Too much to say

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Mon Oct 2 19:36:33 MDT 2000

  Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
   28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
   Issue No. 501
   Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

    Too much to say

     By Tarek Atia

  "What's up with all the purple buildings everywhere?" asks director
Ahmed Atef, whose first feature film Omar 2000 recently took home nine
prizes at the Alexandria International  Film Festival. Cairo's
much-maligned love for fluorescent architecture is a classic case of
"bright colours, poor soul," Atef remarks.

 Omar 2000 is about how ludicrous we've become -- in this and similar
ways, Atef continues. "We look in the mirror, but we don't see our real
selves. How is it that he doesn't notice his hair is white?"

 Atef is now speaking of the film's hero, Omar, a young man who
"decides" to go crazy 30 days before his thirtieth birthday after
discovering that his hair is going gray. Atef calls Omar 2000 "a salad
bowl, or hallucination, of modern Egyptian society." More practically,
it looks like a film made by a journalist (Atef writes for Al-Ahram
Hebdo) taking his cues from the headlines: devil worshippers, the human
organs trade and so on.

The film reflects the director's dissatisfaction with globalisation. One
of the characters buys everything on credit and is then chased by his
creditors. When they find that he can't pay up, they force him to give
up his clothes. He describes how every time he buys something, he feels
like he's getting a little bit closer to getting in bed with the dancing
girls in the ads.

In short, it's a film that reflects a multitude of social changes: in
the cinema business, in the censorship office and Egyptian society in
general. If that sounds heavy, then it won't come as a surprise that
Omar 2000 is hard-going at times -- mainly because of Khaled El-Nabawi,
who plays Omar with all the subtlety of an elephant trampling through an
ant farm.

El-Nabawi may be melodramatic, but the film in which he stars is
revolutionary in other aspects, foremost in its daring dialogue. I was
curious to know how the film had slipped past the censors. There are
references to the country being more like a monarchy, to five per cent
of the population living well while the rest are kicked around, to the
six or so families that run all of the country's businesses. There is a
joke about what happens between the Baba Ghanouj and Umm Ali when you
put Viagra in the refrigerator. There are also scenes that contain
references to the US Embassy poking its nose into religious sentiments
in Egypt.

 "I don't self-censor," Atef remarks. "They were convinced by my
arguments that I wasn't dealing with taboos." Maybe so, but it was a big
leap of faith for the censorship office to let all these things go, and
Atef thinks it signals a wider margin of freedom for filmmakers to speak

"Our generation, those between 25 and 35, are starting to get involved
in cinema, journalism and business," he says. "Once we get the posts,
we'll be able to influence those who are younger more." For Atef, Omar
2000 , which cost some LE2.5 million to make, is a case in point; it is
among 10 films by new directors to be released this year. Although box
office proceeds may not turn a profit, producers can now depend on a
number of other outlets to recoup their costs, including television and
satellite television rights, video and foreign distribution.

 Omar 2000's original script featuring two neighbours, one of whom
becomes a fundamentalist, the other a devil-worshipper, underwent 13
rewrites by Atef. Even so, Atef admits that because he's trying to speak
about so many things, the film may come across as a first film by a new
director trying to say everything that's on his mind. Heavy themes
sometimes make the film seem to be of the dreaded genre of lauded
festival films with no popular appeal. Atef denies the charge. "I want
to make movies that affect thoughts, feelings, and nerves," he says.

As to festivals, Atef has plenty of experience. At the age of 24, he was
vice president of the Ismailia Film Festival and five of his short films
have been shown in more than 25 festivals around the world. The nine
prizes the film picked up in Alexandria total some LE120,000.

Atef's next film is tentatively titled "Open Air Circus", but he's
reluctant to divulge many details about the plot or a possible cast. The
format of Omar 2000, which features a string of disconnected scenes
counting down to Omar's thirtieth birthday, has been criticised by
almost a quarter of its viewers as in some sense forced, or "artificial"
-- a fact that is taken by Atef to mean the audience has become
complacent with the standard, more traditional plot-line. And yet, Atef
notes, the format is similar to tales like One Thousand and One Nights
and the stories of Abu Zeid Al-Hilali, which follow one after the other
without necessarily having anything to do with each other.

In his efforts to experiment in form and technique, Atef tried some
rather unorthodox methods of inspiring his actors, including using music
and smells to set the mood. The method seemed to be more effective for
both Mona Zaki and Ahmed Helmi, who put on stellar performances. Atef
also studied the paintings of Kandinsky, Matisse and Haring and based
the lighting of each scene on the palette of a particular work.

One is tempted to draw comparisons between the 29-year-old director and
his protagonist, but Atef insists that he is not the depressed
30-year-old Omar. He claims that he is closer to the character of the
gravedigger Ahmed, a person who is able to "extract positive life
lessons from grim surroundings."

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Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

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