‘Don’t you dare speak,’ said the film critic

Film director Maged al-Mahdy expected questions when he went to the screening of his film, “I don’t speak very well, I dance better,” at the Opera House film club earlier this month. However, the questions never came, only what seemed like a synchronized attack on the film.

Mahdy’s film is far from conventional. In it, he documents his own family’s struggle with hepatitis, which took the life of his brother and infected his sister, in parallel to the events of the January 25 revolution. The Egyptian director, who lives in Italy, mirrors his personal story and the wider political context with dance moves and music rhythms of the iconic Reda dance troupe, which intercepts the storytelling throughout the film.

During the one-hour discussion that followed the screening, attended mainly by veteran film critics, Mahdy spoke for a total of only a few minutes. He remained mostly silent as one critic after another took the microphone and criticized the shaky shooting style and long scenes, which they deemed boring and unnecessary.

Among the assumptions that the critics made — with no interest to verify them with Mahdy, who was only a few feet away — was that he didn’t write a script, and that the reason the film contained several long scenes was simply that he fell in love with them and was unable to edit properly.

Initially, Mahdy attempted to respond by explaining his vision, but the critics — who appeared to consider his response an insult to their experience — repeatedly interrupted him. They enumerated their qualifications and recited rules of cinematography that they said Mahdy violated in his film.

At one point, Mahdy made the mistake of trying to respond to renowned film critic Mona al-Sabban before she finished speaking. Pointing at him, she shouted, “Don’t you dare speak!”

So Mahdy stopped trying to explain, gazing around the room instead as the critics — who seemed unanimous in their rejection of Mahdy’s experimental style — discussed the film among themselves, almost seeming to forget his presence.

This encounter reflects what Egyptian film critic Joseph Fahim describes as the stagnant state of Egyptian film criticism.

Fahim says that since the broader Egyptian cultural scene started stalling in the 1990s, films became less stimulating, critics didn’t have much to work with, and essentially they got stuck in a rut. He adds that general social ailments, in particular to do with acceptance of others and respectful exchange of opinions, have also contributed to the deterioration of the craft.

Most film reviews by Egyptian critics have started to resemble a template, he explains. After a synopsis of the film, the critic evaluates each element separately: cinematography, acting, décor and so on. This makes for shallow and rigid reviews, Fahim says.

The fundamental problem for Fahim is that measuring all films against static rules fails to allow for new styles and experimental projects, which may not abide by textbook rules but present new ideas worth exploring.

Muhammad El-Hajj, screenwriter of “Villa 69” — winner of the Jury Award at Abu Dhabi’s Film Festival, where it premiered — says that “synopsis, spoilers and credits usually qualify as a film review for the critics.”

Like many local filmmakers, Ayten Amin, director of “Villa 69,” feels the scene is missing critics that look at the bigger picture. Most critics, in her view, fail to analyze a director’s work within the context of their previous works or surrounding environment.

Amin says that in most discussions, “questions evolve around gossip and relationships between crew and cast members, but none about the film itself or any attempts at in-depth analysis of the concepts behind it.”

Fahim thinks a significant problem is that some critics in Egypt measure films against their own morality and ideologies, with a misconception that film should serve a higher purpose or promote all that is good and beautiful.

The way in which Ahmad Abdalla’s latest film, “Rags and Tatters,” was received in Egypt illustrates a trend among critics to hold less conventional works to standards that their makers have deliberately decided to flout or bypass.

Abdalla’s film premiered at Toronto Film Festival in September, entered competitions in London and Abu Dhabi film festivals, and won the Golden Antigone prize for Best Narrative Feature at the Cinemed International Mediterranean Festival of Montpellier in France. It received favorable reviews from a number of foreign critics in respected publications such as Variety and the Guardian, as well as being selected by HuffingtonPost as one of the “Best of Toronto 2013.”

At home, however, “Rags and Tatters,” which combines feature and documentary narratives and styles, was accused of “tarnishing Egypt’s reputation,” “insulting the army” and even falsifying events.

“Insulting someone or something is such a fluid accusation,” Abdallah says, “and I can’t help but be reminded of the campaigns against Mohamed Khan and Youssef Chahine 30 years ago because their films were different from what critics considered to be the norm. They were accused of ‘addressing the West’ in their films, although whole generations grew up watching these films that are purely Egyptian and formed a substantial part of our culture.”

Egyptian critics slammed the film for being “experimental,” a description Abdalla thinks reflects basic misunderstanding of filmmaking.

Veteran Egyptian film critic Tarek al-Shennawy criticized the film for lacking clarity and being incomplete. Shennawy and other critics had a problem with the protagonist’s silence throughout the film, accusing the director of leaving the viewer hanging.

Shennawy explains to Mada Masr that while he thinks Abdalla met his audience halfway in his first two films — “Heliopolis” (2009) and “Microphone” (2010) — which were more accessible, this time he tried to lure the audience onto his own wavelength.

“Some people have a logic, a will and an intellectual purpose, but some make a project just for the sake of being different. The important thing is to be true to yourself and to be skillful with your tools,” he says.

Although critics from Lebanon and the Emirates saw flaws in “Rags and Tatters,” they actually engaged with the film.

Fahim points out that the phenomenon of films being accepted abroad but not in their country of origin is common, especially in autocratic countries. He also says that although some new films are received more openly abroad, film criticism in western countries is also far from ideal. Films that challenge taboos are still bashed on moralistic grounds with no consideration for artistic value, but the key difference is that the scene is mixed, while in Egypt film criticism is more homogeneous.

Abdalla says he “no longer expects much from Egyptian film critics” and objects to over 80 percent of contemporary film criticism, whether about his film or others. 

“Most of what I read,” he says, “are reproductions of old and outdated views, impressionistic, far from objective and heavily influenced by the writer’s taste and political affiliations. This might be the old school of criticism, but I worry it is not restricted to a certain age group or generation as some might believe but still shapes some of the youngest critics.”

But others believe that a generational and exposure gap between young filmmakers and critics who evaluate their work is also at play.

“What the new indie kids are doing is much more substantial than what’s being written about them,” Fahim says.

Similarly, Hajj believes that one cause of deterioration in Egypt’s film criticism scene is that some “old-school” generation critics “are no longer connected to society, and they don’t really care about it. They’re sure that whatever they write, a newspaper is going to publish it, so they no longer put passion or effort into their pieces.”

Both Hajj and Amin think the last Egyptian publication that provided significant art criticism that was both holistic and effective was “Al-Fan al-Sabe’ [The Seventh Art],” which reached its peak during the 1990s. Focused on cinema and the arts, it properly documented the contemporary film movement. This has allowed younger generations to learn from past experience.

Fahim attributes the weakness of film criticism in Egypt and the Arab world to their isolation from the global filmmaking industry. Fahim says the Arab world has failed to contribute to conversations that have tied film scenes together across the globe, leading to major developments in the craft.

Fahim says that having limited access to films of varying genres and nationalities, which he blames on venues in Egypt as well as intellectual laziness, has narrowed critics’ scope and even their enthusiasm.

“We won’t go anywhere in the Arab world until we start to embrace online media and accept different formats and to be engaged more in the global film discussion,” he says. “We are not an isolated island at all.”

Nadia Ahmed 

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