Al-Nazer (The Principal, 2000) is arguably one of the funniest films in Egypt’s recent cinematic history, maybe even of all time. There, a bold statement to introduce the gem of the week, a comedy about Egypt’s failing education system to coincide with the start of the new school year.
Directed by Sherif Arafa, Al-Nazer was a key film in the profitable comedy wave that began in the late 1990s with Karim Diaa al-Deen’s Ismailia Rayeh Gaye (Ismailia Back and Forth, 1997) starring Mohamed Heneidy, followed by other Heneidy films such as Hamam in Amsterdam (1998) and Saeedy fel Gamaa al-Amerikia (A Southerner at AUC, 1999).
But Al-Nazer‘s star Alaa Waley Eddin, who died young in 2002, also had his fair share of notable films in this feel-good period, such as Aboud Aal Hodood (Aboud on the Borders, 1999), which was from the same duo behind Al-Nazer: Arafa and writer Ahmed Abdallah.
That wave of comedy is characterized by young male leads dealing with moral lessons, and many of the jokes revolve around sex, porn, drugs and alcohol but in a canny, family-friendly manner, giving them broad appeal. The stars that continued the phenomenon into the the early 2000s were Heneidy, Ahmed Helmy and Mohamed Saad. (Both the latter appear in Al-Nazer).
While Al-Nazer is part of that wave, it’s unique in many ways. Abdallah’s punchy writing is full of lines that would transcend into regular Egyptian humor — like the main character yelling “It’s all hitting hitting and no insults” to a guy beating him up, or “I just did koshary!” — yet stay unwaveringly true to the plot. Abdallah would henceforth become a heavyweight scriptwriter.
The edits in Al-Nazer are quick and rough, with lots of comic music inserts (from Nabil Ali Maher) that exaggerate the cuts and play on the comedic dialogue, almost becoming part of it.
But best of all perhaps is Waley Eddin’s fantastic performance as several characters in the film, including the strict school principal who dies at the start, his wife Gawaher, and his oppressed son Salah (the film’s main character) who takes on the school after his father’s death.
Waley Eddin is convincingly different in each role and consistently hilarious, especially as the coy Gawaher who has some unforgettable lines like “I just had cabbage and can torment you.” Her dance to Mambo Number 5 with the Russian showgirls at a local bar is also pretty memorable.
The two-hour film starts off with a quick funny fake historical run through the school’s background during pharaonic times, Islamic times and the 1919 revolution. Using historical references from school textbooks, it shows Waley Eddin playing a different great-grandfather principal in each era, giving dodgy lectures amid political turmoil.
We’re then brought to the present. There’s barbed wire on the school fence, dirty clothes hang off it, and the school is split into two to segregate boys and girls.
Holding tight onto his cane, Salah’s massive father stands on the school’s grand front steps in a vast pastel blue suit to tell the miserable looking boys at morning assembly that they have to pay their tuition or face expulsion, that playing is forbidden, and that they must buy food from the school canteen.
Upon his swift, loud death — “You’re bringing me roses? I didn’t have breakfast yet you son of a shoe!” he yells at his son from his hospital bed — the film splits into two parallel lines that later tie in together. Salah is forced to become principal, even though he himself failed high school, with the help of his father’s assistant Sayed (Hassan Hosny), who actually wants to take over the school himself and is sabotaging Salah’s efforts.
But simultaneously, Salah also wants to become cool and do all the things his father forbade him to do (go out, take drugs, drink alcohol and have sex). In this storyline, Salah and his childhood friend Atef (Helmy) take lessons on how to be bad boys from old schoolmate Al-Limby (Saad).
This was actually the birth of the Al-Limby character, a drunken drug-addled thug who gets himself into all sorts of difficult but telling situations, which Saad reprised for several other films and became a short-lived box-office sensation.
Despite the film’s light entertainment feel and the continual laughs, various scenes highlight serious problems in the education system.
Salah is introduced to the teachers and Mr. Zakaria (the late Youssef Eid) explains in a hilariously matter-of-fact way that he is the maths teacher and the French teacher until they find a French teacher. Later we find out he’s also the history teacher until they find an actual history teacher. Eid always brought exaggerated yet believable poignancy to supporting roles and had brilliant comic timing (his final role was Bob Marley in 2014’s Third World War).
In an English class Miss Inshirah (Hanan al-Tawil) explains to the kids the difference between the pronunciation of P and B (a mistake Egyptians commonly make in English). Another teacher only lets the kids who take private lessons with him answer in class. The school budget is not used to educate students, but is embezzled by Sayed. And we see a lot of corporal punishment.
Salah’s love interest Wafaa (Basma) is the music teacher, but she has nothing to do because there’s no music room and the theater has been turned into a storage space, highlighting how undervalued the arts are in Egyptian schools.
Al-Nazer thus cleverly uses humor to pin-point the issues with Egypt’s outdated education system and students’ lack of involvement in the education process.
Eventually a turning point comes when the science teacher (Hesham Selim) calls for education reform and engaging students in learning, instead of continuing the patriarchal, fear-based system of the late principal. But 15 years later, there’s still been no turning point in real-life Egyptian schools, and the issues are exactly the same.
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that the father yelled at his wife from his hospital bed. It has been corrected to indicate that it was actually his son who received the insult.