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Elephants are blue
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 08 - 2014

Marwan Hamed is one of those directors who has managed, in the last few years, to present one controversial film after another. Al-Fil Al-Azraq (or Blue Elephant), based on Ahmad Murad's novel of the same name, is his third full-length feature film and the second to be based on a work of literature. The second was The Yaqoubian Building (2006), based on Alaa Al-Aswany's eponymous novel, with a screenplay written by Marwan's father the well-known screenwriter Wahid Hamed. The novel had courted scandal by talking about barely fictionalised well-known real-life characters in the context of social critique; and the film managed to capitalise on the resulting brouhaha. Hamed's first film too, a 2005 short, was based on a work of literature: named Lili, it was based on a short story by Youssef Edriss, "Did Lili have to switch on the lights?"
Blue Elephanttoo benefits from its author's reputation as a best-selling author whose first book, Vertigo, generated controversy in literary circles, with many authors feeling it was a lightweight commercial book that deserved no such attention, especially after it was made into a Ramadan TV series the year before last, directed by Othman Abu Laban and starring Hind Sabri. Murad's second novel sold very well last year, and like much recent commercial literature in Egypt there is little difference between the book and the film, especially since Murad wrote the script. Yet Hamed manages to take the imagination in the book further, enhancing and crystallising it into something more entertaining than the text.
The film opens with a man in his thirties named Yahya (Karim Abdel-Aziz), whose waking up slowly and reluctantly is the first sign that he suffers from a deep sadness. The director demonstrates his visual skill in emphasising the hero's negative state, to show how he exits a cocoon to enter an experience after he reads a letter from the mental asylum where he works as a psychiatrist warning him that he is about to be fired. Yahya psychological state is further demonstrated visually in the following scene, during which his conversation with the asylum director reveals the information that he has outrun the sabbatical he has been on to complete his never-ending PhD. It's been five years since that started, and it becomes clear that during that same time some calamity has afflicted Yahya causing this state of depression and driving him to smoke hash and drink all the time.
It is Yahya's return to the asylum that forces him to pay attention to anything other than this life of dissipation. He starts working in the criminal psychiatry department, with patients who have to be designated either willingly guilty or unfit for trial within 45 days, and it is there that he finds one of his college mates, Sherif Al-Kordi (Khaled Al-Sawi), another psychiatrist, who has been confined after he was suspected of killing his wife. This and other coincidences reveal a weakness in the dramatic structure of the work, but the most cliched of them all — a tired trope of older Egyptian cinema — is how it turns out that Yahya used to be in love with Sherif's sister Lubna (Nelly Karim), whom he was unable to marry due to Sherif's intervention to stop them from being together.
As the plot thickens, so does the implausible accumulation of coincidences. It turns out that both Yahya and Sherif lost their wives — Yehya in a car accident on the northern coast road that also claimed the life of his daughter, for which he feels responsible for drunk driving, Sherif either by his own hand or because of schizophrenia: something that remains unknown — and, as if things are not implausible enough, Yahya's current coworker Sameh was another college mate of theirs who used to be in love with Yahya's wife. The problem is that these coincidences are essential to dramatic structure, and without them the film would fall apart. Yet it is ambiguity and suspense that are the principal appeal of the film, whether at first or near the end when the task of explaining all the mysteries and connecting all the information even though contemporary cinema will tend to avoid such rational settling of accounts as it were.
Murad resorts to folk culture and magic to explain developments, claiming that it was the djinn who committed all those demonic acts and that it had nothing to do with schizophrenia. Even in the most science-oriented cinematic context, such notions can be presented to the satisfaction of the audience if things are built around an unwritten agreement to accept them, but in Blue Elephant there are too many registers among which the viewer is required to jump to understand the story, causing confusion. No doubt Hamed and Murad saw dozens of American films from the last 20 years, something that is evident in scenes that seem to be dramatically or visually culled from such works, but it is not clear whether this is a conscious game or simply evidence of influence (as in Hamed's last film, Ibrahim Al-Abyad, starring Ahmad Al-Saqqa, Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz and Amr Waked, which very strongly evoked Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York).
In Blue Elephant the conversations between Yahya and Sherif recall Claire's conversations with the cannibal Lectre (Jody Foster and Anthony Hopkins) in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. Yahya's tours of the asylum recall Scorsese's Shutter Island, many of whose elements recur in Blue Elephant: a hero (whether a detective or a psychiatrist) who operates in a mental asylum; a mystery in which the other character is either guilty or being ill (does Sherif have schizophrenia or is he responsible for his actions?) Filmmakers and lovers were overjoyed to see theatres overflowing with viewers this Eid, after they remained empty for over two years due to curfews and security breakdown. They were also glad to see a film not as formulaic as what has been dominating the local market for several years — the usual combination of urban music, belly dance and a lot of fighting without a storyline to speak of — even if it is completely unoriginal by international standards. Sad to see film lovers caught in this cinematic desert believing that they must be seeing a major and profound work when in fact Blue Elephant is nothing but a simple commercial film that is nonetheless entertaining, based on a book no more sophisticated or interesting than the young adult fiction series of the 1990s.

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