To Liverpool for the ‘Arabic Film Festival’ at FACT (part of the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival). The ‘Arab Spring’ has increased interest in all aspects of Arab culture and this is a welcome event. I’m sure it is very difficult to get prints of Egyptian films into the UK, so I wasn’t too surprised that this particular film turned out to be on DVD. The quality was pretty ropey but quite watchable – better anyway than the experience of lolling about on squidgy sofas to watch a cinema screen which somebody thought was a good idea for patrons of ‘The Box’, the FACT space dedicated to more arty fare.
Marcides isn’t arty as such but it is a challenge for UK audiences. I think it is best described as a political and social satire presented in the format of popular melodrama. Written and directed by Yousry Nasrallah and starring one of Egypt’s major female icons, Yousra, the film was programmed because of the director’s links to the major Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine. Nasrallah (b. 1952) assisted Chahine and then had his own films produced by Chahine’s company, Misr Films. Nasrallah was first a journalist in Lebanon and then assisted Volker Schlöndorff in 1980. (See this Cannes posting)
Warda (Yousra) is first seen in flashback to 1956 at a VIP function interrupted by the British/French/Israeli attack on the Suez Canal. She is being put forward for marriage by her wealthy mother who doesn’t know that she is already pregnant after a liaison with an African diplomat. Quickly, we learn that she married a much older man who conveniently died soon after. Her first child, to her relief, is not visibly ‘African’ but she calls him Noubi (i.e. after ‘Nubian’). She later has another child she names Gamel (after Nasser) and who is passed off as her uncle’s boy. In 1990 these past events set up the melodrama when Noubi returns home after being incarcerated by his mother (under pressure) in an asylum – because he wanted to give money to the Communist Party! When his uncle marries and then collapses at the wedding, he tells Noubi that the family fortune is bequeathed to him and Gamel, who Noubi thinks is his cousin. All Noubi has to do is find Gamel and avoid the clutches of his new aunt Raifa (a lesbian with a drug problem).
From this point on the melodrama develops at a frenetic pace. It involves all of the following – drugs, politics, corruption, people smuggling, Cairo’s underground gay community (in ‘slum cinemas’), street battles between the police and the Muslim Brotherhood, the fall of communist leaders in Eastern Europe and the 1990 World Cup in which Egypt played both Algeria and England. Yousra also appears as a second character, Afifa, a supposedly much younger woman making a living as a belly dancer who falls for Noubi and who in one scene performs for a night club audience. The star is thus fully utilised in twin roles separated by 34 years, looking little different. In fact Noubi is able to pass her off as his mother at one point. Noubi is played by an older actor with dyed blonde hair but none of this really matters. Scenes are underlined by musical cues and for melodrama fans this is a real treat. I enjoyed the film immensely even if there were aspects of the plot that puzzled me or that just whizzed by too quickly. (The title refers to the status symbol of ‘successful’ Egyptian life.)
I was intrigued to discover more about Yousra who is famous in Egypt for her TV drama appearances, including in that Egyptian institution the ‘Ramadan Soap’ or musalsalat. These serials, rather like Latin American telenovelas, include historical dramas and thrillers as well as romances. Up to 50 a year are produced in Egypt currently and they obvious draw away potential cinema audiences during Ramadan. Marcides was presumably a model for the way in which some of these shows have developed. A great beauty and a popular music star, Yousra (b. 1955) has been seen as a modern star who accepted playing the mother role in narratives at a time when she could still be a romantic lead. Her celebrity status is such that she has become a much quoted figure in the Egyptian media.
Marcides was produced during one of the low points for Egyptian Cinema when popular films were often seen as too formulaic. In this film, Nasrallah is possibly satirising the formula by offering title cards to head each ‘chapter’ of the film. Usually these introduce a new character perspective but the last one announced ‘The happy ending’ – which turns out to be just a little ironic. I’m not sure how effective Nasrallah’s satire is but it is interesting that the story links the oppression of gays, the Muslim Brotherhood and football supporters in seemingly a general critique of those in power. The overall narrative offers the ‘downward descent’ of a rich young man from a Christian élite who finds that the life ‘underground’ is more acceptable. There are quite a few laughs in the film but these are undercut by some of the more disturbing images – such as coffins returning from Iraq with the bodies of Egyptian contract labourers.
Marcides received a couple of American reviews which clearly have problems trying to understand the film. It perhaps acts as a good example of films that don’t travel easily – in this case beyond the Arab world. It’s available on DVD from Arab Film Distributors, but only for institutional screenings at $200 per show.
Here’s a 2008 interview with Yousra on Al Jazeera (in English):