Egyptian film Sondouq Al-Donia and downtown blues

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 3 Mar 2020

The film is director Emad Al-Bahat’s third long narrative after almost 13 years since his last film Al-Belyatsho (The Clown, 2007)

Sondouq Al-Donia

The Luxor African Film Festival will kick off tomorrow with the Egyptian film Sondouq Al-Donia (Wonder Box) directed by Emad Al-Bahat. The film, which is Al-Bahat’s third long narrative after almost 13 years since his last film Al-Belyatsho (The Clown, 2007), was commercially released on 19 February. LAFF’s regulations allow films that have been recently screened in commercial theatres to be included in its programme, because LAFF believes that this gives the audience in Luxor and Upper Egypt an opportunity to see new Egyptian productions in the absence of theatres in most of Upper Egypt’s main cities.

Sondouq Al-Donia was perhaps inspired by a narrative technique previously used in international films such as the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival 1951, or like the American action film Vantage Point  directed by Pete Travis in 2008. Such scripts are structured around one main event with a series of otherwise unrelated sequences revolving back to it regardless of chronology. I this case it is the killing of a villager (Bassem Samra) by a drug dealer at one of the squares of downtown Cairo. The villager was driving his microbus with his son and a few women of his village to attend the moulid of Al-Hussein. Sondouq Al-Donia is made up of titled sequences, each with its own story and protagonists.

LAFF 2020

The filmmaker wants to tell a story about those who are living in the glamorous, clamorous capital. So, by choosing downtown at night as the location of the film, he seems to employ the dramatic concept of the unity of time and space to intensify this idea. Starting with the first and main story, Helm (Dream), Al-Bahat puts implausible philosophical-sounding banalities in the mouths of his characters. When the villager’s son Ali asks him about their destination, the father answers, “Cairo has a thousand gates, you need to have a thousand faces to enter it.” And so, while running away from people he owes money, the drug dealer happens to kill the villager while commandeering his vehicle. Ali is buying his father a packet of cigarettes when this happens, so he survives to end up watching the ambulance pick up his father’s body. The filmmaker returns to this incident from different angles, to conclude each story of the film. At the end of the film, Ali is seen walking the streets of downtown Cairo alone.

In the meantime the script moves back in time to tell the story of Roba (Farah Youssef), a young model who is cheating on her husband Adam (Khaled Al-Sawy), a poet and novelist, with Hatem (Amr Al-Kady), a casting agent, in hopes of an opportunity in the field of cinema or TV commercials. This story doesn’t have much drama in it. It seems the filmmaker intended to tell this story just to show how a man with a slightly authoritarian job can abuse his power to compel a woman to have sex with him. But the script mentions that Hatem was naive person when he came to Cairo from a village with Rawhia (Gihan Khalil), who works as a vegetable seller in Al-Tawfikia Market. The scene doesn’t relate much to the flow of the drama in the film, it is simply an attempt at a different perspective on how the city changes people. Later the script reveals Adam’s plan to obtain a pistol with which to kill Roba, showing how his friend Asfour (Ahmed Kamal), an actor without a job practising to become a circus clown, stops him.

But the least convincing story in the film is that of Fatema (Rania Youssef), the secretary of a cardiologist, Khaled (Salah Abdalla). Khaled is arranging to have a secret ufri (unregistered) marriage with her after they finish up at the clinic, but they will spend the night together on the examining table. The scene ends with Khaled stealing the marriage contract to deprive her of any possible rights after having sex with her. Another, related story is that of Morgieha (Alaa Morsy), Asfour’s mentally challenged friend, who tells Asfour of his love for Fatema. But the scene has no function beyond this exchange.  

The film ends up being artificial and banal, especially in terms of dialogue, except for one beautifully directed scene with powerful cinematography and acting: the confrontation between Adam and Asfour as the latter tries to prevent him from killing his wife.

Al-Bahat uses motifs not only for aesthetic purposes but also to give the film a touch of authenticity: marionette dolls in the pre-credit at the start hinting at a kind of folk-tale, for example. At many points, as a transition between one tragedy and another, Al-Bahat employs street performers walking on broken glass and fire-eating. And, though this is part of the downtown Cairo scene, it seemed that it added to the artificiality of the whole.

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