Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘Misters’

Since starting to direct his own scripts, Raafat al-Mihi has made it very clear that he’s a filmmaker with a very distinctive view of the world and of Egyptian reality.

Born in 1940, he is currently receiving treatment for a sudden deterioration in his health, to which the prime minister, unusually, responded before it was too late. In a newspaper interview just before it was declared that the government would cover his treatment, Mihi said, “I don’t want to beg for help or exploit my medical situation, but I believe the society for which I made films for many long years owes me some support right now.”

Mihi wrote his first script, W Gefat al-Amtar (Rain Has Dried Out), in 1966.  A few years later he was writing for names as big as Kamal al-Sheikh, with whom he worked on important titles such as Ghroub w Shorouk (Sunset and Sunrise, 1970). There weren’t that many directors who wrote their own scripts then, and even though Mihi was part of some interesting projects as a scriptwriter only, he decided to start directing too. This was probably in order to have enough control to deliver his eccentric ideas and thoughts in the best way possible.

Mihi’s areas of interest were surreal yet very realistic. If there is an Egyptian magical realism — which would include Khairy Beshara, Tawfiq Saleh and maybe the early works of Sherif Arafa — Mihi would have an important position in it — one that might open a discussion around the genre’s naming itself and the role such art could play in a place like Egypt.

Despite his personal interests and sense of beauty which informed the direction his movies went in, they have always had a very simple, engaging and entertaining approach toward the audience. This is how, for example, he managed to work with mega-stars like Adel Imam in his second movie, Al-Avocato (The Advocate, 1984), and with Mahmoud Abdel Aziz and Maali Zayed in Al-Sada al-Rigal (Misters, 1986), Sayideti Anysati (Ladies, 1989) and Samak Laban Tamr Hindi (Fish Milk Tamarind, 1988).

His sharp observations on women’s issues and his crazy gender-related stories have always been presented through a recipe that’s very appealing to Egyptian audiences. But has this meal achieved what it was trying to do? And what exactly was it trying to do?

In Misters, Fawzeyya (Maali Zayed) is an angry woman stuck in a marriage in which she realizes that, as well as being a banker and a wife, she’ll also have to be a maid for her immature husband. She repeatedly aligns his actions and behavior with those of the garbage collector’s. “Just like all men!” she yells across the hall of their apartment building in the first scene.

Ahmed (Mahmoud Abdel Aziz) doesn’t seem to think much of his marriage or about ways to make it work better. For him, marriage is a stupid but necessary mistake and a sacrifice of freedom for the sake of family. The first time Ahmed’s attention is directed toward his marriage is when he comes back from a business trip to find that his wife has turned into a man.

Misters follows, through lots of expected and unexpected reactions, how the small society around Fawzeyya – who has turned into Fawzy – sees her action. A spectrum of reactions, ranging from rage and disgust to support and admiration, is exhibited by those who interact with her.

The script tells the story very tightly, in a neatly finished way. There are no gaps in the characters’ behavior or in the way they’re built, no reckless developments or uncalculated jumps. This comic tour in the world of a woman in a man’s body doesn’t fall into shallow exploitation and forget what the movie is about. Humor erupts very naturally from the situations and evolves as the story itself evolves. It’s a very good example of comedy in which no effort seems to be have been made to make people laugh. The way the filmmaker sees the world and how he chooses to present it is what’s funny.

The actors are very good, and show great understanding of the script and what it means. The transition in Fawzeyya’s character from an angry, impatient, sharp and opinionated woman into a trying-to-look-confident, depressed and lost transgender man is done very cleverly, without cheap exaggeration of performances for laughs. Ahmed’s gradual maturing is also done very professionally and subtly, even in very loud scenes of hysteria or childish fighting.

Asthetically, Misters is unfortunately stuck in a period when rapid economic, social and artistic deterioration forced filmmaking to be a very low-budget process. You can tell from the lack of proper lighting, sound equipment and even film development, as well as the obviously rushed production, that it would have benefited from few thousand more pounds. Yet its makers invested heavily in ultra-realistic looking locations with lots of details and largely natural lighting, which makes make it easier to connect.

