It was 2007 or 2008 and I was working at Al-Dostour newspaper. The gang of other young cartoonists and I were proud to be publishing in such a well-received important oppositional newspaper. We gained some recognition and connections through the world of journalism.
One day our colleague Abdallah, now doing cartoons for Al-Masry Al-Youm, visited his family’s hometown in Sharqiya, north of Cairo. Abdallah’s relative Mohamed al-Shebrawy knew of his visit and took the opportunity to meet up with him and show him something.
“You’re a famous cartoonist and you must have very good connections,” he said. “Please take this script I wrote and show it to anybody — Adel Imam, Karim Abdel Aziz, or even Heneidy, I don’t care. Just show it to somebody.”
Of course Abdallah carried the script all the way back to Cairo, and of course he showed it to someone. Unfortunately it was not Adel Imam, Karim Abdel Aziz or even Heneidy. It was his cartoonist friends.
I remember laughing hard at the script and how badly it was written. The experience was ornamented by little stories from Abdallah about Shebrawy himself, how he was marketing his movie and claiming it was going to change cinema forever. I was angry at the guy and his arrogance — I believed some people had no respect for art, thinking their limited experience was enough for them to just go and do things and expect to win. At that time I was starting a script-writing career and watching hundreds of hours of US and Egyptian TV series and films, reading scripts of famous movies on the internet, going to events and having discussions with people. I thought I was learning “the hard way” and that this is what it took to be “allowed” to do stuff. Now I think I was wrong.
Since I started exploring Cairo’s downtown art scene in early 2005 I’ve been fascinated by the concept of independence. We’re from a country where there is very limited support or encouragement from the government for most kinds of art. I only know of very few people from my generation who had any faith in Ministry of Culture jobs or funds helping them achieve anything. So it made perfect sense and aligned with our more general relationship with authority in Egypt to ignore the system and do our own thing. Musicians met filmmakers and visual artists and self-publishers at shitty downtown cafes and discussed alternative solutions for expensive art-making processes. People worked on each others’ projects and sometimes donated money to help make a book come to life or a concert work out. We had our eyes on “official” or “mainstream” art and were careful to make work that rebelled against it. The problem is our inspiration mostly came from independent initiatives and movements in societies with different histories of relationships between artist and government and between institutionalized art and society.
There were people who were aware of this dilemma and tried to learn from more similar conditions. The introduction of Iranian cinema and North African music was useful, for example, but most of the work produced seemed to have the usual identity crisis in the end. Aesthetics and languages were foreign, references were mostly alien and weird — not in a cool way — and overall there was never true success in replacing institutions or infiltrating the market with different sustainable methods of production to open new discussions or make people think of their daily art consumption in a new way.
I moved on with my writing career and managed to do some “infiltration” of the market, where I can now do things I believe in slightly more. But I’m still stuck in a reality where you can’t sell a sitcom without mentioning that The Office is the closest reference, and can barely survive a meeting without having to use as much English terminology as possible to convince producers and TV channels to give you their money. I’m still far from where I want to be.
A few months ago, a friend of mine chatted with me on Facebook, “Hey, do you remember that guy who wrote that script? He made a movie!”
“What do you mean he made a movie?”
I was embarrassed. Since we laughed at that script we’ve talked a lot about making our own movies. Sophisticated conversations about production, the market, cinema as a commodity, entertainment and art, and bla bla bla, and we never did anything. Because of course cinema isn’t just a realm of imagination. It’s a machine for realizing imagination, it’s hard work and persistence and calculation and headaches. Like how in a painter’s studio everything other than the painting is dirty, it takes dirty work and frustration to turn a crazy idea on paper into minutes of magic on screen.
Shebrawy’s The Ogre 2014 is pretty shit, it’s true, when you compare it to the usual Hollywood action blockbusters it’s trying to be. It’s shit even compared to Al-Gezira 2 (The Island 2), which is in Egyptian cinemas now. The makers of The Ogre 2014 were recently inspired to change the name of their YouTube video to The Island 2 in a desperate attempt to get more views. That’s not the only way The Island 2 has inspired them though. In fact the two movies are more similar than different. They’re both about childish dreams of power and heroism that prove no more than the makers’ own entrapment in the hunt for such concepts. The Ogre 2014’s protagonist, whose role in life is to smoke and fight to protect the innocent and poor, isn’t that different from The Island 2’s Mansour. Mohamed al-Shebrawy, acting for the first time, is better than Ahmed al-Sakka though, for sure, and while not getting paid millions like Sakka, he actually produced the picture as well as writing it.
Even though The Ogre 2014 largely tries to imitate common cinematic aesthetics, its limited tools eventually put it in a weird hazy area between documentary and personal phone footage. Un-enhanced images of rural Egyptian housing and fields with piles of rubbish or sewer water here or there are reminiscent of YouTube videos documenting important political events or any funny documentable event, and that, mixed with staged action scenes or even normal melodramatic conversations, gives a unique result.
The rhythm is free, though it tries to tie itself to normal feature-film storytelling traditions, but the lack of shooting solutions means long shots are always more useful. This results in a realistic rhythm of conversations and action, but then suddenly a quick burst of jump cuts occurs and it’s obvious that it’s because actors had to redo their lines multiple times. This also gives the movie a special character. You won’t enjoy following the story if you’re used to the way cinema works nowadays, but you’ll be surprised by every scene.
The Ogre 2014 takes place in a rural part of Egypt where violence is about hijacking tok-toks and mugging people in broad daylight. This may sound trivial, but it’s not. The struggle between protagonist Al-Ghoul and scary criminal Abu Rashid slowly develops until events get quite bloody. The movie is not liberated from the common formula whereby the antihero must be punished grievously for sins we enjoy watching. Questions about good and evil are asked throughout and the main character seems more confused than wise. The number of characters, locations, fight scenes and vehicles is quite impressive, and most of the time stolen music from Egyptian soap operas and famous US movies screams louder than the actors themselves in a spicy explosion of feelings.
The only reason I can think of for why The Ogre 2014 wants to be The Island 2 and not vice versa is that The Island 2 is obviously closer to the US than The Ogre 2014. The Island 2 tried to spend US standards of money on its production, and tells its story the way US movies tell stories, and looks like US movies and even sounds like them. That’s why we pay money to watch The Island 2 instead of The Ogre 2014. And The Ogre 2014, despite its fresh, amazing content and extreme confidence and comfortableness in its environment, is still trying to compete with the US, is still concerned with power, slitting throats and smoking.
After watching the 1 hour, 24-minute feature, I saw this video. Somebody shared it on Facebook as an example of a fantastic rendezvous of technology and art. After watching it I thought for a long time about why we think this is a good thing. Why are we impressed by watching what we’ve seen millions of times before only because we know it was very expensive to shoot this time? Is an extraordinary experience only possible through spending more money or are there different ways of sacrifice that we want to behold? Is there a different way? And if there is a different way, can it survive in a world where everything is covered in money? Would you like to dress up and put on some of your nice perfume or aftershave and drive to a cinema to watch a movie that cost less than the tickets?