Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘Halaa Housh’

Halaa Housh was produced by El-Sobky, and even though it was written by Bashir al-Deek (The DelugeAgainst the Government), one might therefore not expect much. Indeed, on the surface it’s just another slapstick comedy.

In the first scene, we meet our main character, Shadia (Laila Elwy), who cons men soliciting her for prostitution by drugging them and escaping with the money, which always results in the main theme of the movie: failure. Either the drugs don’t work, or unexpected guests show up.

She lives on a roof with her neighbors, Farag (Mohamed Heneidy), Hassouna (Alaa Waley Eddin) and Om Beesa (Magda al-Khateeb). We quickly discover the dynamic between them, a family-like relationship in which Om Beesa finds unambitious jobs for the trio from which they get fired due to Farag’s attitude, Hassouna’s gullibility and Shadia’s impatient desire for quick fixes.

It’s hard to tell if the actors’ lines were scripted or if they just come up with them on the spot, a typical quality of films incorporating the comedic duo of Heneidy and Waley Eddin. It’s quite brilliant sometimes and other times it misses the mark. This is also true of the film’s director, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, who made a lot of very similar films that present social issues and, in a sense, hollow them out.

Shadia is constantly using her sexuality to pull a con and ultimately that’s all she has. We are privy to her ambitions, fantasies and efforts to leap up in the world, maybe even be saved by a rich handsome man. The roof overlooks an outdoor cinema, and that inspires her ideas. After watching “Pretty Woman,” for example, she decides to wear a wig and go to Zamalek. She has an obsession with movies, Hollywood movies in particular, a direct reference to the film “Afreet Merati” (My Wife’s Ghost, 1968), in which a bored housewife, played by the actress Shadia, goes to watch movies in the cinema next to her house and comes back to her husband in character, in the hopes of living a more interesting life. This connection is emphasized by the use of Shadia’s name.

The film follows the many failures of the trio. Their adventures are always comic, always pathetic and always end with them getting beaten up.

In between we see Om Beesa’s complete acceptance of her poverty —  a phenomenon also delivered quite comically. She denounces the luxury of eating meat by declaring that it makes her children ill, and sends them off to school telling them to drink water if they feel hungry.

After an especially frustrating day, the group sits down on their roof to watch a new movie playing at the cinema next door. It’s a foreign bank heist movie, and suddenly we all know where this is going. An enactment of a scene from the film Dahab (1953), starring Anwar Wagdy and Feyrouz — in which an orphan girl finally (unlike themselves) finds her long lost rich parents — erupts on the roof, culminating with the trio going round in circles and singing “maana reyal” (we have 20 piasters).

Later, they show up at a small bank and start quite theatrically taking its measurements. Almost no one bothers to ask them who they are or what they’re doing. Everybody just makes assumptions, and the bank manager is busy having a hot phone call.

Back on the roof they rehearse the robbery, but a downstairs neighbor who works for the police storms in. They convince him that it’s all for a movie and he proceeds to instruct them how to make it more realistic: They must not forget to close the door behind them after entering the bank. This brings us — after repeated instances of failure to do the most basic tasks and not mess things up — to the other type of failure in the movie: gullibility. It seems as though not one character in this movie asks the right follow-up questions, and they all accept the silliest answers. Everybody fails in their role.

Sure enough, the day of the bank robbery they forget to close the door. Inside the bank are a variety of clients and clerks. Shadia distracts the manager. But as we have come to expect, nothing goes as planned.

Everyone in the film shares failure in common. Everything is absolutely inefficient to the point that it works. Even in terms of the acting in the movie, there is no effort to make it believable — that would be almost impossible, with the characters all being ridiculous. And as with most Sobky productions, and in fact most commercial films from the 1990s, the cinematography is characterized by excessive blurring and light diffusion, bad lighting and complete neglect of composition or framing concerns. There is no attempt either to create a good set.

Likewise, every suggestion or idea brought forth by the characters misses the point and is bound to fail. Their ambitions aren’t big enough. Even if they had the money, they’d lack the imagination to know what to do with it. Their constant search for easy solutions doesn’t really come from laziness but rather a belief that if they work hard nothing will come of it. They can see this in the life of Om Beesa.

So the question here is: Are they realists or fools? It’s 1997.

Hanaa Safwat 

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