Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘Film Thakafy’

The opening scene of Film Thakafy (A Cultural Film) is a brilliant exploitation of religious tradition for the sake of masturbation. It’s something only young, shameless men are capable of. In the Quran, the brother of one of the main characters angrily reminds their mother, the prophet says that you have to ask permission before you come in.

She knows what he’s talking about, punches him, and tells him to live in his own filth. If you follow the conventional wisdom on Egyptian society, you’d probably think that Tareq’s mother would actually punish him. Instead, it’s the first widespread acceptance of so-called perversion that the film focuses on.

Most of the movie surrounds Tareq’s brother Ashraf, as he and his two friends Effat and Alaa attempt to watch an adult video, the titular “cultural film.” This particular VHS tape is a rare opportunity: supposedly, it stars Salma Hayek and is subtitled in Arabic. But when the three finally get to see the beginning of the tape, we find out that Salma is not Salma but some sort of French bride with wonderfully nineties-style bangs. And it’s subtitled in Modern Standard Arabic, a dialect you wouldn’t really expect people to speak in as they go at it on film.

This doesn’t stop the young medical students from using Salma and the subtitles as a marketing ploy to convince others to help them watch the rest of “the tape,” as it’s referred to for the entire film. Since they have no TV, VCR or private place to gather, the search for these three things results in the acquisition of other men, who want to watch the film in exchange for the requisite amenities.

What they do have is snacks and cigarettes, which get collectively lit in anticipation of a three-hour marathon of depravity.

The scene repeats itself: The three men and their accomplices light cigarettes before the film starts, only to have the electricity go out, a young woman walk in, or some sort of technical difficulty to cut the viewing short. Once, instead of seeing some of pseudo-Salma’s nakedness, the tape plays a less arousing image of Kamal al-Ganzouri and Fathi Sorour, then head of the government and parliament respectively.

The characters are all quite shocked at this, as it is hard to believe that anyone would record the parliament.

It’s not the only time in the film that the prudish institutions of Egypt interrupt viewing. Once the men are apprehended in the only illegally-parked microbus to be ever towed away in Cairo. At the police station, the prosecutor lets them off the hook after Ashraf protests that it’s not shameful to watch porn, and it’s then discovered that the prosecutor has also seen the film in question.

This dynamic is what makes the film quite brilliant. The plot is driven by the search for privacy and prosperity: a place to watch the film uninterrupted and the equipment with which to do so. But what’s revealed as we watch the three protagonists try to get their fix, gawking at women all the while, is institutions’ and people’s unusual acceptance of so-called perverted behavior, such as watching an adult film, while romantic relationships aren’t as readily accepted. All the main characters, for example, are quite disturbed by the fact that one of their brothers has a girlfriend.

The movie was released in the year 2000, but its very poor production value, campy sound effects and washed out visuals make it look like it was made around two decades earlier. It was actually the graduation project of Mohamed Amin, who is both the film’s scriptwriter and director, when he was studying at Cairo’s Higher Cinema Institute. After Film Thaqafy, Amin made a series of dark comedies that had a very pessimistic political perspective. His Leila Soqout Baghdad (The Night Baghdad Fell, 2005) and Bintein min Masr (Two Girls from Egypt, 2010), demonstrate that the combination of government failure and sexual frustration is a major concern.