From fiction to fact: 4G and the January 25 balloon prank

I came across a book once, from Dar Al-Maarif, called Geel Bi Laa Rais (A Generation Without a Head). I found the title, lamenting how young people nowadays have no one to lead them, a bit pretentious, but now I know better. I grew up abroad, in the Gulf, but with my parents. Many kids nowadays don’t even have this privilege, left in Egypt to wallow by themselves while their parents try to cut costs in exile.

That, in a nutshell, is what the film Al-Geel al-Rabie (4G, 2015) is about. (The title is either a play on the latest generation of mobile phones or, more ominously, fourth generation warfare, a concept hyped by the authorities as attempts to dissolve the state through such up-to-date technologies. Take your pick.) That’s also why the movie, released last autumn, is still relevant, given the predicament 20-year-old lead actor Ahmed Malek placed himself in with his prank this January 25, filming himself handing out inflated condoms — disguised as balloons — to unsuspecting cops, raw police recruits.

He’s apologized since, after being nominally banned from acting by the Actors Syndicate. What’s more interesting though was his father’s reaction, on Dream TV. He kept vacillating between disowning him outright — without sharing in the responsibility — or staying committed to him because he is, at the end of the day, still his son. He actually called on the audience’s sympathy, taking advantage of people’s familial biases. (Look at how we forgave Hosni Mubarak for the mess his son Gamal apparently got him and the country into.) That’s the kind of world Ahmed Malek grew up in, a leaderless member of the fourth generation himself. Kids in my day were too sheltered and imbued with guilt for such sexually lurid pranks. And we didn’t have mobile phones, just camcorders.

Ramy’s rat pack

So, what is it that I like about 4G? it’s very funny and thoroughly original. While the stylistics of playful pop music accompanying a shifting and speedy narrative format felt a bit like the flashiness of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire or Trainspotting, I didn’t feel they were imitating any specific foreign movie or scenes from one. It’s certainly a refreshing change in current Egyptian commercial cinema, and we have director Ahmed Nader Galal (who thus far has mostly followed in the action-film footsteps of his late director father) and the writing team headed by the adaptable Amr Samir Atef to thank for it. Meanwhile, the old-timer comedians, like Bayoumi Fouad and Talaat Zakariya, do a solid job without detracting from the kids. You can’t help but root for the youngsters, and with good reason.

The reason is how tragically accurate the film is. It’s about Ramy (Ahmed Malek) and his band of friends who get themselves into trouble with everybody — state security, drug lords, terrorists — and all because of his attempts to court an unworthy girl. Nesma (Layla Fawzy) has several relatives who are big-time narco cops and, as luck would have it, Ramy gives her a box of chocolates that turn out to be full of hashish, loaned by a friend who has to eek out a living selling hash since there are no honest jobs for the young anymore.

As for Nesma, she’s the quintessential “loose” woman in Egyptian parlance, getting men to pick up the tab for her meals in exchange for her romantic “services.” (They never tell exactly what she gets up to, but we’re told none of her customers ever complain about her.) Her top-brass relatives are none the wiser — too preoccupied with protecting the nation at large, another familiar motif about neglecting the home front. Nesma’s uncle wears a wig, just like Ramy’s father (Khaled Sarhan) — a marker of hypocrisy, people hiding inadequacies. 

The opening sequence has baby Ramy being deserted by his parents at Cairo airport for the lure of easy money in the Gulf. Ramy’s grandmother is put in charge, and as stuffily religious as she is, she marries an old flame while her son is conveniently out of town. She also feeds Ramy like a farmer fattening up a duck for slaughter, with a lethal mix of milk and halawa, and has no respect for his hobbies or passions, dumping greasy fries on his paper drawings.

Penalty shootout

His drawings are of Superman, if you must know. His grandmother thinks it’s a naked guy, as does the school principle (played by the dearly departed Ghassan Mattar, who usually plays criminals). Teenage Ramy is hooked on Superman thanks to a childhood friend who keeps telling him about the superhero’s endless powers, the ultimate role-model that the fourth generation is all missing out on.

