It’s interesting to watch politics influence the development of pop art. Khalid Youssif’s al-Asifa (The Storm), which received its premier in Beirut on Thursday, is the latest stage in the evolution of the middle-brow Egyptian film. That the premier came on the heels of the tenth anniversary of Operation Desert Storm cannot be attributed to chance alone.
Egypt’s popular cinema, as is well known among its Lebanese aficionados, has certain conventions which like its cousin the Indian movie guarantees commercial success. Large doses of saccharine sentimentality, silly humor, a lush musical score, lots of singing and dancing, and romance seemingly doomed to fail with the requisite handsome man and gorgeous gal are all part of the formula.
In the years since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel, or rather since producers realized that popular sentiment was not with Camp David, film makers have not hesitated to include an anti-Israeli element as well sometimes gratuitously.
Youssif’s film provides an outlet for anti-Israeli sentiment and for a number of other contradictions in the Egyptian condition. But unlike last year’s La Porte Ferme, for instance, which is set in the same period and touches on some of the same issues al-Asifa tries to be political within the broad conventions of the country’s pop cinema.
Set in Cairo, the film tales place we eventually discover in the brief interim between the Iran-Iraq War and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It focuses upon an ensemble of characters that has become the bread and butter of Egypt’s cinema since Anwar Sadat two families, one of the struggling middle class, another wealthy. It is very much according to form that none of the female characters wears hijab, and that none of these characters would think of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Huda (played by the Egyptian star Youssra) is a teacher with two boys in school Ali and Naji. Naji is in love with Hayat, the daughter of a wealthy businessman who, naturally, is against the relationship. Ali, who himself had been in love with a woman beyond his means, decides to drop out of school and migrate to Iraq where he can make enough money to finance his brother’s marriage.
Mum herself becomes the love interest of Mahmud, a new teacher at her school, but she at first resists his overtures because of her previous marriage. It seems dad, a veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, was so heartbroken by the vision of Anwar Sadat signing the Camp David Accord and embracing Menachim Begin that he limped out of the house on his crutch and was never seen again.
In Iraq, Ali’s desire to make as much money as possible sees him move from car repair to the oil industry to the Iraqi Army for work. His final move corresponds to Ali’s finishing school. Unable to get married, Ali is pressed into military service just a few months before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The film’s final confrontation pits brother against brother as Egypt sends forces to help America drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
Ali’s move to Iraq politicizes a plot which otherwise would be nothing more than domestic soap opera. By the end of the film this is most evidently the politics of Arab nationalism more specifically the conflict between Egyptian’s feelings of Arab brotherhood and the state (and its elite’s) pro-American, implicitly pro-Israeli, policies.
But over the course of the film more discreet issues are invoked. They are not really dealt with, but then they aren’t issues that really lend themselves to the storybook solutions common in traditional soap opera.
The very fact of Ali’s leaving school and migrating to Iraq the cause of many a moist-eyed close up provokes some dialogue about an unjust system that makes migrant labor necessary. Mahmud’s overtures to Huda are resented by her son, which raises issues of what is proper behavior for Muslim widows.
In one of several confrontations between the vivacious Hayat and her stern father, she berates him for having got rich off an economic order which is run by America and in the interests of Israel. And, he responds, what alternatives are there? When Hayat is patently unable to offer any suggestions he suggests that she become realistic about the ways of the world.
In the Egypt in which this soap opera tale has been cast, such issues are not soluble. And at the end of the film, as the first artillery barrages are exchanged in Kuwait, they remain dangling unanswered for the audience.
Though unable to provide a happy ending, Youssif manages to avoid leaving his audience with a bleak message of powerlessness. The final scene would be comic were it not for the serious theme underlying it. It sees all the principal characters (but for Ali and Naji) leading an anti-American, anti-Israeli demonstration being confronted by a phalanx of ridiculously prancing riot police.
The message is clear enough. In an unjust world the only solution lies in civil protest declarations, in this case, that despite state policy to the contrary that the Arab people are united in brotherhood. A perfect blend of realism and fantasy.