In 1988, Nader Galal directed what may be considered today a cult movie: Batal Men Waraa (A Paper Hero). A comedy starring two of the main faces of television drama at the time, its story revolves around Ramy Qashwaa, a young and naïve yet talented scriptwriter.
Fresh from the suburbs, Qashwaa (Mamdooh Abdel Alim) conquers the combusting city with a screenplay that is immediately snatched up by the fast-paced industry. In his rooftop studio, he finishes his second thriller, Saat al-Khatar (The Hours of Danger), which he sends to be typed up at a specialized typing office. Unfortunately the only handwritten copy of the thriller is stolen by Samir (Ahmed Bedair), a psychotic character who finds Qashwaa’s scenario interesting and starts committing the crimes in it one by one.
“A very strange story indeed,” says officer Adel (Salah Qabeel) to the young scenarist when he reports the theft and his suspicions. “Could definitely make a plausible movie.”
The curiosity of Sawsan (Athar el-Hakim), an energetic, tough and pretty journalist, is piqued by Qashwaa’s calamity and she joins the hunt for Samir, who has commenced on a stealing and killing spree that we know will have a spectacular ending.
It’s an unusual type of story for Egyptian cinema, and the credits say Ibrahim al-Garawany is the writer, but A Paper Hero is adapted from a 1986 late-night TV show called Fondoq al-Nogoom al-Zarqaa (The Hotel of the Blue Stars), directed by Mostafa Muhamram and starring stellar comedian Samir Ghanem.
And Qashwaa’s brand of complex eccentricity was not new — in 1969, Mahfouz Abou Taqeya (Saeed Saleh) had won the hearts of theater audiences in the masterpiece Hello Shalaby by Abdallah al-Sheikh. Again, a funny, naïve and clever village boy comes to the big city, conquers the theater scene with a compelling screenplay, and wins the heart of beautiful city girl, Hoda. Abou Taqeya, like Qashwaa, was an instant success then and still is: his quirky spontaneity, offbeat fashion sense or lack thereof, bizarre accent, big glasses and undeniable talent made him weird, super appealing and almost addictive.
Galal directed most of Nadia al-Guindy and Adel Imam’s action movies throughout the 1980s. A maven of action movies, he does what he does best in A Paper Hero: an engaging, frenetic comedic chase.
What stands out in A Paper Hero is both the surrealistic nature of the characters and the nonsensical trail of events. A clumsy, unattractive scriptwriter on his way to stardom stumbles on a beautiful, audacious journalist and together they attempt to salvage his stolen screenplay. There is a general feel of puerility that contradicts with the nature of thrillers yet adds an unmistakable flare.
For instance, the relationship between Qashwaa and Sawsan develops with the ease of two children in a play date — with teasing and constant arguing, they develop a funny love/hate relationship from the first time they meet. This bizarre development makes perfect sense with the eccentricity of the characters. The giddiness with which Qashwaa deals with the state security service is again outlandish yet makes perfect sense taking into consideration his absolute unworldiness.
The nonconformity of Qashwaa is paralleled by Sawsan’s extreme eccentricity with her quickness, mumbling and thirst for risk. Her flamboyant dress sense, bold and funky 1980s hair and cool shades (she wears a different one in each scene) makes her a unusual leading lady, not to mention a very strong one.
The choice of actors is one of the movie’s lucky strikes. Known for their dramatic roles in both cinema and television, Abdel Alim and Hakim excel at in their once-in-a-lifetime comedic roles which give the movie a special charm. In 1986, they had starred in a television drama called Al-Hob Wa Ashyaa Okhra (Love and Other Things) by Osama Anwar Okasha — tragic and somber, it depicts a tragic love story that ends with failure. Two years later, Galal chose the on-screen couple for this crazy thriller comedy and the chemistry is marvelous.
Hassan Aboul Saoud’s playful and idiosyncratic score adds dynamism to all the surrealism, and the use of the Jaws soundtrack with every appearance of the psychopathic antagonist adds to the drama and foolery of events.
Cinematographer Saeed al-Shimy cleverly utilizes close-ups to the benefit of the storyline; they frame and highlight Samir’s dementia, Qashwaa’s cluelessness and Sawsan’s lunacy. The camera is light and energetic as it zooms around Cairo following the chase, and Shimy reverts to medium and long shots to better contain the action scenes.
All this weirdness, hilarity and clear effort on the part of the filmmakers has helped make A Paper Hero a cult movie that a dedicated fan base love to repeatedly watch and quote to each other.