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Broken hacks
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 06 - 07 - 2017

This year, where the audiovisual media is concerned, electronic espionage seems to be all the rage. It was a major theme in one of the best serials this Ramadan Hadha Al-Masaa (This Evening), written through a workshop conducted by the director Tamer Mohsen. And it's also one in the Eid film Al-Asliyin (or “The Indigenes”). A new collaboration between director Marwan Hamed and novelist Ahmed Murad —whose novel The Blue Elephant Hamed made into a 2014 movie — the film also features Karim Abdel-Aziz and Khaled Al-Sawy. Unlike Turab Al-Mass (Diamond Dust), a film of which is also planned by Hamed, The Indigenes is not based on a novel; it is Murad's debut screenplay.
The film stars Maged Al-Kedwani as Samir Elewa, a bank employee whose wife Mahitab (Kenda Aloush) is a greedy and materialistic woman. They live with their son and daughter in an upscale gated community. One day Samir arrives at the bank to discover he has been forced to leave. That night a smartphone is left anonymously at the door. He picks it up and, to his astonishment, it contains videos of him at different ages starting in his early childhood, obviously filmed from within the house and featuring members of his family. Too much, tedious detail comes up at this point, much of which serves no purpose later on. Likewise the directorial technique: the suspense and mystery, especially within Samir's maze-like house, seems to serve no dramatic purpose whatsoever.
Samir is now confronted with the fact of having been watched all his life, and he has no idea who is watching him or how. Soon enough, however, he receives a phone call and ends up meeting a middle-aged man (Khaled Al-Sawy) at a public park. The man, who calls himself Roushdie Abaza (after the legendary actor), introduces himself as a member of a giant institution called the Indigenes, who out of love for the country have used mobile (and presumably also pre-mobile) technology to spy on people for many years with the purpose of protecting the country. Roushdie Abaza offers Samir a job with the Indigenes for a comparable income to what he got from the bank. And so, notwithstanding the many loopholes in the script, Samir himself becomes a reluctant Indigene, a hacker spying on other people.
He is assigned to watch a young Egyptologist named Thourya Galal (Menna Shalabi), whose life details — her mother, her unfaithful boyfriend — eventually reveal a possible antiquities smuggling connection in Luxor. Still too much irrelevant detail: Samir attends one of Thouraya's lectures and is told off by Roushdie Abaza; Mourad's perennial fascination with hallucinogens (an idiotic reference to DMT in The Blue Elephant) comes up in Thouraya's search for the blue lotus. Eventually Samir flees to the Oases where he starts a technology-free camp by way of rebelling against the whole system...
All through this second-rate imitation of James Ponsoldt's The Circle, there is no genuine characterisation or coherent picture of people's lives. Thouraya's lecture — delivered to images of ancient Egypt — feels disconnected. Unfortunately for Hamed, much audiovisual material in and beyond Hollywood — not only documentaries like Citizenfour but also television series like Mr Robot and Black Mirror — has tackled the theme of surveillance in far more convincing and relevant ways since Edward Snowden defected from the NSA in 2013.
The topic was far more effectively tackled in This Evening, in which mobile phones cause far more convincing problems to far more lifelike people between a working-class neighbourhood and an upper-class one: two brothers who own a mobile shop and hack into people's mobile phones with a view to blackmail and extortion, for example. Despite considerably more expensive production values, The Indigenes compares very unfavourably to this work.


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