“Well, when I first heard it, it didn’t appeal to me either. But then I got used to it, I got hooked… and it got me high.”
So says the cab driver to Salah, the uptight chemist, to explain why he likes the loud music he’s listening to, in the process brilliantly summing up what “keif” is all about.
Al-Keif (The High, 1985), directed by Ali Abdel Khalek and written by Mahmoud Abu Zeid, was shot in a period when – visually – cinema in Egypt was at an all-time low.
The cab driver’s words don’t just apply to the music – and to a whole lot of other things which after liking them you label as your own “keif” – it applies to the film itself, which brings us to the inevitable question of why is it that after all these years this is still such a good movie that we can’t switch to anything else once we’ve heard the loud hilarious giggle of the charismatic Mahmoud Abdel Aziz? And how did it get so under our skin in the first place?
With probably some of the worst compositions ever, this movie holds a high rank in the list of 1980s visual disasters, right next to the mullet and puffy training suits. The cinematography is very poor, the camera is constantly shaking, the film is always just a bit overexposed and the lights are just too damn bright. The editing is very edgy, which can also be blamed on the director as it seems his shots didn’t give much for the editor to work on: He always cut either too soon or too late.
The sound recording just lets everything in, and the traffic is just as loud as the characters’ dialogue so at times you can’t properly hear anything they’re saying. And when you can, it feels like the conversation was recorded in a toilet.
All these sins produced an amateurish film that on first look is rejected by the average viewer flipping through the channels looking for something eye-catching. That’s exactly what happened when I first saw the film many years ago. I couldn’t get through the first 30 minutes. I just didn’t like it.
“They’re shooting the ceiling as a major compositional element and the actors’ faces look like giant bobble-heads – why would I watch this movie?” the movie-fanatic super ego inside me asked, just as Salah innocently asks the cab driver about 10 minutes into the film: “Why do you listen to this noise?”
The answer is soul, integrity and, last but not least, chemistry. That’s what has made me sit through Al-Keif not just once or twice but countless times, why it got to be an all-time favorite of mine and of millions of “kayefa” (highs) all round Egypt’s lands. Because just this once we could look up at the screen and actually see our ideas, opinions and problems discussed without degradation, and identify completely with the character on screen: Gamal al-Mazagangy, a character who’s lying around somewhere inside everyone of us, and we know it.
The film starts with two main characters on opposite ends of the spectrum. Salah, played by the amazingly dedicated Yahia al-Fakhrany, lives his quiet little life with a wife and kid, trying to fit into his father’s boots, and taking pride in his ethical lifestyle and scientific mind. Gamal al-Mazagangy (Abdel Aziz) is having a blast: He sleeps all day, plays music all night, gets paid handsomely for it, and takes care of his precious head by smoking hashish. He doesn’t have a care in the world, and believes you get by through wit and cleverness, a principle adapted by most of the Egyptian population to try and haggle what they want out of life.
Brilliant characterization and dialogue make the characters immediately believable. The screen chemistry between the two actors is obvious from the first scene, and you have no doubt that they’re actually brothers. The story smoothly builds from there as Gamal is reintroduced into Salah’s life, a scientific mind collides with a haggler turned lawyer, and a dangerous relationship is in the making.
Right from the get-go they start arguing due to their obvious differences, and many important philosophical questions are asked. The audience is easily added to the equation and we start having our own opinions on what’s happening thanks to the subtle plot and light-hearted script.
“Ethics, are they really that important?” Salah asks himself. He had previously thought that people like his father were role models to society, but now he finds that no one cares about ethics anymore. His loose-canon brother gets his son accepted into schools where his father’s connections couldn’t. He starts doubting himself, and he starts changing.
“The high is an illusion, it’s what they fool you with to keep you smoking that stuff.”
“But what about what the effects you feel in the head?”
“Those are just the effects of good company and atmosphere. You’ve fooled yourself into this.”
It’s the ancient question of keif and what the heck it is. Salah thinks it’s an illusion but he’s speaking as an outsider who hasn’t gotten his hands dirty yet. His brother disagrees – after all he’s tasted the medicine and knows it well. He tries to convince Salah that people need their keif, to get by and forget the misery they live in. Salah knows nothing of this. The chemist’s sin is knowing too little, and Gamal’s is that he thinks he knows it all, which he obviously doesn’t.
But in time they learn to appreciate each other. Salah, in desperate need for money, gets conned by his own brother into cooking large amounts of hash, Gamal learns to respect the chemistry he used to despise, and they form one hell of an alliance and make lots of money in the process.
Gamal now thinks he’s way smarter than the people around him, but is proven wrong when he tries his own product for the first time, resulting in one of the funniest scenes ever, the funeral scene. He discovers that someone’s selling amphetamines as hashish, using his product.
The dramatic half of the story begins, and in this it follows a typical path for Egyptian films: The first half is all laughs and the second is all tears. Except in this one both parts are just as interesting, because of the introduction of the boss-man character, played by the brilliant Gamil Ratib.
“I started my career selling tea. I used to cut it with sawdust, and it sold even better,” says the boss when Salah asks why he cheats people into a “keif” that will kill them. “Do you know what happened when I stopped putting sawdust in it? People called me a cheater.”
He only supplies what people demand, an easy way to get high and maintain their heads, and the misery of life means they simply don’t care what he’s putting in their “keif.”
The film ends with Salah an addict and Gamal, reformed, tearfully fixing his brother a shot. They got played by the master and his dangerous weapon of “keif.” They got greedy. The ending, though it has the overdramatic tone of endings unique to Ali Abdel Khalek (just as in Idam Mayyit (Execution of a Dead Man, 1985) and Al-Aar (Shame, 1982)), is perfectly justified: It sums the events up very neatly, with the same words as the start. I didn’t like it first, then I got used to it and it crawled up under my skin, and it got me high.
Dazzlingly important questions, ultimately not answered but left open for the audience: This is what sets this film apart from other products of Egyptian cinema. The writer doesn’t care that he can’t answer these questions, he’s comfortable asking them through characters true to society, as unique to Egypt as the word “keif” itself. That’s what got under people’s skin: The fact that for once someone is talking to us sincerely and respectfully about our lifestyle and fears.
The film is proof that you can do all the wrong things there are to do as a filmmaker and get away with it, as long as you’ve got a great story, growing characters and actors true to their art. Also that if you laugh hard and sincerely enough, people will always laugh with you, even the grumpy ones.