“It doesn’t matter what I want, nor what your mother wanted, nor your aunt. What do you want?” Salma (Salma El Tarzi) asks her friend Marwa (Dunia Maher) in Eman El Naggar’s debut feature Suicidal Notions. The two of them are having a fight, as Salma probes to find out why Marwa is adamant about leaving the country, a long-term plan cut short by her mother’s untimely passing.
Marwa is in her late twenties or early thirties, and is all set to start a new life in Australia with her husband, who is already waiting for her there. The film begins with her packing in obvious excitement, yet when she stops at her mother’s house to bid her one last farewell, she is met with her lifeless body. Aided by her aunt (Yasmine El Naggar) and her mother’s maid, Rania (Salma Sami), Marwa deals with the draining logistics of death — from making arrangements for burial to emptying the apartment — all while still intending to leave on the day of her scheduled flight. Gradually, however, secrets are unveiled to her, and she discovers a side to her mother she had never known.
Yet her mother’s death is not the only thing that leads Marwa to question her decisions. Her little drama is unfolding in the shadow of a larger one, quite a bit more monumental in scale: right under her mother’s old apartment building in downtown Cairo, protesters are gathering in the 18-day uprising, and we follow it all through Marwa’s eyes: from the very first marches on January 25 (which she passes through on her way to her mother’s in the beginning of the film), through the bloody clashes on January 28 and the Battle of the Camel, to the relative peace in the square afterwards.
What’s remarkable about Suicidal Notions is how it positions Marwa’s ordeal vis-à-vis the revolution. She is in the very center of the action, with an apartment overlooking Tahrir, yet in effect she is on the periphery, because she never ventures out of her building. She is too scared, too uncertain. We are constantly aware of the commotion outside, we hear the gunshots and the chants and the banging on makeshift barricades, yet it’s almost always in the background. Sometimes, when she anxiously looks out her window at the fighting below, we see archival footage from the early days of the uprising, and the transition from fact to fiction is seamless and convincing. It is a fitting choice, because Marwa is always witnessing from a distance, never fully engaging with the events — they are not hers, and this is why it makes sense for them to not be part of the film’s inherent fabric.
Marwa deals with the protests the same way she deals with everything else in her life — she is not an active participant but a passive bystander. She refuses to go to her mother’s funeral, she was never aware that her mother was terminally ill, she constantly watches the neighbor, Sami (Zaki Fateen) — a middle-aged eccentric renting the apartment’s spacious extension — through the window, but she can’t muster the courage to ask him to move out so she can sell the apartment. When Salma accuses her of cowardice, Marwa counters that she is leaving everything she knows behind and moving to a place that’s completely new to her. Salma insists that this, in fact, proves her point — instead of staying and fighting for the life she wants, Marwa is escaping.
If there is a key to the question at the heart of Suicidal Notions, I believe that scene between the two friends, nearly halfway through the film, is it. It brings the narrative to a clear checkpoint, inviting it to delve deeper: What does Marwa want? If she insists on leaving, what is she still doing in Cairo? How do her discoveries about her mother’s past tie in with her fears? How can she carve out an independent life and identity in the midst of a dense, chaotic family situation?
Naggar however, fails to take her own cue, never following through on that prompt — not seriously, at least. Instead of exploring the drives of its main character, the film concentrates on finding answers to the secondary — and much less challenging — questions. Yes, we do want to know why Marwa’s mother left a note asking to be buried next to her father even though they had been divorced for years, and what the tiny key she left along with the note will open. But, more importantly, the film should be able to show us how these revelations reflect on Marwa, how they feed into her conflict. Unfortunately, it isn’t, and Maher’s awkward, uneven performance doesn’t help.
One thing Suicidal Notions does accomplish is giving viewers a strong sense of space. The mother’s apartment — and its extension, where Sami lounges fully-clothed in the bathtub, wrapped in blankets and solving Soduko puzzles — brims with the classically haunting, high-ceilinged charm of old downtown flats. We slowly become acquainted with every room in the house, from the long hallway with the parquet floors to the tidy foyer (inexplicably bathed in yellow light all the time) to the realistically eclectic bedroom. We see Marwa move within the apartment in wide shots, so that she is almost dwarfed by her surroundings, further highlighting her perceived powerlessness. In certain scenes she leaves the room and the camera does not follow, as if the empty space is more significant, and we can only hear her or see her shadow through doorways and glass panes. It is as though the apartment and its contents — the weight of her mother’s life and memories — overpower her, crippling her ability to move forward.
The house is indeed crowded with memorable objects: Antique furniture, crochet blankets with multicolored squares, orange and green tiles in the kitchen. Yet only rarely does this fixation on props pay off in the context of the story. One example is the fans, constantly whirring and covered with scarves that dance with the air’s circulation. It’s the middle of winter, but because Marwa’s aunt has decided to unearth her mom’s body in order to move it as she requested and the process was interrupted by the protests, the body ends up back in the house. In an attempt to cover the smell, Marwa keeps the fans on at all times, to the surprise of everyone who enters. “The house still smells like Mona,” an unknowing Sami affectionately muses one day, after inquiring about the fans.
The film’s fragmented third act, completely devoid of causality, makes the problem with the screenplay — and the editing, probably (the film is written and cut by Naggar herself) — abundantly clear. The energy built up in Marwa’s and Salma’s fight weakens with the divergent developments that ensue, and as we try to follow the paths the argument opens, we find that they lead nowhere. As a result, even the promising characterization (evident especially in the amusing contrast between the authoritative, sharp-tongued aunt and Marwa’s own unassertive demeanor) never fulfills its potential.
In all good writing there always lies a story beneath the story, and that’s the one that matters. This is where Suicidal Notions falls short. While the queries on the surface are resolved — unimpressively and incompletely, I might add — the deeper issues are hardly broached. With this lack of intention, the film’s idiosyncrasies and visual appeal seem purposeless, as though the story is there to serve them rather than the other way round — as though the entire project is weaved around a desire to indulge a specifically feminine sense of nostalgia and a particular type of trendy Tumblr aesthetic.
I first saw Dunia Maher act as Soad, the lead in Hala Lotfy’s Coming Forth by Day (2013), another independent Egyptian film with a different type of mother-daughter relationship. Unlike in Suicidal Notions, where Marwa is constantly dressed in hip, colorful clothes, Soad is plain and somber, weighed down by the drudgery of her life. In Lotfy’s film, death is an even more potent presence, through the sick father being taken care of by Soad and her mother. The apartment where the first half of that film takes place is also very distinct, in its austerity and the interplay of light and darkness in its rooms. Despite being less engaging, even difficult to get through, Coming Forth by Day is a mood-driven work that seeks to relay a feeling and, by employing the cinematic devices at its disposal, it accomplishes that. It is flawed, yet worthy of the space it occupies on the scene.
Suicidal Notions, meanwhile, attempts to tell a specific story that starts somewhere and ends somewhere, but the tools it resorts to do not push it forward — instead, they scatter its elements all over the place. Yes, it looks and feels different from most mainstream productions, but it’s very problematic — and rather disappointing — if that, on its own, is what we expect of what we claim to be a fresh new wave of “alternative” cinema.
Suicidal Notions screens on Monday May 15, 9.00 pm at Zamalek Cinema, Cairo, followed by Q&A, as part of Cairo Cinema Days.