Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘One-Nil’
Courtesy: Kamla Abu Zikry

It’s 2009 and we’re in the cinema, waiting for our film to start. Trailers of upcoming Egyptian releases are being screened for us before our film, as usual. Most of what we see is belly dancing, pop music, face slapping, cheap puns and melodrama. You can’t even tell when one movie’s trailer ends and when the next starts. Everything is shot in front of the same kind of background, surrounded by the same sounds, and delivered the same way. Then the One-Nil (Wahid Sefr) trailer starts. Everything looks pretty much the same, but subtly different.

The trailer is happy, exciting, loud, all over the place. There’s belly dancing, a cheesy song, melodramatic moments, and superstar Ilham Shahin. Yet it feels different. When a woman makes an explicit joke as she helps another woman wax hair off her leg, the way the scene is lit gives you a feeling that you’re being invited into a situation that is familiar and real.

As mentioned in our review of Harag W’ Marag, after Khaled Youssef’s film Heena Maysara in 2007 the term “slum movies” (aflam ashwayat) started buzzing around the Egyptian cinema industry. There was a lot of people who were really, really upset that Youssef made a movie showing the wrecked lives that poor people in the slums of Cairo live. “It’s giving Egypt a bad image,” they said. Because if you benefit from the way things work, there’s no need at all to be reminded of how ugly the system is for those who do not. Heena Maysara was a terrible film though, and the thing that gave Egypt a bad reputation in my opinion was the fact that a movie like this was actually considered important.

After Heena Maysara a streak of “slum movies” started, encouraged by its box office success. (Which some claim was totally built on the movie’s famous lesbian love scene featuring two of the most buxom women in the history of Egyptian cinema, Somaya al-Khashab and Ghada Abdil Razik.)

Making a film in Egypt about Egypt in 2009, when such a trend was being formed, and under the accompanying pressures, was  actually will always be  a tough challenge. And the makers of One-Nil  led by director Kamla Abu Zikry, scriptwriter Mariam Naoum and cinematographer Nancy Abdel Fattah — seemed to deal with that very cleverly.

It’s clear that the filmmaking team behind One-Nil, or at least most of it, are having a hard time belonging to a very problematic film scene. Everywhere in the world filmmakers find themselves torn between making work that expresses their concerns and feelings on the one hand, and, on the other, being part of a very complicated financial and cultural network of dynamics and realities that swallows everything and spits it out in a very specific form.

All of this is vastly magnified in Egypt.

For many filmmakers it’s embarrassing to be sitting in a cinema watching an El-Sobky production, thinking: “I can’t believe that I’m doing the same thing as this for living.” (Sobky is a businessman whose investments were mainly in the meat trade, but then for some reason in the mid-1980s he decided he wanted to be the country’s biggest cinema producer, and succeeded. There’s an Ahmad al-Sobky, a Mohamed al-Sobky and a Sayed al-Sobky, and while one of them is the father of the other two, Sobky is now more of a concept than an individual.)

This feeling of embarrassment might be so intense that the filmmaker leaves the cinema with a strong sense of self-consciousness. This might even persist enough that he or she makes a phone call to get funding to make a movie in which there are lots of silences and people staring into the void. Because this is as far as the filmmaker can get from Sobky’s all-encompassing smell. It’s fine to do that, and a lot of filmmakers do it, but I find it really exciting when anyone finds an alternative way. It’s quite impressive that the team behind “One-Nil” managed to convince the Egyptian government’s cinema production arm to produce it.

The movie does not try to emphasize the fact that it’s different at all, despite how well made it is. It’s true that it’s a movie with an obvious political message and artistic weight, but what was interesting was that these elements never got in the way. At the end of the day it’s a drama about multiple characters trying to get through a hard night in Cairo. Which is pretty much the plot that at least 90 percent of the movies made in Egypt between 2005 and 2012 had. Very symbolic!

Naaoum, in her first script-writing experience for cinema, spent much more time developing her characters so we would like them than in making us like her. Abu Zikry, after a short career of making films that many found quite romantic in terms of both topics and directing style, surprised everybody with this very laid-back, experimental movie. The cinematography is all wobbly and handheld, and the editing is very rough and bold. I was quite confused, actually. For a while I thought I was mistaken, and that she was not the director.

The movie follows 10 main characters on a day when Egypt plays a final match in the African Cup. You can very comfortably say that pretty much all the actors here are amazing. At the top is Shahin, who completely abandoned her infinite legacy of canned performances for the role of a Coptic woman tortured by being in a relationship with a much younger man while her biological clock ticks away and her church won’t let her do what she wants to do. But this brilliance goes all the way down to those appearing on screen for the first time ever, like Omar al-Sayed, who plays a fresh graduate police officer yelling at everybody and being macho while all he really cares about is football. Even Ahmad al-Fishawy — who at the time was starring in a really mainstream sitcom called Tamer w Shawqiya — and Khaled Abol Naga — his first role that wasn’t just being a handsome man  acted very well in this movie. I can’t remember who said that a good script can make a table act well, but this movie definitely supports that theory.

Since having the idea, Naaoum must have been aware of the fact that the script would rely a lot on acting. And the risk was taken, the actors were trusted, and they delivered. Each character has his or her own separate frustrations building, all the way up to the moment of the winning goal. Characters interact with each other and appear in each others’ lives directly and indirectly. It’s mostly about unfairness and fairness and how relative that is in general. It’s the type of movie where relativity is what you think about most of the time: you will remember similar feelings you had while watching movies like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) or Paul Haggis‘ Crash (2004), in which misery is such a flexible term, whether it’s a successful TV anchor’s worrying about the meaning of his job, or a working-class woman fighting with her teenage son over a few piasters.

The football game’s carnival atmosphere surrounds everybody and shuts their ears, stopping them from listening to each other or to themselves. The state of denial that makes people not like movies like this one is what this movie constantly reminds you of.

The wit and cunning that it used to drag you into this trap is pretty much what everybody in the film uses to get by. In the trailer you saw the beautiful actress Zeina dancing and singing, but it turns out you came to watch the movie only to see the way in which she’s being exploited by an awful middle-aged man using her as a toy. The trailer told you it would be a movie about a football game, but it actually got you into the cinema to make you think about why you want to watch a movie about a football game. The squeezed moment of victory in which Egypt won the cup in 2008 was very strongly politicized: The Hosni Mubarak regime was always accused of using football to distract people’s attention away from its failures. In One-Nil you watch a lot of people being very distracted indeed, although sometimes the distraction is coming from inside.

At the end of the film thousands of people fill the streets, post-match, with inexplicable insanity and chaos, the colors of the Egyptian flag everywhere. It’s quite disturbing to see scenes so similar to the 2011 revolution two years earlier, in a context so different.


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