Three takes on Like a Matchstick, a comic critique of Egyptian cinema’s ‘golden age’

The first feature written and directed by actor, musician and television personality Hussein al-Imam is an homage to his father, the prolific director Hassan al-Imam (of films such as the much-loved Watch Out for Zuzu and an adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy), and his famous cinema colleagues. Because Hussein died in 2014, the film was completed by his son, Youssef.

Here, three Mada writers recount how they felt watching Zay Oud al-Kabreet(Like a Matchstick), which is playing this week at Cairo’s Zawya cinema.

Rowan El Shimi

If I had to choose one word to describe Hussein al-Imam, it would be hilarious. Throughout his career — whether acting, making TV shows or playing his music — he consistently achieved a uniquely surreal brand of comedy. So it comes as no surprise that his only project as screenwriter and director is making Zawya’s audiences burst with laughter.

Like a Matchstick premiered at the 36th Cairo International Film Festival in 2014, a couple of months after Imam suddenly died of a heart attack. The film — which he produced with his wife and co-star Sahar Ramy — reconstructs footage from five of his father Hassan al-Imam’s lesser-known films, along with his own new black-and-white scenes and a comic narrative.

Alongside Imam and Ramy, the film stars Faten Hamama, Hend Rostom,Magda al-Khatib, Laila Fawzy, Emad Hamdy, Amina Rizk, Hussein Riad and others, creating a cast that totals 21 stars. Filmmaker and musician Youssef al-Imam, Hussein’s son, finished the film’s editing, and considers the project a collaboration between the three generations of Imam filmmakers.

The film begins with Hussein al-Imam narrating memories of Cairo in its “golden years,” and we get the sense that it will follow the expected rhythm of usual nostalgia — but in fact it does just the opposite. Imam turns his stars into drug dealers, and uses the clichés of that era’s cinema in comical ways.Like a Matchstick‘s genius is that it takes the 1950s and 1960s — a period that a significant number of Egyptians perceive as really very chic and cosmopolitan — and transforms them into completely absurd comedy.

The low-budget production makes little effort to use proper copies of the films, making a stark difference in imagery between the newly shot scenes and the borrowed ones. This could bother some, but I reckon it adds to the production’s ridiculous charm.

Memorable scenes include Hussein al-Imam’s super literal narration of a dramatic fight scene, Faten Hamama shooting him with what turns out to be a water gun, and the bit when he drives a car by manically moving the steering wheel as they did in old films.

Overall, I’d say that if you’re looking for a good laugh, have a bit of nostalgia for classic Egyptian cinema, and want to see the last and only film Hussein al-Imam wrote, starred in and directed, Like a Matchstick is a must-see.

Lina Attalah

Hussein al-Imam starts with a dedication to the masters and jewels of Egyptian film, of which his father was an icon. It’s a playful disclaimer for a film that largely mocks the habits and traits of this 1950s and 1960s cinema: the simplistic plots, the unrealistic sound effects and scenes, the unquestioned values (for example, a woman’s honor is like a matchstick that can burn in no time). Imam’s satire comes in good faith and from some sort of a position of passion and love for a longstanding cinematic heritage, so formative for him and for us despite its limitations and stereotypes.

Imam’s career previously focused on acting, and he mostly took on secondary roles. Even though he started acting in childhood, his mastery of different languages had traditionally cornered him in roles where he could best portray a certain class in the 1990s and early 2000s: the rich man, the rich corrupt businessman, the rich playboy, and so on and so forth. But, Like a Matchstickwhispers a deeper fascination that Imam had with filmmaking and the world of directing, which he grew up with, watching his father Hassan, but apparently never had a chance to practice consistently. Yet ultimately Like a Matchstickseems to be a marginal production, which despite being shown at the Cairo International Film Festival did not achieve a commercial release and has only now been made properly available to the public through Zawya’s alternative cinema screen.

In a way, Hussein al-Imam’s whimsical and unreal approach in the film reproduces the very fantasies that Egyptian cinema in its “golden age” was playing on, confronting us with a basic question: When it doesn’t try to directly interrogate reality, isn’t film an art that is essentially unreal, fantastical, dramatic and an exaggeration of reality?

For those born and raised with this cinematic heritage, Imam’s film is also a good play on nostalgia and memory, whereby nostalgia is not evoked through the usual sentiments of melancholy and loss, but rather through a critique and, of course, laughter.

Amany Ali Shawky

There’s something almost sacred about doing what you love for a living, and dying while doing it is rather magnificent. In 1949, at the age of 60, comedian Naguib al-Rihany died while shooting the last scenes of Ghazal al-Banat (Girls’ Flirting), a movie he starred in and co-wrote, along with heartthrob Anwar Wagdy. Rihany’s talent and astounding sense of humor have enormously enriched both Egypt’s theater and its cinema, yet Girls’ Flirting is particularly special, as if part of his soul resides in it.

Hussein al-Imam died at 63, shortly after wrapping up the shoot for his first and last movie, in which, as director, writer and star, he presents a unique concoction of farcical comedy. He plays Wahid Ezzat, a drug dealer and owner of a nightclub called Shahrayar, who is seeking revenge on the “Big Guy.”

Imam weaves this simplistic narrative into hundreds of scenes from the black-and-white movies of the 1950s and early 1960s by adding scenes mostly shot at home with his wife. The result is an unprecedented mishmash of storylines, imagery, genres and times, and it’s fresh yet lovably familiar. The visual discrepancies are confusing at times due to variations in quality, hues and sets, yet the film persuades you to adapt to and even enjoy them.

Second to Imam, with his innovative idea for the film and his overwhelming humor, editing is the star of Like a Matchstick. It was his son Youssef al-Imam who edited his father’s last work, and the smart and quirky editing fully embraces the farcical, home-movie nature of the film. Instead of attempting to hide the lack of continuity, Youssef accentuates it.

And like Girls’ Flirting, Like a Matchstick seems to contain a fraction of Imam’s talented soul. Both he and Rihany smile at their audience in their last shots with a final message of love and humor from artists who died doing what they loved.

Note: This article initially used the phrase “Cotton Candy” instead of “Girls’ Flirting,” which was fixed on August 29.  

Amany Ali Shawky 
Rowan El Shimi 

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