An aging gray city brings forth from its gut small colorless people who cling to its rugged edge, clinging to the same winding path that always takes them far from their dreams.
Ahlam Hend we Camellia (Hend and Camellia’s Dreams, 1988), written and directed by Mohamed Khan, is about a hollow city swallowing its own, but more than that, it’s about women being thwarted at every turn by poverty and patriarchy.
Beautiful widow Hend (Aida Riyadh) and strong-willed divorcé Camellia (Naglaa Fathi) together attempt to break free from their downtrodden, precarious existences despite the sabotage efforts of the men in their lives and the rich people who employ them as housekeepers.
Evil, dishonest, weak, strong, good, tender and vindictive all at once, Khan’s protagonists are made of many layers of palpable gray, and are visually very pale and washed out, at points almost black and white.
In a multicolored amusement park, Hend realizes how dull her life is, having been widowed at a young age and forced to clean houses in a ruthless city. She finds refuge in her friendship with Camellia, another housemaid longing to liberate herself from the cruel grip of the men who depend on her. They offer each other a beautiful solidarity.
“I was never young,” says Eid (Ahmed Zaki), a school-bus driver, felon and black-market currency dealer to Hend as he attempts to win her heart while his eyes rove toward Camellia.
When the baby girl Ahlam is born, she seems to offer hope to the women, maybe even the chance of a second start. “I am actually trying to be good,” Eid says to Camellia. “But don’t know how I can be.”
The sluggishness of their lives is manifested in a straightforward, linear screenplay but which brilliantly reveals the many faces of each character. (Khan brought in Mostafa Gomaa to write the dialogue, which is pitch-perfect.) The also script has a melodramatic vibe, as the characters yell and gesture at each other and get caught up in dangerously dramatic situations.
“Do you know how much I’ve saved up? LE275,” says Hend wistfully to Camellia as they embark together on a journey that starts with a meal of koshary, an insanely over-the-top Indian movie and a hope to one day walk by the sea, the marvel of their small dreams.
Eating and movie-watching accompany crucial moments in the film’s plot, a trademark of Khan that points at a zest for life and romantic hope that belies the perpetual tragedies.
Mohsen Nasr, behind the camera, captures the beauty of faces and the silent language of the gaze in a similar way to his approach in Khan’s Dinner Date (1981), capturing the silent yet intense energy between Ahmed Zaki and Souad Hosni. The visuals often resemble the vibrant paintings of Mahmoud Saeed, seeking out a specific Egyptian kind of beauty. Fathi’s and Riyadh’s unmade faces make an excellent canvas.
Many scenes are shot from above as the characters walk in alleyways or look down from the rooftops. This, along with the character’s occasional references about God being good to the poor, seems to give the film an air of subtle ironic questioning of religious fatalism.
Apart from that, there are a few remarkable tracking shots in the street and unexpected cuts that unpretentiously reveal the film’s cinematic flair, another Khan trademark. He appears very briefly at the end of the amusement park scene, a careful observer of a tough and complicated society.
Hend and Camellia’s Dreams bears similarities to Khan’s Omar’s Journey, made two years earlier – but in the latter film, even the bad things that keep happening to the protagonist are not so painful because he’s privileged.
More than Omar’s Journey though, the film has remarkable connections to Khan’s most recent movie, Factory Girl (2013), which is also a masterpiece. The plots echo each other, as well as the focus on class hierarchy, women’s labor and a corrupt patriarchal system that ultimately doesn’t benefit anyone. In both films we see women eating while watching an old Souad Hosni film.
The final bittersweet ending of each film are unmistakably similar – in Factory Girl, the Yousra Hawary song Babtissim (I’m Smiling) plays, and in Hend and Camellia’s Dreams, it’s Sayed Higab and Ammar al-Shiraaey’s Qotret Nada (Dew Drop): “Oh life, you’re so small like a drop of dew, we’re going to keep on chasing you, right or left wherever you go.”
What’s perhaps most heartbreaking about watching both of these films is that, though the visuals have become less drab and the budgets bigger, the films seem to suggest that nothing has changed in 15 years – except that perhaps there’s less female solidarity.