Hepta: Do you need to learn how to love?

In Egyptian dialect we have an infamous term that has many uses. “Mohn” sounds like it comes from the classical Arabic root “mihnah” which means ordeal, distress or a difficult test. This root found its way to link itself to sexual desire, specifically female sexual desire. I guess the deprivation one suffers — especially if one is female — in a conservative society like the majority of Arabic-speaking societies has made desire a distressing test people must go through.

The word has evolved to have a very different usage in modern-day Egypt. The combination of weakness one shows when suffering unfulfilled sexual desires — or maybe just loneliness and the need for some affection — and the efforts one makes to gain others’ affection or trust forces one to put on a very distinctive manipulative persona. This is referred to as  “mamhoun” or “mamhouna,” regardless of whether the communication in question is about sex or not, revealing how sexual desire and longing for intimacy is frowned upon and labelled mohn in a way that only incites more of the same.

Because of these factors and many others, romance in a country like Egypt has been pushed toward a very complex area where tons of completely normal human feelings are covered, suppressed, confused and underdeveloped to the extent that discussing them can almost only happen in the form of a very long lecture in a movie that made LE10 million in its first week in cinemas.

The success of Hady al-Bagoury’s third film, Hepta: The Last Lecture, has shocked many people — especially as it’s not cinema season and it’s not your typical blockbuster with all the requisite sex, violence and laughs. The novel from which it’s adapted (by scriptwriter Wael Hamdy), Mohamed Sadek’s first successful novel after two that didn’t really get that much attention, is considered “teenage literature” by many literary types. There are always going to be successful movies about love stories — actually almost all successful movies are about love one way or another — and there’s so much teenage literature being made all the time, so why does this one stand out so much?

The success of Hebta reminds me of the success of Sahar al-Layaly (Sleepless Nights) written by Tamir Habib and directed by Hany Khalifa in 2003. Sleepless Nights also achieved immediate, unexpected success and a lot of people talked about how it was an outstanding anatomy of romantic love in Egyptian society. It seemed to have an interest in the psychological, social and personal traits that connect a group of friends during a critical moment they’re all going through at the same time. As well as being remarkably well-made for the beleaguered condition of the industry, it made itself easily distinguishable from ordinary commercial romantic movies by adding what I call “the uncomfortable factor”: the authenticity of the characters’ problems — the kind of authenticity the filmmaker probably mines out of personal experiences and memories buried deep down where no one wants to go or look — made it very realistic and thus relatable to a wide audience.

That’s where Sleepless Nights’ courage came from and I reckon that’s what the audience appreciate, in a romance, in a drama, in a comedy, in everything. The fact that the creators had the courage to reveal a part of themselves, what their lives were like when you weren’t there, and face the world with it. Other examples include actor Mohamed Heneidy making jokes about his (low) height, actor Mohamed Saad reincarnating characters that seem inspired by people he grew up with in the poorest of Egypt’s neighborhoods, or the people behind Hebta taking the risk of writing down what they think love is about regardless of how silly that might sound to many people.

And Hepta is very silly in lots of ways. The idea of a movie about a nice middle-aged intellectual giving a lecture at Cairo University about love is silly. The fact that this man is preaching like a patriarch at everybody else from his big fancy armchair on a stage — and the fact that the only time his authority is challenged by a younger man he wins — is silly, especially in a society where people are being preached at all the time about everything and the authority of older people on big chairs is not as challenged as it should be at all. The childish astonishment on people’s faces as they listen to him is silly and in my opinion this dynamic is the reason why there are so many problems in societies like Egypt’s.

Also, the whole movie is supposed to be about “the seven stages of love” — the middle-aged intellectual has this seven-stage theory, which he dubs “Hepta” — but it’s actually about four men in love, and ultimately just one man in love. We watch the dramatic lines of four romantic relationships developing, in which men are central to the events, doing everything, and women are mainly just on the receiving end. I understand that it’s the author’s choice to choose where to put his focus and it’s totally fine to make a movie about a man’s love life or men’s love lives if you want. I also understand that there’s a plot twist that makes the central male role in each story crucial. But when the premise is an exploration of the meaning of love but most of what we see is a clever man talking about the love lives of men, a certain level of isolation is sensed, an isolation that makes his omni-knowledge of how love works very fragile because it appears as self-centred and male-based.

The first shock comes one minute into the film, when the intellectual says something about love as a general feeling then follows with something along the lines of: “We all need a tender woman to help endure life’s blah blah blah.” Despite thinking of itself as a good-intentioned delicate flirtation, this sentence carries inside it the seed of the problematic relationship between men and women the world over, when romantic relationships are seen in isolation (as they are in this film) from the unjust distribution of rights and privileges among men and women.

Even though Hepta is not my cup of tea, and I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it, I did enjoy it more than I expected. I was pretty entertained by the four stories and their details, especially the first half. The differences between the characters are well-defined and competently acted by the large cast, and I thought of people I know who they reminded me of. I’m pleased that the movie was made with an intention to encourage people to fall in love and accept its pains and learn from them. I’m pleased that despite its mohn the movie challenges traditions and values that oppress such normal feelings. I’m pleased also that the movie seems to truly believe that life is great and encourages people to enjoy it at a time when a lot of Egyptians are feeling rather depressed and pessimistic about their future. I’m pleased it met with commercial success and that a lot of people want to spend money on a movie that talks to instincts other than fear, competition and exploitation.

My happiness that this movie was made overcomes my disappointment in it. I hope it will inspire more filmmakers to explore the world of amazing literature that Arabic civilization lies upon to try and find in it a combination that leads to something new, something that inspires people to challenge their oppressors without playing similar patriarchal roles.


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