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Bad karma
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 06 - 2018

Tempting as it is, setting a drama in a historical period is always a hazardous adventure. The viewer might wonder what drives a filmmaker to any one specific period or what it is about the period that helps them tell the story. But filmmakers resort to or depict history for any number of reasons. The first Egyptian film that may be called historical, Lashin – a 1938 Studio Misr production by the Cairo-based German pioneer Fritz Kramp – was an attempt to depict political discontent with the ruling class following the 1936 treaty with the British which, to avoid censorship, transported the action to the Mameluke era; the film was banned within a day of its opening.
Likewise Youssef Chahine's 1963 Saladin the Victorious (the script for which benefitted from contributions by the greatest writers of the day, including Naguib Mahfouz, Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi and Youssef Al-Sibai): it was a comment on Gamal Abdel-Nasser turning into the saviour of the Arabs against imperialism veiled in the story of Saladin defeating the Crusaders, not to avoid censorship but to enhance its aesthetic and cultural import. In the first of his autobiographical films, Alexandria... Why?, which won the jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1979, Chahine also documented the epoch of the 1940s, combining the personal with the historical such as the Battle of Al Alamein bringing Rommel to the outskirts of Alexandria, Chahine's hometown. This is a different kind of historical film.
Many films of the 1960s also depicted the 1940s but with an ideological bent, contributing to Nasserist propaganda in the throes of “revolutionary transformation”. Henri Barakat's 1961 A Man in Our House, based on a novel by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, opens with the student demonstration of 1946, which leads to one of the students (Omar Sharif) hiding from the police in the house of a young woman (Zebaida Tharwat) and the two of them falling in love. The film clearly depicts the abuses perpetrated by the British and the pro-British secret police, and alludes to the popular resistance that was to start in 1951. Armed resistance was also depicted within the framework of romantic love (this time the stars are Rushdie Abaza and Faten Hamama) in Salah Abu-Seif's 1963 No Time for Love, but it is Kamal Al-Sheikh's 1970 Sunset and Sunrise that tackles the last decade of the monarchy head on.
Bad karma
Nearly seven decades later, filmmaker Peter Mimi returns to the 1940s with Harb Karmouz (The Battle of Karmouz), which he wrote and directed; why did he brave this stretch of Egyptian history? The film opens with two British cavalries raping a teenage girl whom they find alone on a boat in the fisherman neighbourhood of Bahari in Alexandria. Three fishermen come to the girl's rescue, and in the ensuing battle one of them dies, while two fishermen and two cavalries end up in custody at the Karmouz Police Station.
Despite the historical setting, it is clearly to capitalise on the success of his television series Kalabsh (Handcuffs), two seasons of which were screened in Ramadan this year and last year, that Mimi opted for this story, casting the series' lead Amir Karara (who plays the stern and stubborn officer Selim Al-Ansari in Kalabsh) as practically the same character, this time symbolically named Youssef Al-Masri (Joseph the Egyptian): the Egyptian officer in charge of Karmouz Station. Here as in Kalabsh Mimi's vision of male valour is naive and superficial, bordering on the offensive: playing with his niece, for example, Al-Masri slaps and then insults her, “You're depressing like you're mother”, because you can only be macho if you are violent even at playful moments of tenderness. The action proceeds exactly as expected.
Al-Masry is prevailed upon by Diaa Al-Shandawily, a member of the Egyptian parliament who is interceding on behalf of the British High Commissioner Adam Frank (played by the Lebanese actor Fouad Sharafeddin), to let off the British soldiers accused of rape and manslaughter. Predictably, Al-Masri won't budge. The crisis escalates to the point of Frank laying siege to the police station. The resulting battle between the Egyptian police and a troop of the occupation army is Mimi's sole purpose. He pays no attention to the actual context of the historical setting, the social or cultural or political realities of Alexandria in the 1940s, but simply builds up to the explosions and upended cars, etc.
It's true there is a precedent in history for this kind of confrontation, which may have been on Mimi's mind as he set out to improve the image of the Egyptian police yet again. On 25 January 1952 (subsequently Police Day, and therefore the day on which the protests of 2011 were held, starting the 2011 Revolution), on orders from then Interior Minister Fouad Serageddin, a small number of policemen at Ismailia Police Station refused to give in to a British force attempting to take over the premises, heroically dying to a man. This was the beginning of the British-Egyptian conflict in the Suez Canal area following Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas's annulling of the 1936 treaty in 1951.
