Posts tagged ‘film’

January 17, 2012

Biting the Tin Tale

by M. A.

Aida el Kashef handed me a copy of her film “A Tin Tale”, together with some disturbingly commercially packaged spices from India. I joyfully held it in my hands and promised I would only write if I was excited enough about it. If I either loved it, or loathed it.

The film begins with a sublime image of a patriarch: a police officer interrogates Mona. Behind him, staring at us from the darkness of a tiny set, is a muffled framed portraiture of Mubarak. The tone is set. We are about to embark on yet another attempt to humanise the figure of a prostitute, a position that is not entirely free of the false moral superiority of the privileged. Well, the film may have adopted that point as a launching platform, but there was more.

The premise is simple, it is a film about a film about the story of Mona Farkha, a “prostitute”, as told by Mona herself to a team of filmmakers (named Aida and Omar after the real filmmakers), who’s attempting to make her life into a film, rewritten as a screenplay by, lo and behold, a man. This perversion of perspectives, this game of mirrors, endures as Mona’s story, or at least the little she is letting out, unfolds.

Mona, coming from a struggling, abused working class background, is repeatedly raped. First by her own father’s gaze, then she is gang-raped by a group of hoodlums (later dubbed The Boys) where her friend participates, then by an abusive husband who treats her body as his owned property; mutilating, torturing and eventually ‘lending’ her to his friend. We are now forced to flash forward by the patriarch/ playwright, who impatiently wants to hear about a time when she was happy (of course, he’s seen that song and dance before, and there’s nothing in it for him). Mona complies, and tells him of the time she was working at a cabaret where she is mistress of her own destiny and body. She falls in love with a man who doesn’t show desire for her, then she manages to get vengeance from her abusive older husband. At this point the story is muffled with an abundance of abstract images. Then, trapped in its own interlocked of narration, the film turns around and bites its own tail.

The entire film is shot indoors, mostly in symbolic, saturated, claustrophobic interiors designed by Marwan Fayed. This visual language assisted the fantastic nature of the very act of storytelling as the film adopts it, all the while keeping the film “small” and intimate. It made room for visual effects and animation to be inserted without it being foreign. When Mona shatters the set in the last scene exposing the filming crew, Aida takes a final swing at her own construct and admits that this is after all merely a film. A brave gesture a lot of ’cause art’ is commonly incapable of making.

The film assumes a rather clever writing twist. Roles are frequently swapped, and goodies become baddies. The singing mother figure washing her daughter become the very first accuser when Mona comes home covered in her own blood. And when she mutilates her abusive husband, coming home with his blood on her face this time, the mother doesn’t show a sign of sympathy, not does she sing (later, Mona realises the shifting, and develops the mechanism of singing to herself). The raping gang magically become The Boys, her allies who bring her abusive husband to her avenging hands. Her loving, protective, yet impotent husband grows powerful enough to keep her from seeing her daughter. This muddling of the lines separating friend and foe, good and bad, the moral and the immoral is at the heart of Mona’s life, and crucial to her survival and legions. A detail the film very sensitively captured.

Aida was equally critical to her own role as a second narrator. At the time when we are to have no sympathy for the patriarchal playwright who is objectifying Mona (like all men before and after him did and will do), Aida (the character, not the director) shocks us with an equally distant positioning when she tells him off for not making the Mona he is writing as Aida wants her to be. Mona is again objectified and used, this time on the hands of a superior class, a class that only envisioned that swapping of roles when the word “downtown” was uttered from Mona’s lips. Perhaps that was also the reason the film’s music and acting were over the top. The performance of almost all actors was unconvincing and trapped in stereotyping models, is it possible that they too were trapped in constructing images imbedded in their class privileges?

What is curious about this film is that it made no effort in exposing any of Mona’s reality as a prostitute. Mona is paraded left and right as the victim, the abused, the avenger, the survivor, the independent, and all other empowering adjectives so commonly used when describing prostitutes. However not once does the film justify labelling her as one. One is left to wonder whether the filmmakers were equally as immersed in preconceived established narratives of the dominant patriarchal society that they themselves were countering, or perhaps Mona was the one who desired to keep it so well guarded.

January 2, 2011

On Alvaro Sau’s Coptos

by M. A.

Watch Coptos

It is a rare incident for events like Alexandria’s last week blasts to lead to a personal discovery that could match Alvaro Sau’s video Coptos, shot in 2010 during Sau’s residency at Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo.  Oblivious as I could be, when encountering Alvaro and the unassuming Brother Farid at a friend’s place in front of a TV screen watching Batman Returns, I missed my friend’s meaningful remark about the bearded young man in his white galabeya and a monk’s cap: ‘He is the subject  of Alvaro’s work’.

Sau gives us a 16-minute single-channel video, shot inside and around St. Makarios’s Monastery at the heart of the Wadi Al Rayan desert.  The video is categorized with extended still footage of the wilderness, that pay homage to 2001 Space Odyssey and brings to mind Coen Brothers’ nihilism.  The artist consciously avoids the use of music in his documentary and folds back to the sounds of the desert to reconstruct the air of silence and waiting that encompasses the monk’s life.

The desert too is a conscious choice of the artist.  It is naturally treacherous to question an artist’s motives, but we have grown an unfortunate affinity to seeing images of the daily struggle that is Cairo, its sub-culture’s characters, and the sounds of its death shriek in many a ‘resident’ artists’ works, at best,  misguided presumptions and at worst, contemporary exoticising.  Alvaro’s work, however, seems to be derived from a mystic desire to indulge in inner-conflicting austerity, through abandoning artistry the artist is instantly free from shackles of formality.  Similarly the monk abandons formality and embraces the desert.  A sufficiency in a meal of fried potatoes, and prolonged reflection, is echoed in Alvaro’s supplement-free documentary.

On the artist’s path to austerity, he encounters on the opposite lane a monk who doesn’t seem to mind a vivid return to the public in a video that unveils his sacred daily rituals, from dawn to midnight, to the world he once abandoned.   One could only speculate the depths that the relationship between the two men must run, where a monk/ subject grants a foreign man/ artist access to his world.

The artist only shows his face at the last third of the video.  It is nightfall, and the monk descends down a long, dark and claustrophobic path towards what begins to sound like a gathering at the heart of the mountain.  The monk leads us to what seems to be the reason why he is in this place, where he has found joy.  Human chattering and laughter accelerate to a climaxing deafening noise of an inexplicable presence.

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