Later, the father of one of Ramy’s friends wears a T-shirt with the superman symbol. The only catch is this father figure (Sherif Ramzy) is anything but a role-model. When the police break down his door and ask if he is so-and-so’s father, they don’t believe he is, because he literally looks like he’s from the same irresponsible age group. Another of Ramy’s friends has an elder brother (Hossam al-Husseini) who insisted on lording it over him, and their outrageous mother and is now in Al-Qaeda. After being booted out of Afghanistan, this brother heads back to Egypt to set up his own splinter cell to boss around. What got him into trouble with his Al-Qaeda superiors, it turns out, were his acting ambitions. So he’s another phony.

Ramy’s school is a den of corruption, with officials scalping money off the kids for grades and private tuition and not laying down the law. When Ramy and co try to raise enough cash to pay back the druglord for the hash they lost (in the box of bonbons) they resort to pimping the wife of the doorman, and many of her top clients are students and teachers from his school. (There’s obvious classist ramifications here — they like her purely because she’s “exploitable.”)

The cops — heavy-handed, incompetent and under-resourced — aren’t much better. (The scene where they call in the helicopter is especially funny, since they don’t have one and a cop has to imitate the rotor-blade sounds.) The Minister of Interior is portrayed as fearing for his life in the post-revolutionary security vacuum. Yet another of Ramy’s friends’ fathers is a parliamentarian who exploits farmers and quite literally sells out the country to the Israelis. Ramy’s own parents aren’t that honest either, losing all their hard-won money through legal shenanigans in the Gulf, forcing Ramy to live in a half-built home, literally sleeping in the dirt with no prospects for marriage given the expenses.

The great savior, in the end, is football — the only remaining untarnished role-model. The Interior Ministry official in charge of Ramy’s case when the law catches up with him is none other than former Ahly player Magdi Abdelghani, a man who had the good fortune to represent Egypt at the World Cup in 1990. Nothing unites the country like football, cutting across religious and class divides. Ramy’s friendship group are Muslims and Christians and put on a show of unity throughout. (They even draw on an apprentice pastor friend to help them at one point, getting them charged with inciting sectarianism by the authorities.) Abdelghani, needless to say, lets them off scot-free, understanding full well the privileges his generation enjoyed.

Back to reality

The story doesn’t end happily, however. The doorman gets his revenge, and rightfully so, if you ask me. The punchline here is that people have to take the law into their own hands to get things done. Ramy and co get strung up, and you can’t help but laugh, since they did do at least one thing wrong.

So Ahmed Malek fits the role like a glove. He matches the generational profile and has gotten himself into trouble with a distinct sexual angle, just like in the movie. It seems in these self-indulgent times, sex has become a form of protest in and of itself (a glance at the internet will confirm this). We’re in the era of post-revolutionary funk, not unlike what you see in many Naguib Mahfouz movies following the 1919 and 1952 revolutions, like Thartharah Fawqa al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile, 1971) or Al-Qahira 30 (Cairo 30, 1966). It happens all over, apparently — just watch post-Franco Spanish cinema, with minor classics like Madrid, 1987 (2011) and The Weakness of the Bolshevik (2003), in which odd relationships and sexual harassment are also themes. But we beat them to it!

No one denies that Malek is a talented young man, having rightfully shot to fame with his role in TV show Hekayat Hayat (The Story of Hayat, 2013), playing a boy captivated by drugs and liquor and his own mom, until he finds out she’s his mom — only to discover later on that she’s just his schizophrenic aunt. (Many a household suffer similar dilemmas.) I’d wager that sudden fame went to his head, pushing him down this reckless path with no one to restrain him. But everyone deserves a shot at redemption. My advice, listen to heavy metal — specifically the WASP album The Headless Children.

Emad El-Din Aysha 

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