Egypt’s cinematic gems: The Scream
A very violent soft movie
 
 
 

A lot of the movies I choose to write about for Mada Masr’s “cinematic gems” series are ones that pop out of my memory and recall early moments of astonishment. I remember Al-Sarkhah (The Scream, 1991) very well because watching it as a child was such an intense experience.

The Scream is written by Karam al-Naggar and directed by Mohamed al-Naggar, two intriguing figures in Egyptian filmmaking. I have no information on whether they are related or not, but Karam and Mohamed have more in common than their last name.

When you look at their filmographies you find that Mohamed was assistant director for Atef al-Tayeb on two of his greatest films (Al-Hob Fawqa Hadabit al-Haram [Love Over the Pyramid Plateau, 1986] and Sawwaa al-Autobees [The Bus Driver, 1982]), and directed two very important films that introduced him to the scene — Zaman Hatem Zahran [Hatem Zahran’s Time, 1987] and The Scream. Keep scrolling though and you read things that suggest there was a mix-up: The same man also directed very meaningless cheap comedies like Saiedy Rayih Gaye (Upper Egyptian Back and Forth, 2001) and Ali Spicey (2001). It seems like Mohamed al-Naggar had only one rule: never stop working. Karam’s approach seems similar, with fewer commercial works and a moralistic focus suggested by film titles like Siraa al-Ahfad (The Grandchildren’s Struggle, 1989) and Al-Qudban (The Prison Bars, 1974).

Because of how their other works are so different, I find it strange that these two people chose to collaborate in 1991 on The Scream. In general, The Scream is full of strange choices that give it a distinctive flavor throughout.

Nour al-Sherif, probably at the peak of his stardom at the time, stars as the lonely deaf son of a very poor railroad signal worker, blocked off from a lot of the world’s knowledge but trying to get by with life and survive humans. Omar keeps on getting used and abused by one person after another, and each time he is bitten by a human flaw that he struggles to understand. By the end, Omar is transformed into a monster much crueler than those who hurt him, and the line between his “abnormality” and the others’ “normality” is blurred.

The movie is surprising because it respects Omar’s world, and gives it many of its 150 minutes. For many long scenes we are inside Omar’s head watching life with him without sound, and drifting into fascinating moments that interrupt his life. The scene in which he sees Wafaa (the deaf student he likes and fails to get married to) for the first time, as she watches a fellow student’s silent impersonation of actor Adel Imam, is one of the weirdest, sweetest scenes ever.

Yet the Naggars had an obvious intention to make an entertaining and watchable movie, and they weave its plot in a traditional Egyptian melodramatic way. The story focuses on the betrayal, selfishness and greed of those who find Omar easy prey, and sometimes uses tacky and over-wrought tools. Most of the actors playing hearing characters express their feelings with very sophisticated and over-acted lines that are full of metaphor and cheap eloquence, while the coded conversations between the deaf, which are mostly left un-decoded for the audience, are a lot more honest, interesting and engaging. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but the contrast between the fakeness of the “normal” and the delicacy of the abnormal creates a very interesting mood.

The directing is mostly straightforward, without any fancy ideas or games. The camera is just there and is simply pointed at the actors while they do what they’re doing. The camera also pays a lot of attention to details other films might not care about much. When Omar is being examined, for example, the camera follows the procedure closely and the editor doesn’t cut as soon as the idea is delivered, but keeps it rolling and shows you things that you’ve already seen in the shot, only because this is what happens in real life. This semi-documentary style, which was used by many Egyptian realist directors of that era, gives the film a serious feeling. It’s interesting how the rhythm follows this language, and the Naggars don’t really mind the movie getting quite long. They took the risk and left as much as possible in the film, despite how amateurish this decision makes it look at times.

Nour al-Sherif’s acting in this film is very good. He uses the noises and facial expressions to express a variety of feelings that indicate that his disconnection from the outside world sometimes feels like a blessing and other times like hell. Maaly Zayed, who plays the researcher using Omar’s case for her own research interests, also does a very good job and makes her character seem very believable, especially in scenes where she doesn’t have to state boring facts about her personality to explain to the audience why is she the person she is.

Philosophically, the movie has a position that I’m not sure I totally agree with. First of all, the intensified victimization of the deaf person and the way he is portrayed as an angel or saint who gets polluted by humans reinforces the feeling of difference and disconnection from the other that paves the way for such violent or evil interactions the movie is supposedly trying to confront.

The Scream’s take on society, state and the system is progressive: It uses Omar’s disconnect from people who speak as a metaphor for oppression in general through a complicated and subtle ethical dilemma. Yet the main villainy he has to fight is largely symbolized in three different “types” of women. Omar’s relationship with women in general seems built around a classic biblical seduction theme whereby they’re manipulative and corrupt men with earthly desires and greed. It’s true that there are female characters who kind of do the right thing, but overall The Scream has beef with women and with sex, and the main character’s religion-inflected moral judgment of those who enjoy a liberated sex life is presented as a positive thing.

Despite all this, I find this movie interesting and the language it uses to express such complex ideas about what is right and what is wrong possesses various phrases and cinematic moments that swing between very soft and poetic compositions and feelings and other very deeply loud and obvious ways of communication. This movie in my opinion manages to co-exist with other movies in a period where Egyptian cinema was going through really difficult times and contributed to widening the spectrum of Egyptian film heritage and the types of stories it showed interest towards.

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