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Two Arab films provoke reflection at Abu Dhabi Film Festival | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A scene from ‘The Valley’. (Ghassan Salhab, 2014)

A scene from 'The Valley'. (Ghassan Salhab, 2014)

A scene from ‘The Valley’. (Ghassan Salhab, 2014)

Abu Dhabi, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Abu Dhabi Film Festival took a dark turn on Saturday and Monday with the respective world and Arab premieres of the Egyptian film, El-Ott (The Cat), and the Lebanese film, The Valley. Though boasting markedly differing storylines and filmmaking styles, both films force viewers to take a long hard look at the “dark heart” of both countries’ recent histories and the disturbing realities of the present time.

El-Ott, the fifth feature film from award-winning Egyptian director Ibrahim El-Batout, stars Amr Waked, who has also worked on a number of films and productions outside Egypt, appearing alongside Scarlett Johansen in Luc Besson’s latest offering, Lucy, and alongside George Clooney in Syriana, as well as also having key roles in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and the HBO–BBC mini-series, House of Saddam.

El-Ott, which is also produced by Waked, is the second collaboration between the actor and director Batout after 2012’s Winter of Discontent, a film detailing the events leading up to Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and which was the country’s foreign language entry at the 2014 Academy Awards (though it did not make the final nominee list). In El-Ott, Waked plays the eponymous “hero,” an Egyptian gangster recently divorced from his wife and estranged from his family following the disappearance of his young daughter.

El-Ott—the name is the character’s street nom de guerre— wandering around the labyrinthine, snaking alleyways of Cairo’s slums, has become a tortured soul. Sick of the life that circumstance has chosen for him, he longs for a way out of his torrid situation. He is a criminal, but as Waked himself said in a recent interview, one with a moral code, ever-wary of becoming sucked into the inescapable vortex of evil that surrounds him.

When El-Ott discovers that another criminal, Fathi, is part of a gang that has been kidnapping young children from his neighborhood to sell their organs, he vows, thinking of his own recently disappeared daughter, to track him and his gang down and exact a horrible justice on them. Playing on the common detective-story theme of the pursuer becoming tinged with the evil of those he pursues, El-Ott’s journey into the “heart of darkness” of the contemporary criminal underworld in Egypt accentuates his inner conflict regarding his way of life, and we see a brilliant contrast with his brother, El-Ghagari, who accompanies him on this journey, and begins to enjoy the murder and evil that is a necessary part of the brothers’ somber mission. The film, in fact, shows us differing degrees of evil, from El-Ott, who must do evil to exact justice but does not enjoy it; to El-Ghagari, who enjoys the ostensible justice he metes out on criminals; to Fathi, the head of the criminal gang, who is unfeeling toward his victims, perhaps the most innocent people in Egyptian society; to the mysterious character played by 1980s favorite Farouk El-Feshawi, who the film hints is the very epitome of evil, often seen sitting in Cairo’s mosques, churches and synagogues—though not to pray; he looms menacingly over worshippers, watching them intently like the angel of death observing the next entry on his list before he finally ticks it off.

Boasting a brilliant, foreboding visual style, the film proceeds at a relentless, unforgiving pace, as the audience is sucked into the criminal underworld along with El-Ott and El-Ghagari, forced to confront a reality about modern Egypt that is so horrifying it is almost unimaginable—the murder of young children for the sale and use of their organs. It is not surprising, then, that the film has drawn some of the usual criticisms in Egypt that accompanied some recent films such as The Yacoubian Building and Ibrahim the White, which deal with Egypt’s myriad social problems and its criminal underworld, respectively. “These films besmirch Egypt’s reputation,” goes the common criticism, usually followed by pleas to show the “better” (read: more affluent) side of the country. But Waked has no time for these qualms. In a recent interview, he criticized the attitude of those “who don’t mind putting their heads in the sand” so as not to see the bitter reality surrounding them, adding that one of these critics had even asked him why he hadn’t instead made a film set in Zamalek—an upmarket island on the Nile, favorite of expats and international embassies, and boasting Nile-side open-air cafes, tree-lined streets and posh apartments; in other words, somewhere in the socioeconomic stratosphere when compared to El-Ott’s downtrodden neighborhood.

The Valley, the latest feature film from Lebanese ‘arthouse’ director Ghassan Salhab, also premiered at the festival this week. The film’s beginning boasts an enviable grab-you-by-the-lapels moment: we hear a voice speaking over the black screen, who calmly tells us he is about to go for a “joyride” in his car, though driving while his eyes are shut. We hear the slow rumble of the car’s engine as the ignition sparks, then a roar as it speeds up—followed by the sound of a loud crash. The film then cuts to a man, bloodied and bewildered, climbing out of the demolished vehicle, which stands at the side of a mountain road. This is our speaker, and the film’s main protagonist, played by Carlos Chahine. But the wounds he has suffered from this seemingly inexplicable act are more than skin-deep: he emerges from the crash with no memory of his past.

As he walks along the road, he discovers a group of people whose car has broken down. After helping them fix it (one thing he clearly does remember), the group, which comprises two men and two women whose identities are also hidden from us, invite him back to their home, an isolated building which contains a “chemical factory”—undoubtly a reference to a drug-making den—though one without a supervisor or a leader (a detail some have seen as a reference to Lebanon’s current presidential vacuum, with the country minus a president since February).

But nothing seems to happen in this house, which is obstinately minimalist—almost “Spartan”—in its decoration. The camera hovers over the characters—one of whom is a chef, another a chemist, and another a painter—statically, while we learn of dramatic events outside the house, which could be seen as being a microcosm of Lebanon itself—static and sterile, populated with ineffectual elitists living on the fringes, happy to “drug” themselves into a mind-numbing stupor while earth-shattering events are occurring all around them. In fact, during the film we learn Beirut has been entirely reduced to rubble; and our protagonist regains his memory: he is a Lebanese expat, who has just returned to his homeland after 10 years away—but nothing has changed, neither within him, nor within Lebanon itself.

Unlike the fast-moving camera in El-Ott, the camera which visually narrates the story in The Valley stays static for large periods of time, with the film full of unusually long takes allowing the viewer to sink deeper into the scene and uncover the symbols lying behind the décor, the set-pieces and the dialogue.

Like the characters in the film, director Salhab and his work also lie on the edges of the Arab film world. As Salhab himself says: “I’m always aiming at a fringe audience. My films themselves always lie on the fringes of cinematic taste; and this is what I have always wanted since the beginning.”

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs from October 23–November 1, 2014.