Adrin Neatrour writes:The riddle of the Sphinx – Reflections on the most expensive Egyptian film ever.The Yacoubian Building – Marwan Hamad Egypt 2007 – Nour el Sherif; Adel Eman; Hend Sabri
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle 6 Jan 08
The riddle of the Sphinx – Reflections on the most expensive Egyptian film ever.
The opening title sequence with its grainy soft focus macro shots of the stone cladding of the Yacoubian building followed by a sequence (probably pasted in directly from the novel)in which a warmly toned voice explains the history of the building, intimate a film form that might comprise of some particular characteristics: a closely observing camera, a sensibility that understands ambiguity and a film that engenders time as a dimension. The Yacoubian Building(YB) is a overlong grossly inflated soap opera better suited to afternoon TV.
TB looks like a typical example of what happens when one from of expression –a novel is interpreted in another form of expression – in this case a film. What happens is that the film makers unable to find expressive equivalent filmic modes for novelistic internal dialogue and musing subjectivities reduce the adapted book to a series of externalised operatic melodramas.
Featuring a large apartment block as the axis around which a multiplicity of plots revolve is of course a classic film genre that exploits a certain culture of congestion as a vehicle for generating a universe characterised by parallel and interconnected stories. The interstitial areas of lobby, elevator and landing are the key promiscuous locations. Films in this genre include Grand Hotel and Airport : both of which are characterised by a dull mechanical mediocrity. YB doesn’t break the mould.
Marwan Hamad makes no attempt to endow his film with any real sense of place or time. The Yacoubian building is an extraordinary piece of adaptive social engineering with its different levels of habitation. The core of the apartment building is inhabited and used by a solid affluent middle class. Coexisting above them in sublet tiny store rooms is a shanty town of the disinherited, living in conditions of high compression. The YB seems unable to explore any of the intensities or circuitries of this arrangement: the curious spacial juxtaposition is represented simply as a film image, a curiosity of time and place: something for us as sort of privileged tourists, to gaze upon. The active force moulding and shaping the spacial elements in YB is the convention of the American soap opera. Rooms exist not to absorb or extrude but to admit and discharge. Doors incessantly open and close, their only function being to accelerate the action cuts. Cairo and the Yacoubian building are used as picture ‘fill’ operating at the same level as a pub in a soap opera such as the Rovers Return in Coronation Street. There is little sense made of the building itself or its apartments or the city in which it is located. Cairo as a metropolis is used either to staged romantic affect as in the film’s final shot of the newly married couple walking at dawn down the middle of the street: or it is used as a series of bland establishment shots. It never has a role as part of the film. Hamad fails to allow the Yacoubian building or Cairo to make any claim on our imaginations.
As the Yacoubian Building lacks any spacial dimension there is also a lacking in the perception of the passage of time. The characters never observe, nor are they observed: they simple simply exist in perpetual action time for the sake of the story lines in which they are embroiled. The dimension of time which YB’s opening sequence suggests is a defining force in play, is disregarded at once, Hamad happy with a token opening gesture. The rest of the film is played out in the temporal anarchy the characterises most of the Hollywood action image output, a form increasingly mimicked and copied. Time is subservient to action cuts. There is no time stream in the film. Rather there is a stream of action. Time becomes meaningless and impossible to reconstruct or understand. Simply put: one thing leads to another. That’s all there is. Chains of events are compressed or etiolated( more rarely) according to the demand for action. Action shot through the lens of highly agitated cameras: craning swooping panning tracking hand held and angled, but never still. The camera movement is effected not for reasons underlying the meaning of the shot or of the film but to disarm the viewer of any awareness of subjective time. The camera movement in constantly engaging the eye with a stream of events, disengages the viewer from the stream of time. YB then, is a series plots and subplots that claim our attention not for what they represent but simply as a mechanical series of events and how they end.
There are claims that YB is a courageous film because it tackles taboo subjects in Egypt and the Arab world- taboo subjects such a homosexuality and terrorism. I can’t really accept this point of view. The homosexual subject, the newspaper journalist is a trite stereotype, represented in the script as a crude amoral exploiter of simple peasant men. He is shown as having little personal morality, living a life dedicated to his own pleasures. In what is the lowest point in the movie (and there are a few low ones notably in the becoming terrorist story) there is clumsy imbecilic flashback sequence involving the character which blames his parents for his homosexuality! In the penultimate sequence he is murdered with expert dispatch by one of his pick-ups. The event evokes no sense of loss within the film’s own conventions. In that the moral stance of the film in relation to the homosexual character simply panders to the most prejudiced bands of attitude and opinion both in the Moslem and the Christian world YB is not a film that tackles homosexuality in the media. Just the opposite. The plot line which describes ‘becoming a terrorist’, is likewise reliant on an automotive mechanicality for its concatenation of events leading to outcome. Just as having ‘bad parents’ makes a man homosexual: so being socially deprived and discriminated against leads to a boy becoming a ‘jihadi’. Like the homosexuality theory it’s crass and untrue neither necessary nor sufficient but certainly uninteresting.
The disturbing aspect of YB is its total adoption of Hollywood forms to try and explain the historical social situation of Egypt. That Hamad thinks he can make his film work in this fashion is either testimony to his ambition (he wants demonstrate he can make feature films in Hollywood or Europe) or to his deluded state of mind. The potpourri of characters and events strung together without reference to place or time, not only fails to speak of Egypt or Egyptians; it is an act of cultural colonialism allowing American forms to define the state of affairs in this Arab country. As such YB, as the most expensive Egyptian feature film ever made, is not a pointer to the future but part of the present problem.