Since 1939 when Kamal Selim directed Al-Azima (The Will), Egyptian cinema has maintained its interest in socio-economic issues. This is what many critics have identified as realism, though it more often focused on the middle rather than the upper or lower classes, since it was the rise of the middle class – complete with contradictions, hopes and fears – that formed the fabric of the 20th century in Egypt. Realism has persisted, therefore, though more recent efforts to deal with socio-economic issues are evidently not as successful as the films of the Golden Age.
Egyptian producer-screenwriter Mohamed Hefzy (who has been president of the Cairo International Film Festival since 2018) recently wrote and produced Ras El-Sana (The New Year), Mohamed Saqr’s directorial debut, which was released at the start of February. Using the device of New Year’s Eve, the film focuses on what is known as Egypt’s superclass of extremely rich businessmen and their families. The script is made up of a number of dramatic lines linked only by the place and time of the action.
Using a drone camera to show yachts in the marina of a luxurious Red Sea resort, the filmmaker provides attractive opening shots. Later Mariam (Injy El Mokkaddem) is seen arriving there in a private jet with her husband and son. The plot thickens when at a pool party during the day before the New Year’s party, Mariam’s friend Rania (Basma) is introduced. Two of the girlfriends of her brother Sherif (Ahmed Malek) gossip about her revealing that she was divorced after her husband found her in bed with another man. Representing the opposite end of the class spectrum is Kamal (Eyad Nassar), a drug dealer who uses an ambulance to get through checkpoints.
The pool party is an opportunity for the filmmaker to showcase the lifestyle of the super wealthy: beautiful people in swimsuits dancing and embracing. Sherif and his friends don’t have enough cash on them to pay Kamal for cocaine, so Kamal drives the ambulance vehicle to the house of Sherif’s friend Taimur to get some more. This allows the two of them to have a deep conversation about social issues, an opportunity for the film to discuss its deeper subject, but it is disappointingly banal: “You have to know where you are and where you’re going. Nobody will teach you that, there are those on the top and those at the bottom. I am the middleman in between.”
No single storyline develops. The drama evolves, rather, through each character and situations. This necessitates a coincidence to bring the stories together. During Rania’s birthday at the villa of a third friend, Suzy (Sherine Reda), a masseur, Fathi (Ali Qassem), arrives as part of the celebration. While Fathi is giving Mariam a massage, Rania walks in and a love encounter is hinted at between Fathi and Mariam. Sherif enters the room, thinking the masseur was having sex with his sister, Rania. A fight between Sherif and Fathi ensues, before the former realises he is mistaken.
In an early scene tension between Mariam and her husband, who since going on the hajj has been objecting to her wearing revealing clothes, is intended to justify that sexual encounter, but it is a very insufficient buildup to the resulting marriage crisis. The script slips into a stereotypical 1940s tragedy when Taimur’s Nubian manservant Shaaban is arrested following a misunderstanding in which Taimur suspects him of stealing an amount of money similar to the amount he had just been given for his son’s wedding by Taimur’s father.
Here as elsewhere the dramatic situation and the dialogue is flat and stale, and it ends on an even more banal note when many of the characters are seen together performing the communal Friday prayers.
But why is the film set on Thursday 31 December 2009? In fact, nothing in the story gives a clear answer to this question. Perhaps Saqr and Hefzy chose this particular year so that they could criticise the superclass freely, since in 2009 it would’ve been linked to the corrupt former regime. Another, technical reason is that, before 2011, 1 January does not occur on a Friday except in 2010.
The film seems to emanate from an interesting enough idea – to reveal the contradictions and conflicts within society’s highest class and thereby reveal what is wrong with all of society. But it ends up being a ball of yarn filled with shallow drama and intellectual cliches.