Hend Sabry (The Princess) and Bassem Samra (The Prince) in “The Aquarium”
Unlocking the mysteries of Egypt in Tribeca
By Rania Richardson
I’ve never been to Egypt, but grew up amidst camel saddles and hookahs from my mother’s travels. Stories of men in turbans, the Sahara, and mysteries surrounding the pyramids fueled my imagination, which may explain why the selections from the “Hollywood of the Arab World” stood out. Equally intriguing is the fact that these movies were made in a country not widely known for its filmmaking.
As it turns out, three films deservedly caught my eye: “The Aquarium,” in the narrative feature competition, “Marina of the Zabbaleen,” a documentary by an emerging filmmaker, and “At Day’s End,” a student short. Together, these exceptional films create an interesting, ersatz portrait of modern Egyptian life. A fourth film, “Whatever Lola Wants,” though a French-Moroccan co-production, is partially set in Cairo and adds another dimension to the picture.
The 2006 Festival screened “The Yacoubian Building,” a milestone in Egyptian film history as the most expensive production to date. With an all-star cast, the controversial three-hour epic tackles taboo subjects such as homosexuality, prostitution, drugs, and Islamist terrorism. Director Marwan Hamed was honored with the Festival’s best new filmmaker award.
The movie marked a new climate of relaxed censorship and tolerance in the traditionally conservative society. It generated reports of a revival of Egyptian cinema, with the loosening of government restrictions that pushed the industry into decline for many years. In this new era, a groundswell of filmmakers are breaking new barriers, such as Yousry Nasrallah, director of “The Aquarium” (Genenet al Asmak).
Taking place around Cairo’s landmark grotto gardens, with maze-like caverns and hidden fish tanks, “The Aquarium” is a structural and narrative puzzle, echoing its labyrinthine setting. The complex story follows the parallel lives of two lonely singles who circle around life, in disconnection, and live through the suffering of others. Laila (Hend Sabry from “The Yacoubian Building”) hosts a late-night radio program where listeners confess their secrets. Youssef (Amr Waked from “Syriana”) is an anesthesiologist who moonlights in an illegal abortion clinic. Their paths cross after Youssef calls in to Laila’s program with details of his life. Twin specters of corruption and Islamist fundamentalism haunt their sophisticated world of nightclubs and sex.
Tribeca’s artistic director Peter Scarlet says, “‘The Aquarium’ is the kind of film we don’t see much anymore, made as a kind of parable, the way filmmakers in Eastern Europe used to work. For me it’s a film about political, sexual, and social repression.” A demonstration at the end of the film depicts activists rallying against the possibility of President Mubarak’s son inheriting his father’s position in a fraudulent regime.
Director Yousry Nasrallah is the protégé of Youssef Chahine, Egypt’s most important director. Born in 1952, Nasrallah studied statistics at Cairo University before embarking on a career as a film critic and director. “The Aquarium” premiered earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival and recently opened in Egypt.
“Marina of the Zabbaleen” revolves around a village of refuse, created by poverty-stricken trash collectors in Cairo. A gorgeous film about garbage, the documentary is beautifully shot and poetically told. It follows six-year-old Marina, whose family members are part of the “Zabbaleen,” or “garbage people,” employed by the city to collect and sort debris. The industrious community bundles newspapers and recycles and resells other waste. Marina dreams of becoming a doctor as she lives in squalor among vermin. As Coptic Christians, the family is a minority in the Middle East. Being of the same faith, director Engi Wassef had special access to the people and the site.
Wassef was born in Cairo in 1980 and immigrated to the United States as a child. After attending Harvard and working on Wall Street, she pursued a graduate degree in film in New York, where she now lives. In 2006, while in production with “Marina,” her first feature, she was selected for Tribeca All Access, a program that supports filmmakers from underrepresented communities. The film will have its world premiere at the festival.
Following last year’s “Rise and Shine!” (Sabah Al Fol!) starring Hend Sabry as a woman searching for lost apartment keys over the course of the nine-minute film, director Sherif El Bendray returns to Tribeca with another student short, “At Day’s End.” This quiet, 15-minute film is beautifully composed and deliberately paced. Bessem Samra, from the cast of “The Aquarium,” plays the modern son in a traditional family, where an aging father confronts his loss of vitality. Almost always turned on, the hypnotizing old television stands in for the family hearth, as the family maintains their quotidian existence. Born in 1978, El Bendry studied directing at the Higher Cinema Institute and worked as assistant director on a number of commercial features in Egypt.
Shot in Moroccan studios, cross-cultural “Whatever Lola Wants” is said to evoke a realistic Cairo in the story of an aspiring dancer from the Midwest who realizes her dreams when she travels there. 25-year-old Lola (Laura Ramsey) leaves behind dance auditions and her postal job in Brooklyn in pursuit of a former lover. Instead of romance in Cairo, she finds a legendary belly dance instructor to mentor her in her new passion for oriental dance. Lola becomes a sensation as a blonde American performer in the Middle East, in this comic drama. Dancing, costumes, and an uplifting soundtrack round out the crowd-pleaser, whose title originates from the Broadway musical, “Damn Yankees.”
The film premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival and opened theatrically in Paris on April 16. It is the English-language debut for Paris-based Moroccan helmer Nabil Ayouch. Born in 1969, Ayouch has received a number of awards for his features and founded organizations such as the Moroccan Coalition for Cultural Diversity and Media Films Development.