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Andeel

Hala Khalil’s third feature, Nawara (2015), is on release at a time when the January 25 revolution is being demonized and its supporters accused of delusion and irresponsibility. In the world of Egyptian cultural production, “revolutionary art” is frowned upon as exploitative and lacking depth. Pressures like these on a filmmaker like Khalil — whose prior movies, Ahla al-Awqat (Best of Times, 2004), and Cut and Paste (Qus w Lazq, 2006), show a genuine determination to reflect real social or human concerns — could have resulted in a very interesting product.

Khalil tries to confront the expectations around Nawara with an unexpected angle: Instead of a straightforward, preachy, “revolutionary” approach that focuses on the misery of the poor of Egypt, because of which and for which the January 25 revolution erupted, it pretends to be less political than it is and to focus on plot and characterization instead.

The introduction promises nothing more than a movie as simple as its main character, Nawara (Menna Shalaby), who bears life’s injustice and brutality with a hopeful, almost foolish smile. Khalil keeps carefully trying to avoid turning the film into one of those cheesy Egyptian tragedies about poverty that such premises tend to result in, but eventually, for purely technical reasons in my opinion, it falls into the same trap.

The story is basic, almost fairyta ...

Hala Khalil’s third feature, Nawara (2015), is on release at a time when the January 25 revolution is being demonized and its supporters accused of delusion and irresponsibility. In the world of Egyptian cultural production, “revolutionary art” is frowned upon as exploitative and lacking depth. Pressures like these on a filmmaker like Khalil — whose prior movies, Ahla al-Awqat (Best of Times, 2004), and Cut and Paste (Qus w Lazq, 2006), show a genuine determination to reflect real social or human concerns — could have resulted in a very interesting product.

Khalil tries to confront the expectations around Nawara with an unexpected angle: Instead of a straightforward, preachy, “revolutionary” approach that focuses on the misery of the poor of Egypt, because of which and for which the January 25 revolution erupted, it pretends to be less political than it is and to focus on plot and characterization instead.

The introduction promises nothing more than a movie as simple as its main character, Nawara (Menna Shalaby), who bears life’s injustice and brutality with a hopeful, almost foolish smile. Khalil keeps carefully trying to avoid turning the film into one of those cheesy Egyptian tragedies about poverty that such premises tend to result in, but eventually, for purely technical reasons in my opinion, it falls into the same trap.

The story is basic, almost fairytale-like, about an underprivileged woman working as a housekeeper in a rich family’s mansion on Cairo’s outskirts. The January 25 revolution forces the family to escape to London, leaving the mansion temporarily in Nawara’s custody. It’s a very promising setup, one which could generate a lot of fantasy, symbolism and meaning.

The simplicity Khalil mostly sticks to does give Nawara some digestible smoothness, and does make it easier to bear watching the repetitively biblical blows that strike the main character one after the other, but it also makes the film look and feel like a TV soap opera. The lighting is slightly confused and inconsistent, and the camera angles are largely static and routine. Characters move horizontally in front of the camera most of the time, and visually things feel a bit shallow and lazy. Even in a scene when a microbus is stuck in a chaotic demonstration, there’s no dynamic between the camera and what’s going on.

I felt like Khalil’s need to hide her true alignments paralyzed her cinematic weapons and resulted in a muted film that fails to deliver its full potential. Crucial plot elements are introduced too late to really impact us, a couple of dramatic scenes are fumbled (such as one involving a dog and a villain played by Abbass Aboulhassan), and it seems Khalil was trying to hide the abruptly harsh finale throughout Nawara’s unnecessarily long 122 minutes. Perhaps she’s trying to mimic reality in the way she gives her audience and her main character a moment of massive hope that ends very quickly.

I couldn’t help but notice many similarities between Nawara and older movies made with the same sort of passion and honesty, like Mohamed Khan’s Hend and Camellia’s Dreams (1989) and Atef al-Tayeb’s A Hot Night (1994). I’m trying hard to isolate the factors of nostalgia and the patina of age to make sure I don’t prefer the older movies for unfair reasons, but I still feel that they put their main characters in plots complex and captivating enough to help them expose the layers they’re made of, and the beliefs and ethics according to which they define right and wrong. They also follow the paths on which their characters make decisions and react to life with cinematic agility and adventurousness.

I think Nawara tries too hard to make itself seem more interested in the craft of movie-making than in the political event it is about, but the last four minutes reveal that this is not the case. The small number of people in the cinema when we went to see it seemed engaged most of the time until the disappointment of the ending, and that’s not an aftertaste that makes you recommend a movie.

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