Hala Khalil’s third feature, Nawara (2015), is on release at a time when the January 25 revolution is being demonized and its supporters accused of delusion and irresponsibility. In the world of Egyptian cultural production, “revolutionary art” is frowned upon as exploitative and lacking depth. Pressures like these on a filmmaker like Khalil — whose prior movies, Ahla al-Awqat (Best of Times, 2004), and Cut and Paste (Qus w Lazq, 2006), show a genuine determination to reflect real social or human concerns — could have resulted in a very interesting product.
Khalil tries to confront the expectations around Nawara with an unexpected angle: Instead of a straightforward, preachy, “revolutionary” approach that focuses on the misery of the poor of Egypt, because of which and for which the January 25 revolution erupted, it pretends to be less political than it is and to focus on plot and characterization instead.
The introduction promises nothing more than a movie as simple as its main character, Nawara (Menna Shalaby), who bears life’s injustice and brutality with a hopeful, almost foolish smile. Khalil keeps carefully trying to avoid turning the film into one of those cheesy Egyptian tragedies about poverty that such premises tend to result in, but eventually, for purely technical reasons in my opinion, it falls into the same trap.
The story is basic, almost fairytale-like, about an underprivileged woman working as a housekeeper in a rich family’s mansion on Cairo’s outskirts. The January 25 revolution forces the family to escape to London, leaving the mansion temporarily in Nawara’s custody. It’s a very promising setup, one which could generate a lot of fantasy, symbolism and meaning.
The simplicity Khalil mostly sticks to does give Nawara some digestible smoothness, and does make it easier to bear watching the repetitively biblical blows that strike the main character one after the other, but it also makes the film look and feel like a TV soap opera. The lighting is slightly confused and inconsistent, and the camera angles are largely static and routine. Characters move horizontally in front of the camera most of the time, and visually things feel a bit shallow and lazy. Even in a scene when a microbus is stuck in a chaotic demonstration, there’s no dynamic between the camera and what’s going on.
I felt like Khalil’s need to hide her true alignments paralyzed her cinematic weapons and resulted in a muted film that fails to deliver its full potential. Crucial plot elements are introduced too late to really impact us, a couple of dramatic scenes are fumbled (such as one involving a dog and a villain played by Abbass Aboulhassan), and it seems Khalil was trying to hide the abruptly harsh finale throughout Nawara’s unnecessarily long 122 minutes. Perhaps she’s trying to mimic reality in the way she gives her audience and her main character a moment of massive hope that ends very quickly.
I couldn’t help but notice many similarities between Nawara and older movies made with the same sort of passion and honesty, like Mohamed Khan’s Hend and Camellia’s Dreams (1989) and Atef al-Tayeb’s A Hot Night (1994). I’m trying hard to isolate the factors of nostalgia and the patina of age to make sure I don’t prefer the older movies for unfair reasons, but I still feel that they put their main characters in plots complex and captivating enough to help them expose the layers they’re made of, and the beliefs and ethics according to which they define right and wrong. They also follow the paths on which their characters make decisions and react to life with cinematic agility and adventurousness.
I think Nawara tries too hard to make itself seem more interested in the craft of movie-making than in the political event it is about, but the last four minutes reveal that this is not the case. The small number of people in the cinema when we went to see it seemed engaged most of the time until the disappointment of the ending, and that’s not an aftertaste that makes you recommend a movie.
I found two elements of Nawara, a film centered on the revolution from its peripheries, fascinating: its feminist focus and its class commentary.
It follows a naive, sweet-natured and ever-optimistic housekeeper Nawara, whose hard life doesn’t seem to get her down. She lives in a low-income neighborhood, where she and her grandmother share a bathroom with their neighbors and have to fill two containers a day from a distant communal tap because water is cut from houses due to government corruption. She’s married to a Nubian man from her neighborhood, Ali (Amir Salah al-Din), who’s business is down and who can’t get his sick father into a public (or private) hospital — but they’ve never consummated their marriage because they can’t afford an apartment.