Mimi's only other attempt at verisimilitude concerns a stereotypical depiction of a prostitute in a bright red gown (Ghada Abdel-Razek), who need not be dressed so provocatively while renewing her license, the burglar Asfour (Mustafa Khater), who looks like a parody of the thief, and the gang leader Ezzat Al-Wahsh (Mahmoud Hemeida), a former Egyptian army colonel who, before turning into an enemy of the state, took part in the Battle of Al-Alamein (even though in reality no Egyptian military ever took part in the Battle of Al-Alamein). Mimi borrows liberally from American action movies like the Bourne series, having Asfour jump across rooftops while racing to Al-Masri's house to warn the officer's sister of the British soldiers. With the difference between Khater and his double too obvious, the effort is not convincing. In a pointless scene Frank threatens to hang Asfour unless Al-Masri comes out and submits to the gallows instead of him. The film ends with a weak imitation of the ending of Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Al-Wahsh firing at the noose to save Al-Masri's life.
Though it features the celebrated Hollywood actor Scot Adkins as the mad British officer (Adkins played the Russian prisoner Boyka in the film series Undisputed, among other athletic roles), the film is weak on characterisation. The characters are neither built nor developed but juxtaposed randomly. We know absolutely nothing about this mad officer, for example, who has been imprisoned by Frank (presumably for violence) and is released at the height of the action. Frank is actually seen saying, “Release the crazy one” much like Zeus saying “Release the Kraken” in Clash of the Titans (1981 and again in 2010).
A huge production, reportedly worth LE60 million, like other Eid films competing with the World Cup this year, Harb Karmouz has not yet grossed much. We cannot know how successful it is at the box office until the tournament ends in mid July.
Bad karma
Filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma was initially confused with an eponymous Ramadan television series. Filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma was reported banned four days before Eid (when it was to open), resulting in the Supreme Council of Culture's Cinema Committee threatening resignation before the banning was revoked three days before Eid. Filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma is named after – yes, the concept of karma: the idea that one's behaviour will come back to haunt one.
In itself this is a tired idea even by the standards of Egyptian television, which depicted it in the second season of the Essam Al-Shamaa's series Al-Kabrit Al-Ahmar (Red Sulphur). It becomes even more tired here, where two lookalikes both played by Amr Saad – one rich, one poor – keep dreaming of each other's lives. Adham Al-Masri is a business tycoon and assassination target. Watani is a poor man named after Egypt's main Coptic newspaper; he has a wife Madina (Zeina), meaning “City”, and a small daughter, Karma.
Watani is digging for treasure in a crumbling mosque near his house in the slums. Aside from having photorealistic, precise dreams of each other's lives, Adham and Watani are connected by the fact that a project in which the former is investing will to take over the area where the latter lives, depriving him of a home. This is brought to light thanks to Adham's Sufi psychiatrist Yassin (Khaled Al-Sawi), an unintended parody of a modern mystic – which detail is in no way necessary – who contends that Adham's “pure soul”, disturbed by injustice, has invented this potential victim of his to assuage the resulting guilt. Adham's response is to suggest that maybe Watani is real and he should therefore look for him.
Bad karma
But Yassin is not the only unintended parody in filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma, which like much of Youssef's work purports to be engaged with real-life issues like medical care in the slums. Adham's wealth – helicopter in the garden, car fleet, security army, love interest (Sarah Al-Tonsi) and jealous secretary (Ghada Abdel-Razek) – is another. The business feuds and corruption that now threaten Adham's life are yet another. And, though more entertaining, notably with the sexual innuendo of Watani's mother Nargis (Dalal Abdel-Aziz), the poverty of a marginalised Coptic community is another still. Saad's performance is rigid, Abdel-Razek's attempts at giving substance to a non-character futile. The climax occurs when Watani finds the treasure and instantly he and Adham are substituted, each finding himself seamlessly in the other's life.
Filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma can't decide whether it's going to be a Dawoud Abdel-Sayed-type fantasy, a Ken Loach-style social critique or a light comedy written by Belal Fadl. In a TV interview Youssef declared the resulting confusion a function of the film's complexity, but the engagement reduces to preaching, the comedy to farce and the fantasy a little like real life pretending to be fantastical – not very convincingly. Dreams were used coherently and effectively in such films as Samir Seif's Maali Al-Wazir (His Excellency the Minister) starring the late Ahmed Zaki, which similarly targets corruption, but in filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma they fall impossibly flat.
Like other films by the engaged director – Youssef's latest film was Kaf Al-Amar (Moon Palm, 2011), Heina Maysara (Till Further Notice, 2007), Al-Rayes Omar Harb (Chief Omar Harb, 2008) and Dokkan Shehata (Shehata's Store, 2009) – filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma will no doubt generate enough talk show controversy to be talked about for a long time to come. But this won't make filmmaker Khaled Youssef's Eid film Karma any less boring – or bad.

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