Nadine Khan’s movie Harag W’ Marag (Chaos, Disorder, 2012) is set in a poor Egyptian neighborhood. The main male characters — Hagg Sayyed, a rich shop owner (played by Sabry Abdel Monem); Zaki, a fitness fanatic (Mohamed Farag); and Mounir, a good-for-nothing (Ramsi Lehner) — get by through bribery and force, while everyone else just works harder. Mounir and Zaki fight over a woman, Manal (Ayten Amer), who is followed around by a foolish comic character named Tok Tok.
So far, so familiar. But everything else about the film is delightfully unexpected, turning these clichéd elements on their heads, right from the opening shot of two children walking along a dark passage with a rifle, talking like adults.
The simple, seemingly allegorical story of thugs and love in a small, isolated community is reminiscent of a tale from Shakespeare or Naguib Mahfouz, or a black-and-white Abdel Halim Hafez movie from the 1940s or 1950s, but here we have a realistic, knowing aesthetic combined with absurd artificiality.
There’s the neighborhood’s loudspeaker, manned not by someone calling for prayer but by a chilled-out fellow talking like a sports commentator about the day’s events. He announces birthdays and the arrival of mysterious trucks that bring the residents all their supplies — the gas truck, the vegetable truck, the sweets truck.
“Now the juice truck has arrived and I don’t know where Hagg Sayyed is,” he says. “Meat is very, very important for humanity,” he philosophizes, before offering advice: “Did you know you can keep meat for a week? Find out how after the next song.” He plays songs which he sometimes introduces with a mysterious dedication from one character to another. No one seems to pay any attention.
Magic realism has a tradition in Egyptian film, particularly in the 1980s with films by Raafat al-Mihi like These Men are Gentlemen (1987), in the middle of which two characters change gender, and Ladies and Gentlemen (1990) in which four women decide to marry their colleague for the sake of convenience — only for him to get pregnant. Since that era of neo-realism, ‘independent’ cinema has experimented with stylization and artiness.
But Harag W’ Marag stands out for how well made it is: the careful aesthetic of its décor and costumes that make it look exactly like contemporary Egypt and its odd, precise details — such as a badly-installed shelf on the exterior of a building holding a flowerpot, a pink cloth, and a painting of a flower — add weight to the absurd situation the characters live in. It is well lit, with imaginative camera moves and clever editing, and has subtle color correction, making the whole thing, with its run-down buildings, hazy polluted air and rubbish heaps, look quite monumental.
And the film indeed reflects the reality that many people in Egypt live: in many ways crap and arbitrary, yet in some ways magical. The arrival of the supply trucks — for which no reason is offered — and the marking of time with intertitles saying “Monday evening” or “Tuesday morning” while childish piano music plays, recreates the constant state of waiting that many people are condemned to, between bouts of having to stand in a crowd and fight for a share of limited resources.
“The vegetable cart has left,” says the loudspeaker. “Those who didn’t get any will get some next week.”
The many extras in this film play an important role in creating this feeling. There is a muted hubbub against which the characters’ struggles take place. Repeated scenes in which characters battle to get what they need from the supply trucks seem to go on forever. Sad-looking, patient women hold crying babies while others exchange aggressive banter or look out for each other. With violent arsonist children, and incidental mentions of sexual harassment, porn and female genital mutilation, Khan doesn’t shy away from difficult issues, yet manages to keep it from approaching heavy-handedness with humor and beauty.
But this film — Khan’s first feature — is not your typical “slum movie,” of which there have been many since the genre kicked off with Khaled Youssef’s Heena Maysara (Waiting for Better Times, 2007), and unlike that film and many that followed it, Harag W’ Marag is not preachy or moralistic, and does not use gratuitous scenes of sex and violence to sell itself.
Manal is a strong female character who flirts with everyone and is rather difficult to get along with, but she doesn’t get punished for it. Necklace-wearing, sharp-featured Mounir, who sits surrounded by his posse in a deckchair in the main square all day, with an unfinished colonnade and a pile of rubble behind him, seems more typically thuggish than Zaki, who pumps iron and pours his heart out to Coach (Hani al-Metenawy), but Mounir’s actually the one who’s nice to her. The strangely happy ending — despite a funeral — seems actually anti-didactic, a finger to the moralists.
The climax, instead of being a fight scene, is a football match in the square, presided over by Hagg Sayyed. While the extras really come into their own here as the exuberant crowd, the match itself falls short of its aesthetic potential, with unconvincing players and uncreative camera-work, compared to the rest of this film and to other films with important football scenes such as Mohamed Khan’s Al Hareef (The Artful, 1983). It’s unclear if that’s deliberate.
The screenplay was initially rejected by the official censorship body, but eventually passed and it was released in Egyptian cinemas earlier this year. It was the first feature produced by WIKA for Film Production and Distribution, received funding from the Global Film Initiative, and won Special Jury Award at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2012.
By combining a worn-out genre and familiar motifs with a poetic beauty and clever plot, Khan, who also co-wrote the film with Mohamed Nasser Ali, created a minimal and understated masterpiece.