Al-Gezira 2 (The Island 2, 2014) has a very strong political message right from the beginning. The film imagines a group of creepy beardos living in holes in the mountains, reciting the Quran and talking about martyrdom.
Everybody says they’re scary and cunning, they’re like locusts, they’re from all over the place, the Delta, Alexandria, here and there, and they aren’t like true Upper Egyptians. Yuck!
Despite this, and even though their leader’s beard looks like moquette and his accent swings freely between Bedouin and Upper Egyptian and something else that’s rather camp, everybody keeps making deals with them until they end up running the town and cutting people’s hands off then bombing the shit out of everything for no obvious reason.
Just after midnight on January 25, 2011, I was with my friends in Tahrir. As well as all the clichéd feelings of pride, strength and magic, a dominant feeling I had was despair. I was certain the sit-in was going to end in few minutes.
“At least we internationally embarrassed them for a whole day, we can definitely build on that!” I said to someone. But of course, it turned out to be bigger than I thought.
A few months later I revisited Al-Irhab wel Kabab (Terrorism and Barbeque, 1992), written by Waheed Hamed and directed by Sherif Arafa. In the final scene the interior minister gives his final word to the “terrorists,” making it clear that the government will no longer tolerate their hostage-keeping even if the cost is the hostages’ lives. Near the end of his speech, he looks down at the camera with a creepy gaze and says: “You have to learn: The government has no arms that you can twist.” Having grown up watching this, no wonder my faith faltered on January 25.
I used to have huge respect for the collaborative work of Arafa, Hamed and comic actor Adel Imam. They made important political movies that benefited from Imam’s stardom, Hamed’s brilliant scriptwriting and Arafa’s ambitious directing solutions. Crazy Cairo-inspired action plots like Terrorism and Barbeque, psychological analogies for 1990s Egyptian depression like Al-Noum fil Asal (A Deep Sleep, 1996), or rich narratives about dirty power struggles between Islamism and corruption like Toyour al-Zalam (Birds of Darkness, 1995).
These are only highlights of a long career of successful movies in which they had a suspicious level of complete freedom and support from the authorities to say whatever they wanted. Until right before the January 25 revolution, I thought “they” were the filmmakers. Now I don’t.
Back to the island
The Nile City Towers are two fancy office buildings with a beautiful Nile-side location. A location that used to be an informal residential area for working-class Cairenes before a telecom tycoon “bought” it out. In 2007, inside the expensive cinema that smells of cleaning products at the bottom of its heavily guarded marble-floored mall, I watched Arafa’s Al-Gezira (The Island), an Upper Egyptian epic inspired by the true story of a Godfather-like character (played by Ahmed al-Saqqa) who ran a drugs and arms empire on an isolated Nile island in the south.
Upper Egyptians could talk to you for hours about poverty down there or the lack of government presence or education, of the aspirations of locals or even how beautiful the food is, but none of that interested the filmmakers, not as much as guns. Guns, guns, guns and heavy guns. People killing each other because they want to be in charge or because they want to get married to each other or just for kicks. That’s what they wanted to make a movie about.
So far, not so different from entertainment-focused cinematic investments anywhere in the world. Power, machismo, guns, crime, violence, sex (according to the locally permitted dose) and big guns. It’s difficult to blame such a movie for ignorance or racism, stereotyping or orientalism, shallowness or exploitation of people’s misery for the sake of making a buck. But you can make fun of its simplistic lighting and its set design that looks like an unfinished Disney project. You can try (if you have personal contact with him) to diplomatically advise Saqqa to stop what he’s doing and start spending more time with his horses.
It’s true that The Island showed some innovation in attempting action scenes in Upper Egypt, benefiting from its natural beauty, and trying to make an Egyptian version of the American action movies Arafa obviously loves, but the result was something like a messed-up ghee advert with constant gunfire.
It did shyly try to tackle politics, Ministry of Interior corruption and so on, but let’s say it was too subtle for me to even remember what it was trying to say.
Now part 2!
Invested in The Island‘s huge box office success, as expected for Arafa, it was followed by a sequel. Not the next year, not the year after that, but seven years later. Maybe because it’s kind of cool to keep the audience waiting. Maybe because you have to save up for all those explosions and flying galabiyas.
Or maybe because it needs at least three years after a revolution and then a military coup before you can have an audience applaud when a police officer fights side by side with thugs against Islamists who wear a mixture of Islamic State-inspired costumes and have a stockpile of missiles.
Captivated, overconfident, The Island 2 can’t let go of itself for over three hours, arcing the script over and over so every time it feels like it’s ending another story starts in an endless dark night like torture. Omar Khairat’s soundtrack also keeps on repeating itself like an old man who fell in the toilet and can’t get up.
Visually, it’s a complete waste of film and electricity. If you look away you won’t miss anything: Everything that happens is spoken about first and then again afterwards. Other than a couple of scenes shot in picturesque locations, there’s nothing worth looking at. Even the fight sequences lack any coherence. It just contains very long boring scenes of people talking intensely in great detail about their over-complicated struggles, mentioning names you don’t feel like you need to remember and insignificant events from The Island 1, in lines that strive uselessly to sound epic or poetic.
The shock is the hands that are stained by the blood of this crime. The script is by Mohamed, Khaled and Sherene Diab. Mohamed Diab wrote and directed 678 (2010), a beautiful movie about sexual harassment and women’s rights. He had a prominent place on the political scene during and after the revolution as a big supporter of its demands. Now his name is on a script in which the chant “Bread, freedom and social justice” is explicitly mocked (like when a drug-dealing militia pretends to be revolutionaries to storm a police headquarters), and activists and their opinions are cheap joke material.
Diab wrote on Facebook that The Island 2 was written before June 30, 2013, in a period when the police were much weaker than they are now. He said the anti-revolutionary opinions of its negative characters do not represent the opinions of the filmmakers.
Even though those characters are not introduced as typical anti-heroes, and even though their opinions sometimes sound wise and sometimes stupid, Diab, who also announced that a third part of the disaster is now under production, may honestly think that his work is in favor of revolution. But surely not Arafa, a filmmaker who in 2010 was busy directing a propaganda ad for ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
The blunt, solitary message of The Island 2 is: Brotherhood bad, don’t play with them, government bad, play with them. This is not delivered in a clever or interesting way like in Waheed Hamed’s times. It shoves its lazy deformed arguments inside pathetic jokes.
In a scene when the police officer is allying with the drug dealer, a working-class Upper Egyptian shouts: “How are we supposed to trust you? You’ve always been against us!” The officer (played by Khalid al-Sawy, another famous activist, blogger, revolutionary or whatever), replies: “I’m fed up with this story.” The audience laughs and the film swiftly moves on. The question never gets an answer.
The Island 2 sees politics the same way the country’s leaders do. It is fed up with arguments and demands, it does not feel obligated to justify its behavior, it patronizingly underestimates people’s intelligence. It is inarguably anti-revolutionary and reactionary. Its portrayal of the dilemma between security or justice (that obviously only exists in countries led by similar leaders to Egypt’s) is lazy and shallow. The cartoonish picking on Islamism provides nothing different from the usual disgusting sensationalism of state television discourse: BE SCARED! BE SCARED! TERRORISTS! TERRORISTS! Except the stronger vibe here is: Be bored… be bored… businessmen are making political films.
The Island 2 is showing in cinemas now.