There were bouncers at the cinema doors, police dogs and riot police on site, in addition to the usual Opera House security guards, for Monday’s 8.30 pm screening of Karim al-Sobky’s Men Dahr Ragel (Born to a Man, 2015).
At 7.30 pm crowds waited to enter the main hall. There were more people by far at this screening than at Sameh Abdel-Aziz’s Al-Leila al-Kebira (The Grand Night, 2015), the other Egyptian film in the festival competition. The crowd was mostly young and male — which is the demographic, I would argue, that the film targets.
Although embattled masculinities have long been a topic of Egyptian cinema, a genre of films has emerged in the last few years that one might compare to British “lad culture” flicks. El-Sobky Film Productions is at the forefront of this trend, with films like Qalb al-Assad (Karim al-Sobky, 2013) and Shad Agzaa (Hussien El Menabawy, 2015).
Some male movie stars, like Mohammed Ramadan, the star of Qalb al-Assad, have gained stardom largely through their roles in these films. Asser Yassin, the star of Born to a Man, has also often played the role of the tough guy, a man’s man if you like, who, nonetheless has a vulnerable side that he tries to hide. This is a formula that is key to a lot of the male characters that one finds in British “lad flicks,” which emerged in the 1980s.
Lad culture movies usually feature and cater to working-class men. This does not mean that men and women of all backgrounds cannot enjoy them, but historically these types of movies have come as a response to the unique experiences and fantasies of this particular section of society.
In Born to a Man, tough economic conditions, psychological and physical violence, exploitation by police, conservative and religious upbringings and sexual frustration characterize the world of the working-class man in Egypt today. As such, the film is a potential release for these frustrations and hardships, a brief escape. It legitimizes male fantasies of physical and sexual prowess and gives them emotional, social and even religious justification.
In the film, Rahim (Asser Yasin) becomes a thug who murders, rapes and steals for reasons that are out of his hands — police corruption, his father’s history, a manipulative childhood friend, a lover who refuses him. He appears to have no choice but to descend into a pit of darkness in order to survive, but, of course, he hates himself for being such a lowlife. In other words, he might be stealing, killing and raping, but he is good at heart. He is not completely rotten. This is why redemption at the end is possible, a redemption, by the way, that is very much in line with a conservative and religious worldview.
I cannot remember any time when a lad flick, as popular as it might have been at the box office, was nominated for a big festival prize. Such films have a very specific niche, and the roles of women in them tend to be marginal, with them serving merely as the subjects of male fantasy. So in political terms, legitimizing lad flicks in this way could bring bad press to festivals. Having Born to a Man in the CIFF’s official competition this year is therefore quite risky.
It is important to note that a more socioeconomically diverse audience was present for Born to a Man and The Grand Night than most of the other screenings in the festival, where I was typically surrounded by the elites of society in some way, press or critics. It should also be said that there is some interesting camera work and narrative techniques in Born to a Man. But overall, it is a weak film that is full of visual clichés and easy narrative resolutions.
By no means am I saying that films like this have no place in a festival like CIFF. It is valuable to have various types of representations of masculinity on screen. But is the official competition really the place to screen them?