An aural experience

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 21 May 2024

Soha Hesham saw Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed El Samman’s remarkable debut

Gohr Al-Fearan
Gohr Al-Fearan

 

“I was terrified. I was really scared of being boring on screen. I was really scared of this experiment.”

Thus actress Rana Khattab speaking of her experience in Gohr Al-Fearan (Rat Hole) during the discussion following the screening at Zawya cinema last Wednesday, moderated by film critic Ramy Abdel-Razek.

Her concern is understandable. Filmmaker and novelist Mohamed El Samman’s feature debut revolves around Kholoud (Khattab), who takes up most of the 95 minutes’ screen time, appearing mostly in only one place in the course of a single day. Kholoud is a telemarketer at a charity organisation whose work depends on the ability to convince people to make generous donations by phone. She doesn’t like her job but she sticks with it while a friend of hers tries to find her another job.

The conflict occurs when Kholoud’s sister informs her over the phone that they urgently need a sum of money to pay the bank the following day. This payment is necessary to secure approval for their new apartment in a better neighbourhood, a crucial move. If they don’t pay the bank LE7000 they will lose the apartment. Kholoud approaches her boss, Amgad, portrayed brilliantly by Mohamed Yorka, requesting an advance payment that she promises to repay in instalments. Amgad agrees to lend her the money on one condition: she has to collect LE20000 donations by the end of the day.

The following sequence reveals the duplicity involved in collecting donations and the seedy underbelly of the NGO involved, with Kholoud telling a colleague she’s not convinced of what she’s saying. She is also heard contacting relatives in a desperate attempt to obtain the money, introducing the religious dimension of her life.

However, the film’s title is burdened with symbolism. There is a rat problem at the office and Kholoud panics when she notices the traps set up by the office boy: there are more than one. After everyone leaves, Kholoud stays on to try and collect LE20000. A more familiar presence by now, Kholoud is easier to identify with as she is forced to act against her principles. The process reveals not only the nature of the job but Kholoud’s character. The film depends on the audio track, with conversations between Kholoud and either potential donors — listed on a sheet her organisation distributes — or people in her life. As the night progresses the tone and attitude change drastically.

When Kholoud leaks a confidential paper to a client who promises her the money, it turns out to be a trap and she is immediately told that she has lost her job. She spends the night trapped in the bathroom like a rat she saw trapped in the kitchen — too much symbolism. The ending is not convincing since by the morning everything is miraculously resolved.

The film is effectively a monodrama, and Khattab lives up to the challenge, portraying the evolution of the character expertly and convincingly. Yorka’s brief performance too was brilliant, however, and El Samman manages his own script’s difficult parameters remarkably.

 

Born in Cairo in 1989, El Samman, whose short films include Million March to Ethiopia (2011), and whose screenplay Ardeeyen won the Sawiris Cultural in 2022, says the audio track was the most difficult part of the film.

 “We spent a lot of time in post production,” he told the audience following the screening, “focusing on the audio track as there are a lot of invisible characters on the phone. I didn’t spend too much time writing the screenplay. We started shooting with draft three. Most of the time spent was really in post production. What really helped me during writing the screenplay was already knowing that my heroine was Khatab, so that made the task easier since we had previously worked with each other.”  

The film is a solid experiment with a lot of potential though it does fall into the trap of monotony in the middle sequence, with not enough movement or variety in the action. Towards the end humour helps to improve the viewing experience, with jokes about the price of the dollar and the bleak economic circumstances.

Rat Hole had its Arab premiere at the Amman International Film Festival last year and its world premiere at the seventh Aswan International Women’s Festival. Khattab received the Best Actress Award from Russia’s BRICS Film Festival and a special mention from Amman International Film Festival.

Rat Hole brought to mind the short film Shift Massaie (Night Shift, 2020), directed by Karim Shaaban. Starring Essam Omar alongside the renowned actor Ahmed Kamal, who does not appear on screen until the final scene though he is present throughout the film with his voice. Over the film’s 15-minute duration, the audience hears Zein, an employee at an internet company call centre, field a call from a furious customer, Akram. Complaining of his poor internet connection, Akram keeps Zein awake throughout his night shift, perhaps into the early morning, as he poses existential questions. With only Ahmed Kamal’s voice accompanying Essam Omar’s performance, Shift Massaie demonstrates the short film form’s ability to immerse audiences through auditory cues alone.

Of course, the godfather of this film genre is the Danish film The Guilty (2018), filmmaker Gustav Möller’s debut. He successfully set his film in only two rooms and, as the story unravels through a series of phone calls from a kidnapped woman received by this police officer, despite the viewer not seeing anything, the audience is on the edge of its seats throughout the 75 minutes thanks to the brilliant audio track. The film garnered nearly 38 awards from festivals around the world.

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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