Mihi clearly wanted to make people think about the unjust structure of our patriarchal society, and how women’s lives in it can be unbearable, a fact no-one seems to worry about. But the movie also seems to be self-consciously trying hard not to provoke people or tell them they are backward. This results in what I find to be a slightly confusing conclusion.

One character is a young doctor who is extremely enthusiastic about Fawzeyya’s decision to change her gender. He’s ambitious, in love with progress and finishing a PhD in “the medicine of the future.” He fully supports Fawzeyya even when —  in the bizarre procedure that leads up to her operation —  physical tests show that hormonally she is (surprisingly) 100 percent a woman. He says he will help her pass the psychological part of the testing and ensure she gets the operation. He’s a kind of mad scientist and keeps on calling her “my case.” The movie shows this guy as senselessly, scientifically dealing with Fawzeyya’s tortured condition.

Yet this makes it easier for the viewer to blame most of the complications that follow the operation on a senseless scientific intervention rather than the way society works. In one scene, the doctor has a crazy stare as he explains in a scary, snake-like voice how this backward society needs a shock to wake up and understand how important science is.

I think Mihi is trying to make it very clear that he doesn’t agree with Dr. Magdy here, but as he tries to do that he all but ends up supporting the status quo that makes Fawzeyya’s life (and of lots of other women’s lives) more difficult.

In another important scene, Fawzeyya’s closest female friend Samira rallies a strike at the bank to call for a reversal of the decision to fire Fawzeyya (now Fawzy) due to gender-based discrimination. The strike works and Fawzy gets the job back, but only after Samira explains: “I’m not encouraging women to turn into men. I’m happy and proud to be a woman, but it’s Fawzeyya’s right to do what she wants.”

The movie doesn’t show enough support for Fawzeyya’s choice. I understand that Mihi probably wanted to avoid creating an unrealistic situation in which a woman becomes a man and wins everything and that’s it. This is why he, probably honestly, shows the realistically merciless reactions of certain individuals like the grumpy pediatrician (avoiding eye contact) or her father (Badr Nofal, pretending to be dead when asked to give sex advice) that are mostly funny and easy to relate to, but make it more difficult to sympathize with Fawzeyya and her motives. They actually make her seem like a confused woman who doesn’t know how to deal with the (normal) problems of marriage, a claim repeated many times by her lazy husband.

Some very valid points Fawzeyya expresses in her arguments with Ahmed are only mocked by him and laughed at just as they would be by a viewer who is not very interested in feminism. Bringing these opinions up in such a context only weakens them and makes it difficult to open a discussion around them after the movie.

Even though Samira is presented as an example of a clever, beautiful, proud-to-be-a-woman woman, who successfully pushes against patriarchal power and gets what she wants, she also ends up tangled inside the misogynistic solution of the movie’s finale and forces herself to relinquish her ability to choose, just like everyone else.

You can see Misters through the light of an important message it’s trying to make, which —  at the time — was an important shift: Women don’t have to be men to be equal —  a great message that that has been put forward a lot since in feminist discourse. The problem is that the movie, by choosing its main dramatic knot to be the couple’s child, reinforces beliefs that are very strongly attached to the difficulties in women’s lives in today’s world: It emphasizes the importance of family as the only solution for the survival of a group of humans, showing no alternatives to a woman’s life other than being a mother and a wife, and focusing only in a very limited way on the ridiculously unfair division of responsibilities between men and women and the way it never gets questioned.

Mihi made other movies that also experimented with gender and equality. They were made in a time when such discussions fought rising Islamism and the retreat of the progressive values of 1950s Egypt. I know it might be a bit greedy, but maybe my admiration of Mihi’s courage and skill and filmmaking ability is what makes me always expect more. I’m happy that this movie exists and sure that without it there would have been a slimmer chance of me thinking about women’s rights, and having this conversation with you now.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that “Al-Avocato” was Mihi’s first film; it was actually his second after “Oyun La Tanam” (1981). This was corrected on August 10, 2014.


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