This summer I stumbled across an artwork that grabbed my full attention and evoked strong feelings in me, an artwork that had a similar effect on masses of viewers: A Ramadan TV series called Haza al-Masaa (This Evening). I followed 30 episodes of an Egyptian TV show for the first time in many years, and I enjoyed it.
Examining why I enjoyed the show so much, I found myself trying to answer the glaring question: What do I find beautiful, and why? I found the answer in the elements that had demanded my attention in This Evening.
What do you see?
The way This Evening is filmed is free of any attempt to show off or exhibit highly stylized directing skills. The choices of framing, lighting, camera positioning, movement and the transitions from one angle to another, seem loyal only to delivering the information in the scene in the clearest way. This makes it sound boring and unimaginative, but the result is often poetic and expressive. And the events are interesting enough to carry themselves.
What is happening?
Director Tamer Mohsen wrote the story, then developed the script with the help of scriptwriter Mohamed Farid and a group of young screenwriters. It tells the intertwined stories of several realistically constructed Egyptian characters, connected to an overall plot exploring the exceptional human behavior that is voyeurism.
On the most basic level, it can be read as thriller about secrets falling into the wrong hands. It can also be read as a story about the human urge we all experience in one way or another – always wanting to know more about those who interest us – and how technology is helping us do that in new ways. In this context, watching the show can also be seen as fulfilling that urge: Its very relatable characters turn into semi-real people in our heads, and we enjoy watching the dark sides of their lives and the deep secrets only we know.
An abandoned cinema in the alley where most of the characters live is used as a hideout for the male characters’ systematic spying habits. There’s a symbolism here: It’s a place where the socially accepted collective act of watching no longer functions, so people seek to fulfill that urge in darker, more destructive ways. The possession of other people’s vulnerability is an access point to much-needed power and a chance to form deformed bonds to replace morbid loneliness.
Another reading focuses on the show’s interest in the complex problems of sex, honor, the “meaning” of manhood and womanhood and the many confused influences that seem to entrap Egyptian brains when men think about women and women think about men.
A story of such dense complexity must result from the makers’ real desire to communicate honestly with the audience about things that are really on their minds, things everyone talks about, things that affect our lives. So of course we watch with real attention and involvement; it’s not a basic story responding to a set of flat fantasies we can immerse ourselves in to escape a heavy reality.
I assume the makers’ sense of the importance of what’s happening onscreen influenced how they chose to film it, and I can generally see an inverse relationship between a story’s shallowness and the flashiness with which it is represented.
How is what’s happening happening?
In Egypt the TV drama industry revolves around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, because it’s the annual peak viewing season. Unfortunately this has imprisoned TV series in the necessity of fragmenting their story across 30 episodes instead of 10 or 12, like most internationally designed shows. This is an exhausting marathon for both viewer and maker. Yet, it has also created an economic system where TV series have become a way for many in the film industry to win their bread. And when art becomes breadwinning, the outcome is always very interesting.
The TV drama industry has expanded, and cinema is shrinking. It’s profitable to show a TV series on a satellite channel that buries it in ads, while the box-office adventure is a riskier equation each year, with complex calculations relying almost solely on stars’ popularity. So TV started borrowing stories, production techniques and people from cinema. Cinema used to be the place for fantasy, bold investment and action, while TV shows were usually reserved for simple human-centric family-oriented stories (with a few exceptions). But that distinction is now disappearing, with more and more Ramadan series each year featuring hysterical action scenes and explosions, extravagant sets and costumes, the whole shebang. This is alright as long as it’s serving a demand for a certain type of entertainment, but producers’ gluttonous appetite for this type and this type alone makes it increasingly difficult for shows with quieter plots to get viewers’ attention amid all the noise.
This is why the decision of This Evening’s makers, committing to a series which avoids tackling the audience’s senses by tritely exploiting sensuality, is very daring. Even the scenes of extravagant wealth enjoyed by the richer characters — a trademark of Ramadan series in recent years — are depicted very realistically.
Boldly competing with shows that monopolize the TV sphere with nothing but loud spending is another reason to respect This Evening’s makers. While open budgets are available for safe shows that encourage people to sink deeper into an unfair status quo and solidify their worldviews without any alternative horizons, Mohsen and his crew worked under extra pressure to create an earnest work that presents more questions than answers, involving the audience in the conversation.
The chief feeling This Evening succeeded in creating for me was one of engagement. It has an exciting story to tell, based on respect for the viewer, for art and for the unlimited possibilities art-making can create. Its confidently eloquent visual language doesn’t hide its flaws behind unnecessary ornamentation, giving the story a truthful weight.
This Evening draws a lifelike portrait of a reality in which the evening is a clichéd metaphor: The evening is darkness, fear, danger and injustice, but it’s also, as Sherifa Fadel’s song suggests in one scene, the long song of lovers, the wings of longing and desire. The reality of This Evening contains evil and good, impossible to separate, within each character; a grounded reality that accepts its components and their contradictions, one that doesn’t rush to conclusions or moral judgments but leaves all that to the viewers’ complex selves to decide in accordance with our own life experiences and worldviews.
This Evening helped me realize that beautiful design is not necessarily enough to make a good artwork. The human eye might find certain compositions or ratios comfortable and accessible, a color scheme can put us in a good mood, a song from the past rearranged with electronic noises can combine nostalgia for childhood innocence with memories of dancefloors and freedom, which can invoke feelings of happiness, but if making art is only about such algorithms computers will soon eclipse us. Auto focus, auto coloring and autocorrect are getting smarter every day; artificial intelligence is learning what pleases people and is producing paintings, movies and songs with design perfection we will be unable to compete with. Instagram filters imbue pictures on your phone with the spirit you want; you can make any moment of your life seem like a movie poster or album cover. But why?
Why are we not okay with the normality of our lives, and why are we so attracted to art that makes us think our lives are exceptional or more interesting than they are? The answer to this question — in my opinion — requires a moment of calm, requires that we spend time examining where we actually live with all its unbearable pains.
This Evening has many “beautiful” moments, some that may even be considered cheesy or too sweet. At one point, a rich man and a poor woman exchange glances over dinner in a colorful, dramatically lit traditional restaurant as Om Kalthoum plays in the background. At another, the rich man is on vacation with his family in London, sightseeing and taking selfies, surrounded by all the typical clichéd elements of London as John Lennon’s Imagine plays in the background. These two moments sum up the show’s identity and its relationship with reality: The director doesn’t shy away from elements that might be considered cheesy or clichéd because these elements can exist together with reality. Reality’s ability to contain magic and poetic connection is recreated in This Evening in a context where aesthetics serve a dramatic purpose and give the characters extra means to express their own complexities.