Jumping from one form of transport to another, the camera narrates Nawara’s difficult daily route to get to her workplace in a rich, suburban gated community, but also shows reproductions of iconic graffiti from the revolution, protests and radio broadcasts giving people updates on Hosni Mubarak’s assets and so on.
Like Khalil’s first feature, Best of Times (Ahla al-Awqat, 2004), Nawara is almost entirely female centered. Women are the decision makers who propel the story forward, while the male characters are passive. Nawara works for Mubarak-regime parliamentarian Osama (Mahmoud Hemeida) and his socialite wife Shahenda (Sherine Reda), and it’s Shahenda who calls the shots, pushing for the family to escape to London, leading the conversation while he watches an old film on television (My Wife is a General Manager — a woman-driven film from 1966) and takes a dip in the pool. As for Nawara’s in-laws, the father is ill and only whispers one line at the start of the film, while the mother, in spite of her old age and disability, makes decisions for the family. It’s always refreshing to come across stories in which women are not just secondary characters and sex objects.
While there is the classic contrast between Nawara’s crowded, run-down neighborhood and the spacious gated community with its golf courses and pet dogs, Khalil also brings in the middle class in one memorable scene. The heroine is on her way to work, and the street is blocked with protesters. She gets out of her microbus and pushes to the front, demanding that they let traffic through since people have jobs to get to. “We’re doing this for you!” a woman tells her, showing how detached the largely middle-class protesters were from the biting economic woes suffered during and after the revolution.
Casting a Nubian actor as Nawara’s partner also subtly brings in the Nubian struggle and the double standards Nubians face in Egyptian society. After Ali bribes the nurse at the disastrous public hospital to get his father a bed so he doesn’t have to keep sleeping on the floor, she gives it away to someone else. While his ethnicity is not given as the reason, we can read between the lines.
Overall, Nawara does nothing particularly new as a work of cinema, but it still does it well. Its simple plot, likeable characters and commentary on how the poor always end up in the mincer makes it a typical but engrossing melodrama.
Having the habit of focusing most on acting isn’t always good when watching an “independent” film, but Nawara left me pleasantly surprised. Not just because of the exceptional performance of the otherwise commercial-movie actor Menna Shalaby, which won her best actress award at the Dubai Film Festival last year, but also because all the actors are believable — a rare phenomenon in many of the films we see.
Maybe it’s an unfair stereotype that the acting in Egyptian independent films is bad or that you’re always left feeling confused by it, but if it is, then Nawara contributes to breaking it. The actors have rhythm and take comfort in acting naturally. This can actually be attributed to the director as well, who didn’t ask them to overdo it with the drama, and on the well-written foundation of her own script. The characters are layered, with the protagonist having multiple things to fear and think about before taking any action.
There’s one intense scene where Menna Shalaby’s acting is so effortless that she doesn’t even blink like herself — she really seems to channel Nawara’s gestures and tics.
Mahmoud Hemeida always has been and always will be a pro. He fits the rich father, a character ripe for bad acting, perfectly. The scene in which his mood changes from being stubbornly grumpy about fleeing his home to post-dive-in-the-pool calm and interested in Nawara’s opinion is magical. He seems to use the pool as a tool to feel like he will literally always be at home.
Amir Salah al-Din, someone I was happy to just act in the same film with back in 2009, is so subtle when denying Nawara’s accusations at one point that even though I knew the character was lying, I doubted it for a second.
(My opinion of Abbass Aboulhassan’s acting is in parentheses because he is a very scary man and I’m hoping if he does find this article, his eyes will register this as unimportant so he doesn’t read it and kill me in my sleep.)
The one thing that frustrated me a bit was the ending. Nawara ends too quickly, yet you kind of know what’s about to happen. Which brings me to the biggest thing that hit me watching the film — the reality of the chaos that we live in. No one gets to be happy — not the rich, not the poor. Actually, there is one side that is happy: the state. Nawara confronted me with the truth that there is such a long way to go to reach any level of social justice in this country.
Finally, I’m happy that there is yet another female-led film in which the main character doesn’t only worry about her man. You worry with her about all the factors that make her life just plain shitty.