Kalb Balady (Indigenous Dog) abruptly interrupts the waterfall of Hollywood trailers with a very surprising pre-credit scene.
It’s surprising in terms of content, shooting style and the idea that concludes its elegant, well-crafted dramatic curve. It’s a shocking scene with a very strong position on the society in which the movie’s events occur — its taboos and the ethical standards by which it decides right and wrong and how power is distributed. The scene breaks through the viewing experience and the filmmakers put themselves under a very bright spotlight through a clear message: This movie has something to say — you may not like what it has to say, but you’ll likely laugh at it anyway. It’s a cinematic embodiment of the famous internet meme known as “sudden entrance,” which was the fruit of Egyptian internet humor in 2014.
The internet! That good, evil soil that has brought forth so many voices, ideas and talents, that has disturbed and still is disturbing this country’s stability until God does what he needs to do.
When filmmaking trio Sheeko, Ahmed Fahmy and Hisham Maguid made World War 3 (2014), everybody noticed how a huge chunk of that film’s freshness and absurdist comedy was owed to the internet and the type of content Egyptian social media users produce. Whole YouTube videos were reproduced with minor alterations as an investment in a new cinematic language and a different type of film.
But Indigenous Dog, which is written by Sherif Naguib and Ahmed Fahmy, belongs to the internet generation in a different, more fundamental way. If you’re from the generation shocked by Ismailia Back and Forth (1997), which started the infamous “youth cinema” movement, this movie will probably destroy your last hope in a tomorrow that looks like yesterday. But be not upset, my conservative viewer brother, it’s of God’s mercy that Ahmed Helmy is still making clean cinema with no kisses or ideas, movies eight-year-old children watch alongside pensioners and everybody feels everything is okay.
Indigenous Dog is like the internet and those young people on it: angry, disgruntled, rude, intelligent and funny. While millions of pounds are spent on movies shot in fancy flats and resorts about apple-of-your-eye young people suffering first-world problems, Naguib and Fahmy created a hero who’s not a successful young person, maybe because that model is not very realistic in Egypt right now, or an unsuccessful young person, maybe because that model is too realistic, or even a young person, maybe because the notion of personhood itself needs a bit of redefinition. The hero is half-human half-dog, and his dogness might be able to save whatever is left of Egyptians’ dignity.
In the collective human consciousness, dogs are famous for being intelligent loyal human-loving animals, but in Egyptian consciousness a dog is a confused representation of those characteristics combined with pathological phobia, popular contempt and religious repulsion — maybe for reasons to do with rabies, high temperatures and the spread of disease. The dog is the animal that reminds Egyptians that no matter how bad your life is, at least you’re not a dog. Yet in Indigenous Dog, Rocky (Ahmed Fahmy), who was raised by a kindly dog after his mom threw him away as a baby, has a compassion, steadfastness and care for others that’s difficult to distinguish from the qualities you find in a lot of humans who live in Egypt. This metaphor may sound too harshly uncomfortable, yet the lighthearted, witty way Indigenous Dog explores the paradox of this humadog’s existence among humans makes it easily pass through people’s minds with all the cruelty it carries. It also knows exactly who its core audience is and seems, from the beginning, biased in favor of a group of people who have the same boldness, and the same anger and indignation at the fake values that rule this society, where the conditions in which humans and dogs live become more similar daily.
Scene by scene, Indigenous Dog slams one taboo after another, without even letting them become the topic of the story, starting — weirdly! — from the top and ending with the bottom. The penultimate scene, in which the hero survives through a very unusual trick (using a poster of pop star Amr Diab to defeat a bear), is probably one of the weirdest comedy scenes I’ve ever seen in my life, and it achieves a state of mockery of both holiness and counter-holiness in a very abstract way. It seems to me that the movie gave itself a series of challenges: Can I make fun of this? And the answer was always “Yes.” The link between all these “yeses” is a very respectable stance on all the “nos” that rule the heads of creator and viewer in a country like Egypt, especially these days.
I had a short conversation with Sherif Naguib a while ago on the internet about comedy and political correctness and whether there should be a limit for what a comedian can make fun of, and if so, why? We disagreed a bit and agreed a bit, and he eventually said to me: “The film I’m writing now, when you see it, you’ll come and throw stones at my house!” And Indigenous Dog does deliberately tap into risky areas where comedy is generated from short people, obese people, poor people and people of different ethnicities. Yet the way it deals with these jokes — even though they weren’t the moments that made me laugh the most — seems aware of this problem and determined to explore it and come out of it with something new, something that doesn’t only follow the audience’s primal desire to laugh at other people’s misery or the brutal reopening of the wounds of those less lucky in society. The script deliberately flips the events around to give the victims surprisingly heroic roles, and when you compare these choices with the way much-criticized “impairment comedy” has always been historically present, you find that the filmmakers’ choices probably wanted to intertwine with an interesting conversation, which again seems an extension of new interests and ambitions for this generation, reflected in a film tangling itself up in more than one problematic issue when it totally didn’t have to.
