The Egyptian film Al-Hareth (The Ploughman) is the second production made for Shahid VIP. The first was Mohamed Gamal Al-Adl’s Saheb Al-Maqam (The Shrine Owner), written by Ibrahim Eissa. Released for Eid Al-Adha, it starred Asser Yassin, Amina Khalil and Youssra.
Shahid is the first online video on demand service in the Arab world. Launched in 2011 by MBC channels, it offered MBC shows for many years before launching its subscription-based VIP stream featuring all kinds of Arabic drama and cinema with some foreign content. It has been flourishing thanks to the Covid 19 quarantine. At the start of 2020, it partnered with Disney and Fox to bring to Arab viewers such titles as Star Wars and Frozen as well as Marvel and ABC Studios content. Even more recently Shahid started streaming its own exclusive releases: the Mohamed Shakir Khodier’s TV series Fi Kol Esboi Youm Gomaa (Every Week Has a Friday), starring Asser Yassin and Menna Shalabi.
The provocatively named Al-Hareth (The Ploughman) – the title is a reference to Satan – is director Mohamed Nader’s debut, touted as a horror film. It opens in 1982 in Siwa, where a native inhabitant of the oasis (Bassem Samra) is recounting a local myth.
The myth concerns a particular night when the moon disappears and the devil searches for a girl to marry, and that girl gives birth to a son of his on the same night. Scenes featuring a couple played by Asmaa Abul-Yazid and Amr Abdel-Geleil are synchronized with the narration. Once the story is over, we are in the presence of another couple, Farida (Yasmine Raeis) and Youssef (Ahmed Al-Fishawi), honeymooning in one of Siwa’s ecolodges. Sipping tea with Bassem Samra by the fire in the desert, the couple is told that the sky looks sad and this is the night of the devil.
On their return Farida wakes up to follow a voice, and the film once again jumps forward in time. Farida and Youssef are in their big house with a seven-year-old son, Omar (Omar Anan). The house is due to Farida’s super-rich family, a detail that has no relevance whatsoever to the script. Omar hasn’t yet spoken a word since he was born; doctors have been unable to diagnose or resolve his problem. The acting is weak, with Yasmine Raeis faring better than Al-Fishawi – an otherwise brilliant actor who here gives his worst performance ever – but neither is on form.
One night, Youssef is sleeping beside his son when he wakes up to the sound of Omar falling out of the balcony to his death. Farida blames her husband and goes on psychiatric medication. Youssef’s friend Kamal (Aly Al-Tayeb), a psychiatrist who as it turns out is in love with Farida and eager to take her away from Youssef, and Farida’s friend Sherry (Asmaa Galal), who is helping Farida through her depression and paranormal experiences, are now introduced.
Soon Kamal manages to send Youssef to a mental asylum for therapy, taking him and Farida for a group therapy session in Siwa. Once Sherry discovers that Kamal is behind Farida’s suffering – he is the devil – she dies in a car accident. All possible confrontations take place all at once in the desert in a circle of fire where Farida kills Kamal. But Farida and Youssef’s daughter – as they will discover years later – has kept them tied to the devil.
Based on a story by Mohamed Abdel-Khalek, Mohamed Ismail Amin’s screenplay is full of loopholes and shows up the film’s failure at the horror genre especially in comparison to earlier efforts at horror like Mohamed Radi’s Al-Ins wal Gein (Humans and Jinn, 1985) starring Adel Imam, Youssra and Ezzat Al-Alaili which though in some ways naive and atypical is far more coherent and watchable. The same might be said of Mohamed Shebl’s Al-Taawiza (The Magic Spell, 1987), starring Mahmoud Yassin, Tahia Kariouka, Abla Kamel and Youssra again.
The question remains, given that this is not a real myth and has nothing to do with the oasis – why Siwa. Egypt is full of colourful locales overflowing with jinn lore, and the filmmakers might’ve produced something that held together more had they drawn on it rather than inventing their own flavourless concoction. There is no point at which this film manages to be scary at all.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly