Sherif Arafa is an Egyptian film director with an interesting career. His persona as a director — as reflected through his choices — has shifted many times, in a way that’s very telling of Egypt’s cultural scene and the functions filmmakers have to find for their talents in its heavily politicized reality. His work jumped from a bizarre experimental arty start, with films like Al-Aqzam Qadimoon (The Dwarfs are Coming, 1986) and Samaa Hoss (Listen Up, 1991) to shallow over-budgeted action blockbusters like Mafia (2002) and Al-Gezira (The Island, 2007). Then there is a major checkpoint in the middle, consisting of five collaborations (1992-1996) with megastar Adel Imam and prominent writer Waheed Hamid — a streak of well-crafted, politically engaged and commercially successful films that probably made the three legends who they are now.
After many years of meaningless and boring films, this Eid, Arafa introduced the audience to the first of his Al-Kenz (The Treasure) trilogy. Episode one is a gigantic collage of three stories happening in various eras of Egypt’s history, an epic that must seem like a dream come true to such a director. Arafa has always had an interest in cinema’s entertaining and fantastical side, and almost all his movies have shown huge ambition and a strong will to push the boundaries of what Egypt’s film industry can provide. He has figured out ways to make himself capable of doing that — whatever it takes: if money was an issue, his ads and TV production company Partner Pro was a good agent in the middle of the financing process, if a good connection with the government was a key to being able to film in Cairo’s best shooting locations, a bit of propaganda work for them is not a compromise too big for him.
Arafa is hated by many lefty and opposition artists and seen as an embodiment of what’s known as “artistic pimpery,” which is the term Egyptians use to describe cultural producers’ efforts to beautify the face of the regime for personal interests or to get themselves the security they need. Arafa’s work has always combined superficial criticism of the government with open support for its war with its eternal competitors for power, the Islamists. This might be a reflection of Arafa’s personal beliefs, and those of Waheed Hamid and Adel Imam and many other Egyptians who do believe that a military regime’s hell is better than any alternative’s heaven, but judging the sincerity of these opinions seems to have no point now, especially in light of Arafa’s latest three-hour offering.
The poster says Arafa wrote the story for The Treasure, and Abdel Rahim Kamal wrote the script and dialogue. Before the movie starts, a sentence on a black screen reads: “This movie is inspired by truth and myth without committing to any of them,” which is perhaps appropriate for the bullshit that ensues. A few minutes in we’re made to understand that we’ll be watching a not very famous actor playing a young man coming back to Egypt to sell his family’s old feudalist mansion, but to his and our surprise he finds a hidden stash of documents telling his ancestors’ epic stories. He falls into dazzled bewilderment reflected through his ridiculously colorful 1970s-style trousers as he struggles to decide: Should I stay or should I sell the house and get the hell out of here, out of this film?
So at the core of the film there’s a pure nationalist message: that Egypt is the treasure, and the young man’s search for reasons to love it is Arafa’s suggestion to the viewer. All three parallel stories also include some recurrent battle with a form of authority-related injustice: a high-ranking merciless police tyrant in 1940s Egypt with a funny mustache, a ferocious pharaonic queen with blind ambition and a silly wig, and a random evil man in synthetic medieval clothes who wants to do bad stuff all the time. In sum, various types of injustice and facial hair that Arafa seems to think have always been present in Egypt’s history and influential of its fate.
The idea is that both evil and greatness have always existed and both have always incited heroism and bravery, alongside some other bits of wisdom on chasing dreams and stuff like that. I find it a childish and superficial approach to a complicated history and an un-inspiring take on humanity and the meaning of life, but if that’s how Arafa sees the world that’s fine. What I find frustrating is that this film is meant to be our film industry’s current top production, the one with the most support and facilitation, investment and heart, but it speaks to us of who we’re meant to be and how we’re supposed to think about the unjust reality we live in, in language that would suit a six-year-old kid. The Treasure assumes that our intelligence is incapable of processing the true complexity of a political game Arafa that knows very well and has been very close to the center of.
What’s more, its script is badly written. One of the three historical parallel stories evolves too slowly, that of 1940s police officer Beshr (star comedian Mohamed Saad in his first non-comedic role, a performance that has been acclaimed just for not being too funny). For Beshr, nothing important happens in the film’s first two thirds, until a female singer appears and he has feelings all of a sudden. Saad has to make a noticeable effort to not make us think of all the obnoxious characters he has played in commercial comedies, because Beshr’s character surpasses them in shallowness. Another storyline evolves too quickly: in every scene featuring Hatshepsut (Hend Sabry) a major change happens and politics gets increasingly complex, in a desperate attempt to make the set look like Ancient Egypt rather than a poor replica of Ancient Egypt in a Dubai mall. The main story that’s supposed to tie the three historical lines together doesn’t evolve at all.
Additional characters appear suddenly to give heroes’ personal stories missing depth, like the late and unproductive appearance of Zeinab (played by Ruby, the beloved diva whose presence in the film seems to have been decided before the story was written). The characters’ struggles often — probably deliberately — make no sense or are impossible to relate to, like the dramatic compromise of Beshr’s brother, which doesn’t really feel like a compromise at all, or Hatshepsut’s forbidden love for a sweet-tongued mortal peasant, a subplot that generates a hilarious stream of flirtation lines that will supply meme weavers for a long time to come. Overall, the dialogue is as pretentious as possible, with every sentence rhyming and metaphor-stuffed, in the hopes that this will give the film a classical epicness or give the audience the impression that they’re watching Game of Thrones.
The camera does nothing but chase the actors’ awkward movements between the never-ending, redundant chapters. The excessive use of colorful clothes and sets fail to enliven the flat compositions and cinematography. The actors mostly stand or sit amid cheesy cartoonish versions of architecture or clothing styles of the era they’re meant to be in. And the soundtrack is a mishmash of successful melodies recently heard in Hollywood blockbusters.
In general, The Treasure seems to be a quite arbitrary and poorly executed attempt to sew together bits and pieces of what Arafa’s life experience has taught him about human feelings, art and what people enjoy watching on a big screen. But it’s also an insult to Egypt, a film made by a group of so-called intellectuals who made a very shallow hole in their country’s history, picked out some exotic aesthetics and tales, and patched them together using a lot of cheap labor to create something people can have a relationship with no deeper than that people have with fake pharaonic papyrus or Islamic phrases on tacky pottery. It’s a exotic film that may appeal to the Saudi tourists who seem to be filling Egypt’s cinemas nowadays, which is fortunate because Egypt has a long and funny history but Egyptians don’t have money to go watch a film about it right now.
For a different take on The Treasure, see here.