Unfortunately, while Indigenous Dog mostly succeeds in keeping one’s attention and generating laughter, its makers waste a chance to possess a distinctive cinematic identity that might have given it an artistic status and a longer shelf-life — mostly because of technical failures in writing and directing.
The script identifies itself through that epic opening scene as a linear one based on a central plot where every line and shot takes us one step closer to the conclusion. The scene starts with a complex situation (dude goes into mosque, tries to pray next to a shrine), creates tension between the hero and another character (a woman next to him keeps on interrupting his prayers with psychopathic demands of God to hurt her loved ones), introduces a third character who’s significant and has very distinctive features (a sheikh who’s distressed by the hero and the woman fighting violently in the mosque), and uses it to develop the hero’s character and reveal his backstory (the hero proves he has canine capabilities by identifying by smell something surprising the sheikh has in his pocket). The scene ends with a sudden twist that resembles the hero’s relationship with the outside world and prepares us for how life’s going to treat him during the film (the sheikh incites other mosque-goers against him for being a dog, as dogs aren’t allowed into mosques).
I wish the rest of the movie had been built the same way, but a few minutes later it starts arbitrarily splitting and scattering into distracted mini-sketches trying hard to stay connected to the story. For example there’s a subplot in which the hero falls in love with a vet, who appears suddenly and loves him back suddenly, solely to provide a chance for a classist sketch in which the hero’s sordid family goes to see her in the posh club where she plays tennis.
The main plot is supposedly dominated by a classic weird evil mastermind called Warda (played finely by Akram Hosny), but it’s childishly simple and wastes a chance to explore the villain’s oddness and his motives. We only see him play a very limited set of emotions due to the repetitive nature of his scenes, and the relationship between villain and hero suddenly escalates to an inevitable confrontation, as if it’s only happening because this is what happens in movies. Indigenous Dog is clearly sarcastic and doesn’t take itself or its plot too seriously, and it makes fun of the way drama develops through the assistant villain’s cynical comments on his plans the same way Mohamed Shahin’s character in the comedy La Taragaa walla Istislam (No Retreat, No Surrender, 2010) constantly reveals the script’s naivety to the viewer. But I don’t find this trick amusing anymore, especially after Indigenous Dog already promised me a higher level of freshness and absurdity, giving me an appetite for more sophisticated writing.
Directing-wise, I thought movies could not look worse than Indigenous Dog until the day after, when I saw Hamlit Fraiser (Fraiser’s Campaign, also currently in cinemas and written by Sheeko and Hisham Maguid). Indigenous Dog director Moataz al-Touny’s choices not only add no aesthetic depth to the script, they even fail to visually depict what’s going on sometimes. Some scenes take a bit of thinking to figure out whether they are indoors or outdoors, and others look like they’re happening in the evening then suddenly seem to switch to daytime. The set is poor and lazy, failing to invest in the movie’s overall sense of humor. The computer graphics look much less catastrophic than I expected though.
Ahmed Fahmy, in his first leading role without lifetime friends Sheeko and Maguid, proves capable of pulling it off, despite seeming stuck in the area Asfour — the successful character he played in Al-Ragul al-Ainnab (Hibiscus Man, 2013) — came from: His physical fitness means he can fill simple action minutes with jumping around. Yet his presence and ability to fill the frame are still heavily dependent on verbal jokes he obviously co-writes. Performance-wise, Sheeko in Hamlit Fraiser seems a lot more liberated and bold before the camera and more willing to push his character to stranger areas. But in general, Indigenous Dog, the first movie Fahmy chose to play the lead in, seems promising and quite experimental, and I think his next movies will probably be more interesting than his peers’.
The overall feeling I get from Indigenous Dog is that it’s a movie hiding inside another movie, superficially behaving like a standard commercial comedy and speaking the language you’d expect from one, with the colorful hysteria of screaming, fantasy and a punch line every 30 seconds. Yet, every now and then, a stray moment of true creation is revealed from under its thick, entertaining layers, a moment that says that the makers of this film might actually not care about all that commercial success as much as they care about the possibility of creating a new moment. Maybe, if they had the chance or luxury, they could make a movie that only says what they want to say, a movie that responds only to their own fantasies and obsessions. But maybe no one would produce it, or no one would watch it. Maybe they should produce it themselves then?
I hope they will keep rebelling against the audience’s political and social expectations. I hope they also take this further and rebel against the business model. I wonder what they could achieve if they didn’t have to appeal to trite entertainment or unrealistic revenues at the expense of what they really want to say, even if that’s no more than a bunch of personal concerns and existential questions. Technology is now very flexible. The internet has created watching habits and expectations that are evolving very quickly, and experimentation won’t be new for someone like Naguib or Fahmy, who were introduced to the audience back in the early 2000s via a VHS recording of some funny young men pretending to be Men Who Don’t Know the Impossible.