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Egypt’s cinematic gems: Sleepless Nights

Calling Hany Khalifa’s Sahar al-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003) a “classic” gives me an uncomfortable feeling about my age because I was old enough to see it in the cinema. But it’s become a classic just as surely as I have become fearful of ageing.

Egyptian cinema had been swaying between two equally unimaginative poles for years: blockbuster comedies, and so-called “clean cinema” romcoms in which lovers hug but don’t kiss or mention sex. Arguably a generational film made for people in their late twenties and early thirties, Sleepless Nights brought together eight of the most popular young stars of these two types of film and shattered expectations.

Telling the story of upper-middle-class couples in Cairo whose lives intertwine over three consecutive nights, it confronted society with marital problems and sexual frustrations — commitment issues, unsatisfying sex, cheating, parental interference, prioritizing careers, and lingering feelings from old relationships sabotaging new ones. It pushed Egyptian cinema’s self-inflicted boundaries and poked at social taboos, while also talking about friendship, nostalgia and the fear of leaving youth behind.

Khalifa and scriptwriter Tamer Habib (2015’s Grand Hotel, 2005’s Girls Love) are now mostly focused on Ramadan TV — and Habib has become romantic comedy chief. But Sleepless Nights was the first time for both them: Khalifa’s previous work was a few assistant director jobs, and Habib was fresh out of the Cinema Institute.

The film has a strong script, and while other elements serve it well, it’s the rounded characters and tight storytelling that pull it all together. The strongest of Habib’s many talents is that he’s able to write strong female leads who defy the damsel-in-distress trope Egyptian writers often to use to write women. Although events do revolve more around the male characters, the four female leads are at least pivotal. They’re not victims, don’t need saving, and they take charge of their own destinies. Habib has persisted with this approach ever since. (Except for Taimour and Shafika (2007), in which a man controlling a woman’s life seems to be applauded. That was weird.)

For the title sequence, the camera pans over some old photos of a group of friends. As the montage shifts to wedding photos, we realize that one couple has broken up, with Ali (Khaled Abo al-Naga) marrying a woman not in the earlier photos (Gihan Fadel) and Farah (Hanan Turk) marrying a familiar face: Amr (Ahmed Helmy). Another old couple from the photos, Perry (Mona Zaki) and Khaled (Fathi Abdelwahab), also marry, while the marital fate of remaining friend Sameh (Sherif Mounir) is left out.

Then we meet Sameh, a sound engineer, on his way to meet his girlfriend Inas (Ola Ghanem), a career-driven divorcé who runs a toy shop. We’re quickly led to understand that they live in separate apartments and have a sexually active relationship. “I brought you shampoo so you don’t finish mine,” she says, giving him a playful spank when she arrives at his house. They joke about her stealing his shirts as she puts one on behind a tinted glass screen, and he takes the shirt off her before they engage in a passionate make-out session (still behind the screen).

What’s significant is that Sameh and Inas’ relationship has no real negative consequences. Until then, pre-marital sex was almost always presented in Egyptian cinema or television with a cautionary tale, but in Sleepless Nights it is just one example of a monogamous relationship, with its own issues and problems like any other. This normalized a type of relationship usually kept out of the public sphere, even though many people engage in guilt-free, consensual pre-marital sex.

It also demonstrates another of Habib’s strengths: He writes what he knows. His writing about Egyptian upper-class society is neither banal nor over-the-top. His grasp of their trials and tribulations allows him to tell his stories convincingly and draw characters almost anyone can empathize with, no matter their social background.

Meanwhile, the night before the fifth birthday party of Perry and Khaled’s daughter, Khaled pocket-dials his pregnant wife and she hears him having sex with another woman. We already know that she knows he cheats on her regularly and consistently turns a blind-eye, but on hearing it for herself, she determines to put an end to the relationship. Zaki’s scorned guiltless woman and Abdelwahab’s playboy family-man are equally enthralling — among the best performances in the cast.

Their confrontation leads Khaled to head to his car dealership to smoke a joint, joined by three friends who have all just fought with their partners for various gritty relationship reasons — except we can see that none of their accounts to the others reveal what’s actually going on at home. Instead of facing the truth of things, the four guys go off to Ali’s cabin in Alexandria, like they did in the old days, to try and relive their youth. While they initially enjoy their newfound freedom and youthful adventurousness, of course they all have to eventually confront their ghosts — and support each other in doing so.

The subject matter may be heavy, but Sleepless Nights is not devoid of laughter and light moments, mostly thanks to Sherif Mounir’s lighthearted character and his laughably silly interpretation of it. Intessar, as an unnamed sex worker they encounter in Alexandria, who is obsessed with Iraqi musician Kazem al-Saher, is also hilarious. Her line “Kazem is like honey” has become a recurring joke among my generation. The camerawork isn’t particularly memorable, but the specificity of the locations complements the script: Each character’s house reflects the mood of their story and their personality. The beach cabin in Montazah nicely conveys the open sense of freedom the men were longing for but ultimately find cold and unforgiving.

Intricately laced with comedy and tragedy, Habib’s drama delivers its message loud and clear: people can try to compromise for love, but deep down they never change. Whether you agree with this or not, Sleepless Nights is an engaging, landmark film that made room for a new types of onscreen relationships. It also paved way for recent big multi-lead films tackling romance, such as Khalifa’s less successful second film Sukar Murr (Bitter Sugar, 2015) and Hady al-Bagoury’s box-office hit Hepta (2016). We can be sure there will be more to come.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist