Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘Against the Government’

“Bil qanoun” (“according to the law”), was Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s answer this week to a question about how he would deal with any demonstrations with “factional demands” during his rule. “Bil qanoun,” he said, with a big contented grin. Like someone who just got a gun license and is eager to try it out.

“Bil qanoun” there was almost nobody in Egypt in 2011 allowed to run for president except Gamal Mubarak. To be able to run for president you had to pass certain constitutional obstacles that only he could pass. But it was “bil qanoun.” Everybody knew at that time that even though it was “bil qanoun,” it was “mosh adle” (unfair). This is why, even though it was “illegal,” millions of people took the streets, cut the traffic, fought riot police and burnt down police stations to bring back the law’s ability to be fair.

It reminds me of a line I like in the movie I don’t like very much, Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building (2006), when a big corrupt government official says to a businessman with whom he is forcing a partnership: “We’re a type of people whose mistakes have to be legal.”

It is “bil qanoun” as well that Mustafa Khalaf, the corrupt lawyer played by Ahmad Zaki in Atef al-Tayeb’s Against the Government (Dud al-Hakuma, 1992), finds his way through the mazes of Egypt’s worn-out judicial system, benefiting from its disfunctionality, making the best out of it not for his clients but for himself. Mustafa, who is capable of convincing a bored judge to set free a rapist by arguing that a pen will only penetrate an inkwell if it’s already open, makes most of his money by filing compensation lawsuits against the government on behalf of people who have lost their loved ones due to accidents caused by government negligence. Such a noble cause – if it were not for the fact that he’s taking most of the compensation money for himself and throwing pennies to those he hunts down at the funerals of those who have lost their lives in such tragedies.

Both the fine story by Waguih Abu Zikry on which the film is based and the script woven by Bashir al-Deek pay extraordinary attention to building the multilayered anatomy of Mustafa’s character. This immoral so-called justice maker, leading a self-destructive, indeed nihilistic life, wasn’t born that way. He himself was once a victim of a cruel act of injustice by those who possessed more power than he did, and that pushed him off the rails of honest heroism that he was on. Forced to obey the norm and play with the rules of the game, Mustafa didn’t have enough to inspire him to fight and quickly learnt his lesson. He’s a man who was left by the woman he loved, and who failed to be the family man he wanted to be. There isn’t much meaning in his life, and that’s probably why he can’t see much meaning in the lives of others.

The “let’s pretend we’re fighting” game he plays against the government, in which both parties share almost exactly the same amount of corruption, suddenly has to change when he is confronted with an extremely extraordinary case among the victims he is defending in a school bus accident, the lawsuit the movie revolves around.

On a totally different layer of perception, another battle is going on in the movie. This is a battle of performance between two members of its amazing cast. Abu Bakr Ezzat, who plays the law professor who once taught Mustafa in university how to be a lawyer, is now defending the government against Mustafa. In this movie, Ezzat, who had a long career of unimportant roles in cheap comedies yet had a ton of talent buried under those possibly inevitable choices, stands in front of Ahmad Zaki, the young prodigious star, in a situation very similar to the fictional one they are acting out. The dynamics between the two actors and what they might be thinking of each other can be sensed in the way they look at each other, speak to each other and behave in each other’s presence: a mixture of respect and confrontation, mentorship and fear, cooperation and competition. They both speak the same language, have been to the same dark areas of consciousness, and the attempts by one of them to drag both of them down into denial makes the other only more determined to keep on fighting.

The camera follows Mustafa around as he swings between two worlds that resemble the fight inside him between good and evil. Locations here are very important. Scenes in his dark and ugly office, in courthouses’ depressing corridors and in hellish police stations compete with scenes of the brightly colored room that belongs to Karim, the kid who was meant to be just another compensation case but turns into something quite different. (I also have a special liking for this movie for being the first Egyptian movie I remember showing a home computer!)

In Against the Government, Tayeb reached a very important milestone in his career. He started making movies in the 1982 and made many that were concerned with the acute political and social changes that Egyptian society was going through at that time. 1992, a year in which he made three movies, marked 10 years of filmmaking and was only three years before he died after heart surgery.

Against the Government, with its very obvious title, shouts out Tayeb’s final call on the story. It came after many films in which he gave his characters increasingly difficult ethical and moral choices, choices between being good or bad in relation to the what that means in the world around them. In this movie, and in those that came after, Tayeb made his point as clearly and bluntly as possible by choosing a very morally low starting point for his main character. Putting such a stained figure into a fight with the government that he is sure to blame is an answer to a debate that was starting at that time.

Tayeb puts in his protagonist’s mouth the words: “We are all corrupt, no exceptions, even with helpless silence, we are corrupt.”

Yet this is said during a speech in which Mustafa is demanding the submission of the ministers of transportation and education and the prime minister to the court of law. Real “justice” is what Tayeb demands from the government if he must recognize the people’s own role in responsibility and corruption. “Bil adle,” not “bil qanoun.”

In a final note, the very well-written and emotive speech in the end of the movie is a rare cinematic moment, one of my favorites, and watching it I feel obligated to like a cinematic technique – the monologue – that I can’t usually bear.


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