’s favourite dog Antar. The camera shows the hidden sadness of the gatekeeper as he digs in the garden to bury him. Towards the end of the film a fight breaks out in which Nasr dies, and in the next scene the gatekeeper is seen resuming his old routine with a hint that Nasr too has been buried in the garden.
Abdalla does not experiment with the form so much but confines his characters to a single location the better to highlight the changes overtaking Egyptian society, especially among those occupying the liminal space that separates the upper and lower classes.
The script creates some small events in different sections of the film not only to provide the gatekeeper with activities but also to show the slow decay of the house. For example, the electricity has been cut off frequently due to the condition of the main wire, but the gatekeeper always blames the rats. Another sequence involves him taking care of newly born kittens on the second floor, where the condition of the house is even worse.
Abdalla seems to express a pessimistic view of society, with his protagonist being a token of the old, humane values holding out in the face of vulgarity and ugliness. One of the film’s complications is slipping into symbolism which was never one of Abddalla’s goals.
It seems that discussing such issues may push Abdalla into a direct critique of society. Somehow this can be spotted as one of the features that shaped the 1980s neo-realist movement pioneered by the late Mohamed Khan and Atef El-Tayyeb.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.