Egypt’s cinematic gems: Somersaults

There’s a funny Guardian article that collected quotes from famous directors insulting each other’s work. Aside from the sensationally creative rants describing their disgust at the way their colleagues make art, there were some very interesting human explanations.

Someone called someone “a very boring person,” adding, “And I’m not talking about his films, I mean that he himself is a very boring personality. If you met him in a party he’d definitely be the person you want to talk to the least.” It’s interesting the way this director linked the personal desire to communicate in a one-on-one situation with a hugely expressive act like making a movie.

In 2008, I went to the premier of Yousry Nasrallah’s The Aquarium. I had high expectations that were completely dashed. As soon as characters started avoiding eye contact, using unfinished meaningless sentences, delicate upper-class accents, suspicious smiles and code words like “the others” (al-tanyeen) or “right?” (walla eh?), I lost interest.

I couldn’t relate to the characters’ miseries. I didn’t understand what was going on most of the time, assumed that the film wanted me to feel stupid and hated it for that. I was angry and decided during the break that if I saw any of the movie’s makers I’d kick them in the balls, regardless of gender. I saw Ahmed al-Fishawy, one of the actors, in the toilet but didn’t kick him because he’s way bigger than me.

Many years later I met Nasrallah. We had a very interesting conversation about Egypt, the movies, journalists going to jail and pole dancing. The man was modest and relaxed and very funny. He did have a delicate upper-middle-class accent, but in real life it wasn’t annoying.

Last night I watched Nasrallah’s first feature, Sariqat Sayfiya (Somersaults, or literally Summer Thefts, 1985), in which many people speak with delicate posh accents, and I wasn’t as annoyed as I was by The Aquarium.

I only heard of the movie recently, maybe for one of the following reasons:

  1. No one famous stars in it.

  2. It’s not about strong men fighting and winning (my all-time favorite topic).

  3. It’s actually about the opposite.

  4. It’s not the kind of movie the government wants you to watch.

  5. It’s by Yousry Nasrallah.

  6. I’m ignorant.

  7. All of the above?

I remember reading about the movie’s plot and how it presents a different narrative of 1952 revolution/coup/whatever. I thought the name was very cool. In Egypt the story of 1952 has only one side: Poor revolt against rich, Nasser is hot, end of story. I wondered what the other side of story would be — the bad guys’ side.

My assumption that the others are by default bad is a natural result of a culture formulated under a propaganda machine like Nasser’s and his successors’ — where failure and corruption can only justify themselves by blaming the others, the bad people. The bad people can be the foreign colonialists, then any foreign element. The evil rich feudalist, then the rich feudalist, then any rich person. The terrorist, the Brotherhood, the Islamist, the religious, then anybody who just doesn’t want to play ball.

This is a polarized, childish understanding of the world as fairy tale, where there is good and evil, and evil people are just evil and good people are just good.

Near the end of Somersaults, more than 20 years after the redistribution of wealth — which is the focus of most of the movie — the main character Yasser goes back to visit the old feudal mansion where he grew up in the middle of the countryside. It is broken and deformed, covered in guilt and silence, like the class he belongs to.

The film doesn’t defend or blame him. Instead, it draws a very detailed image of how he was made, all the natural pain and confusion that made him behave the way he does. It’s aware of how humans act according to a basic set of instincts, yet some humans are in different positions, which makes these natural behaviors mean completely different things.

In Somersaults, there is more than one relationship centered around ownership. Lots of love stories are about that, and the fear of loss significantly shapes the way we treat those we love. The movie is aware of how the people in it are already connected through very different, much more complicated ownership dynamics, ones that make the superficial performance of love feel childish and escapist yet pathetic and worth sympathy.

In the aforementioned homecoming scene, the family is watching an old movie on TV about the 1952 revolution called Rodda Qalby (Give My Heart Back, 1958). Without seeing the screen, we hear its famous emotional scenes in which two army officers discuss the unjust conditions suffered by the poor in an eloquent, theatrical fashion, as Yasserr tells his stepfather, depressingly, about his work in Lebanon taking photographs of war.

Somersaults creates a very symbolic comparison between itself and Give My Heart Back that echoes with another comparison in it. Earlier in the movie the family throws a party for the local farmers on the same day Nasser was giving a speech. The party fails miserably and the farmers who attended the speech come back on a truck chanting and singing, happy with what they heard and with the 25 piasters they were paid.

The film explores popularity, acceptance and desires. It accepts its characters’ selfishness, childish desires and grants itself the same acceptance. It knows that its crafted balance and lack of sensational melodrama won’t make it as popular as Give My Heart Back, or even half as popular, or actually popular at all. That was a decision it made and dealt with the consequences of.

I was once in a room with a famous Egyptian producer and director who makes a lot of successful mainstream movies. He was talking about a film by Khaled Youssef, a rival filmmaker also good at making money. For me, they were both in the same kind of frame. The guy was talking about a specific scene that he didn’t like, and said: “It was very fellahi [farmer-like], that cut. Khaled is a very fellah director.”

It was the first time I heard a film being criticized on a classist basis. I thought a lot since then of what makes a film fellahi and what is the opposite of that. Nasrallah’s characters’ posh accents isn’t the only upper-class thing about Somersaults cinematically. Almost every other aspect of it reflects Nasrallah’s education and background.

The economic, melancholic use of light and the minimal compositions give the movie a very European feel. The classical piano music playing throughout puts it in a deliberately highbrow position — just as the camera is always in a balcony or upper floor, looking down at the poor people below. The casting is extremely class-realistic. Most of the actors and actresses I’d never seen before, and they seem to be people from the same background as Nasrallah and the movie itself. It’s one of few movies about that epic period that isn’t entirely about people yelling and giving speeches and being all Soviet about everything. There’s also a lot of focus on lifestyle, aesthetics and the pleasures of being a rich person in Egypt in the 1960s.

Somersaults is a good example of how good cinema can stand the test of time. It’s sad when you live in a time in which history is being written before your eyes in a way that contradicts what you have witnessed or felt. Some people feel the necessity to rephrase their experiences and memories in a way they think suits the collective interest or the safety of the country, but if you’re a good artist you can make something that stays until after the dust has settled, when people finally calm down and sit and have a second thought about stuff.


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