The Mice Room: Fragments of fear from Alexandria, captured by 6 new filmmakers

Yasmine Zohdi from Luxor, Wednesday 26 Mar 2014

Egyptian film The Mice Room, screened for the first time in Egypt during Luxor's African Film Festival, follows six independent characters whose lives barely intersect but are unified by fear

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Still from 'The Mice Room'

Rarely does an Egyptian child grow up without hearing the threat “I’ll take you to the mice room!” at least once. For generations now, the phrase has been used by adults to reprimand misbehaving children, and has therefore become directly linked to fear in the subconscious of the scores who heard it thus contextualised in their younger years.

Predictably, the concept of fear is right at the centre of The Mice Room, which premiered last December at the Dubai International Film Festival as one of the films competing for the Muhr Arab Feature Award. The film was screened for the first time in Egypt to a packed audience during the third edition of Luxor’s African Film Festival, which ran from 18 to 24 March.

The film follows six different characters in the city of Alexandria, each grappling with different aspects of their lives that scare them. An old man tries to cross the street but keeps hesitating, a bride-to-be has pre-wedding jitters, a woman preparing for a lengthy trip ponders the effects it might have on her personality, a little girl deals with mortality and questions of heaven and hell while living with an ailing grandmother, a widow comes face to face with the harsh reality of loneliness, and a young man struggles for a way to express his feelings at his father’s deathbed.

Six different filmmakers from Alexandria worked on The Mice Room, each directing one of the stories and assisting with the rest: Hend Bakr, Mohamad El-Hadidi, Ahmed Magdy Morsy, Nermeen Salem, Mayye Zayed and Mohamed Zedan. However, when asked who directed which part, the young filmmakers refuse to answer. “It’s one project that the six of us worked on; not six different films,” El-Hadidi asserts. The six newcomers wrote and produced the film as well.

The idea of several directors collaborating on the same project to tell different stories of various characters living in the same city is hardly new or untested. It was done in well-known films such as New York Stories (1989), which consisted of three segments directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen respectively, as well as Paris, Je t’aime (2006), which included parts made by Olivier Assayas, the Coen brothers and Gus Van Sant, among others. However, unlike the previously mentioned examples, the different stories in The Mice Room are not played out as independent sub-films, but run simultaneously throughout the film’s screen time.

At first, we are given the impression that the stories run in parallel, yet it later becomes apparent that each takes place over a different time span -- the film’s most obvious shortcoming. Since the characters are shown alternately throughout the film as part of one uninterrupted work with normal cuts (editing by Islam Kamal), two storylines even overlapping at a certain point, the fact that some stories take place in the course of one day while others happen over several weeks is not only confusing but also unjustified. There are no artistic grounds for the film’s non sequitur when it comes to the portrayal of time; it is not a classically non-linear screenplay à la Quentin Tarantino, nor is it surrealistic in nature like, for instance, the work of Luis Buñuel, where things aren’t expected to make sense.

When asked about that, the filmmakers said the stories were first planned to take place in parallel over a specific period of time, but then a conscious decision was later taken on their part to treat time in an abstract manner. “We realise it might irritate viewers or seem illogical, but we wanted to experiment,” El-Hadidi says.

The Mice Room is not an eventful film, nor does it have a tight, traditional plot; it is rather a close-up look at the mundane occurrences of day-to-day life, from making a cup of coffee to running into an old friend on the street. That, in itself, is not at all a problem; director Ahmad Abdalla’s first feature film, Heliopolis (2009), was made with a similar idea behind it. The only difference is Heliopolis pulled it off, without being tedious. The Mice Room, on the other hand, seems almost unbearably slow at times, and lacks the mysterious depth and subtle charm of Abdalla’s debut work. The dialogue is more often than not too carefully calculated and the acting evokes a sense of detachment rather than any degree of emotional involvement with the protagonists. Some characters appear extensively for long stretches of time while others are so completely ignored that viewers almost forget about them.

There is an emphasis on music in The Mice Room. In more than one scene, songs play a starring role, sometimes even overshadowing the main characters. On his way to Alexandria to see his dying father, the young man listens to Fayrouz’ Wahdon (Alone) in the car, explaining the sad story behind the lyrics to a companion. In another scene, the widow is seen looking out her kitchen window while iconic Egyptian poet Salah Jahin sings El Pianolla in the background, the sound supposedly coming from a television or radio somewhere in the house. ‘Oh, if I found someone to love, I’d dance with joy,’ Jahin’s voice bounces with a joie de vivre that is blatantly at odds with the bleak image onscreen, creating one of the film’s most memorable moments. From then on, the melody of El Pianolla is seamlessly woven into the film’s music in slow, poignant strokes. The score, composed by Anna Drubich, is in fact one of The Mice Room’s most significant redeeming qualities.

The film’s real strength, however, lies behind the scenes, in how it was created. That six young cinema enthusiasts who had never before made films of their own should get together, work on a project for three years – collaborating on the majority of its technical aspects – and manage to independently bring it to the light on a budget under LE28,000 during such challenging times, making it to one of the region’s most prestigious film festivals, is definitely an impressive feat. Bakr, El-Hadidi, Morsy, Salem, Zayed and Zedan went on to open their own production company in Alexandria, a joint initiative named Rufy’s offering numerous film services and aiming to bring more films out of Egypt’s second largest metropolis, to which The Mice Room, in essence, is a simple ode.

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