Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘Rice City’
Courtesy: Sherif El Azma

Before I started writing this article I watched this clip from Wighit Nazzar (Point of View), a play written by Lenin al-Rumly and directed and starred in by Mohamed Sobhy. I was trying to teach a group of my friends how to use Google Drive to schedule a football game, an educational attempt that ended in hilarious failure as expected. I embedded a link to the scene into the document for them to watch and closed the tab. It’s about a group of blind people trying to read a letter, like a group of people using Google Drive for the first time. Funny, right?

Wighit Nazzar used to be broadcast upon us a lot on Egyptian TV as I was growing up. Because of this and other plays he made, Sobhy gained a lot of fame, social recognition, influence, and a special relationship with the Ministry of Culture and state people in general. He was even seen on many official occasions having a giggle with former President Hosni Mubarak, and has always been promoted as an “intellectual artist.” Sobhy was one of those people able to go on TV and talk about society and collective consciousness, declaring himself “an artist with a message,” with terms that echo nicely in the ear of a loyal talk show fan.

Is Sobhy an artist?

My wife and I were doing some paperwork in Cairo’s famous Mugamaa overlooking Tahrir Square, where your fate can be rewritten hundreds of times according to an employee’s breakfast. Our papers were delayed for over a week for a reason revealed to us in quite a suspicious scene. The veiled middle-aged employee whispered in my ear: “You said that your wife is an ‘artist.’ ‘Artists’ need a special kind of visa here.” I thought it was a joke, and when I asked her what she meant, she asked me back: “‘Artist’ where? Sharm El Sheikh?” I was even more confused — why should artists only exist in Sharm El Sheikh? She stared into my eyes with a laser-pointer look, as though she were talking about something clear as daylight and I was the one playing the fool. She pressed her teeth together and squeezed the word out of her mouth: “Is she an artist as in ‘belly dancer’?”

In official governmental paperwork, the word “artist” matters if you are a belly dancer. Because you are a person providing a service that people pay money for, that the government taxes. Putting you in the right category here is useful because it helps monetize your life and skills.

Is “intellectual artist” another niche in the tax system? Do intellectual artists pay more taxes? Or less? I have no idea. But what I know is that because artists like Sobhy have not had the best box office performance, their goods might not be as useful in the economic system as Adel Imam’s for example. Yet people like Sobhy provided the regime with another very useful kind of service.

In a country like Egypt where you have a long list of to dos that you know you won’t do, it always helps to have an alternative. A replica. A fake democracy, a fake constitution, a fake education and a fake intellectualism you can bring out of the silverware box when we have guests. Because in a world getting more and more capitalist everyday, everywhere it’s becoming really difficult for lots people to understand things, or other people, outside a function they have in trade.

Sherif Al-Azma’s Rice City (2010) is an experimental film. So it’s a film, but it’s not “a film” in the language the consumer understands.

At 19 minutes and 27 seconds it’s very short, much shorter than movies you go to the cinema to watch. So you can’t rely on it for two hours of leisure time or relaxation, or even for distraction if it’s on TV. You’ll never find it in any of the outlets where you are used to finding those products anyway. It will never be on MBC2 or Cima, and Nile City won’t waste two weeks of its precious screening time to experiment with it.

People don’t talk in it much, and when they do it’s more of a playful grub upon language and speaking in scenes showing situations in which communication itself is something that needs thinking about. So you can’t follow a story or a struggle the characters are going through the way you’re accustomed to. I doubt Rice City will provide you with the type of education or moral inspiration you normally receive from movies, where evil loses in the end, or love wins.

It’s black-and-white and mostly shot inside old-looking flats. You might not be a big fan of this as we’re in a time when cinema is mostly about the edge of technology’s ability, with cameras showing off how many more millions of colors they can eat every year, and computers that can make you think there is a flying dragon inside downtown’s Odeon. If you find light and shade and the aesthetics of 1950s noir cinema interesting, then you might find something inspiring in the way this movie plays with black and white.

So why do people make movies like Rice City?

There is no comfortable answer to this if you believe in value in terms of time = money = gain = investment, although some people with good intentions try to convince the world that experimentation of this sort ends up feeding mainstream art with new perspectives and artistic suggestions that help it play its role in making humanity better. Which is an argument I find quite boring.

Maybe I’ll end the article the same way I started it, about a topic that many more people in the world care about. Football. I like to see Rice City, and other examples of experimental art in general, the same way I see juggling (keepie uppies) in relation to football. A lot of people like watching football, they follow the drama and the promise that someone is going to win and the other is going to lose. The winning and the losing and the accompanying complicated maze of lessons and feelings is what we pay to get. But then there’s a video like this of a kid juggling a rock, the same way a professional player does in a game worth a million dollars, maybe even better, but in a totally worthless moment of experimentation watched 35 times on YouTube. The kid borrowed from football the concept of the promise, he’s promising you that he’ll not drop the rock, and you know he eventually is going to drop it, and that’s why you watch the video till the end.

The same way Sherif El Azma borrows the location, the people, the sounds and the movements from movies you’re used to watching, and the way things on screen make sense because of the collective knowledge, experience and watching practices that he and the audience share, and the pursuit of entertainment and drama. Then, after borrowing all those things, with a deliberate act of editing he just puts all of it in a moment so far away from the million-dollar match, and sits back and thinks about it for a while.


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