An artistically lacking film at a morally lacking moment: The problematic rhetoric of ‘Gunshot’

I went to see Gunshot with a measure of apprehensiveness. Many had vehemently criticized the film, directed by Karim El Shennawy and written by Haitham Dabbour, after its first screening at the 2018 edition of the Gouna Film Festival. The principle criticism was that it adopted the state’s narrative in regard to the killing of protesters during the January 25 revolution. For others, meanwhile, its portrayal of a young man’s death in mysterious circumstances during one of the revolution’s clashes did not necessarily mean that the film was reinforcing a narrative, either absolving or implicating security forces, at that particular moment.

I was, however, excited at the prospect of watching (and, later, discussing) an unconventional story, one that I thought would perhaps involve a critical revision of the grand narratives surrounding the revolution, which have more often than not presented an excessively glorified, overly poetic image of this momentous event. I, for one, find it essential to deconstruct and reconsider such depictions, primarily out of my total entanglement with January 25 — not flat, idealized portrayals of it, but rather the reality of it being a complex, raging battle, the effect of which remains wholly present, despite its resumption no longer being possible.

Sufficient awareness of the intricate, multifaceted nature of the revolution is an essential condition for seriously engaging with it, or internalizing its values without having a naïve belief in the purity of everyone involved and the sanctity of everything that transpired. This is why I was inclined to defend the filmmakers’ right to convey a well-crafted, entertaining story, one that doesn’t necessarily include a dissection of the events, but rather zooms in on one particularly intriguing incident that took place on the margins of the revolution.

The story revolves around a murdered young man, Khaled (Ahmed Malek), who has been dubbed a martyr by his friends and media outlets. But a postmortem report released by a forensic doctor named Yassin al-Manesterly (Ahmed al-Fishawy) disputes this claim, by stating that the fatal shot was delivered from a locally made firearm — not in use by the police forces — and aimed at very close range. Meanwhile, Maha (Ruby), a dedicated journalist, manages to get a copy of the report, which creates a public outcry upon being published. When Yassin is accused of falsifying facts and conspiring with security forces, Maha joins him on his quest for further evidence to back up the claims in his report.

The film starts on a promising note, with strong performances from the lead actors. The colors and compositions relay an atmosphere of uncertainty and a cool air of mystery against an inflamed backdrop: clashes between protesters and security forces in the vicinity of the Ministry of Interior towards the end of 2011, amid political tensions under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as the country prepared for the first parliamentary elections to take place post-revolution.

This inflamed backdrop promptly fades out of view, however. The violent clashes, the political and social debates, the hopes, disappointments and tension — all of this completely disappears from the film, with the exception of two vague and very short scenes of protest, and a perfunctory allusion to the elections. The characters in this thriller appear to be detached from the ongoing struggle, the dialogue between them barely touching upon it.

This is mostly manifested in the dilemma of the forensic report. By eliding the political context of the controversy, it simply devolves into a personal problem. The doctor finds himself in a predicament with the head of the morgue where he works (Safaa El Toukhy), as well as the victim’s family members: his mother (Arfa Abdel Rassoul), his brother (Mohamed Mamdouh), and his fiancee (Asmaa Aboul Yazeed), while the journalist is in trouble with her editor-in-chief (Samy Maghawry).

It is difficult to determine whether toning down the political component was an artistic choice or a prerequisite to the film being granted production rights or censorial approval. The word “revolution” is not once mentioned in the film, but the forensic doctor refers to one of the victim’s friends as a “revolutionary.” This “revolutionary,” of course, speaks heatedly when it comes to blood and martyrs, but the only time the conversation switches to the reasons behind the protests, he is suddenly calmer and his tone becomes that of a neutral news anchor, referring to the unrest as “a transitional phase,” without referring at all to SCAF, which was in ruling at the time.

Perhaps such a representation reflects the filmmakers’ desire to distance themselves from any controversy the film could generate by addressing the revolution or expressing a definite opinion towards it, and perhaps such an approach was the only way they could make their film. In all cases, it strips the film of all political context, turning it into a mere mystery thriller that questions the notion of “truth,” and the many ways it can be construed.  

The revolution is not completely absent, but rather makes a pale appearance, providing a measure of defanged, distorted context through some incredibly shallow, unconvincing, reductive scenes. The aforementioned activist friend of the victim is a miserable, opportunistic idiot. In fact, the screenplay goes to great lengths to emphasize his impudence and brazen rashness. His conviction that his friend did indeed die a martyr is portrayed as an unfounded belief in something he did not actually witness, and a guise for covering his desire to make some money or garner some attention, by setting up TV interviews with the family of his deceased friend.

In all the scenes depicting protests, revolutionary chants are muffled. None can be clearly heard except for one that comes off as rather insipid and contrived: “The report is invalid! Forensic medicine is invalid!” These words are presumably shouted to intimidate the doctor, who seems to be absolutely indifferent towards everything but the truth of his report, of which he is entirely confident — so much so that he is unafraid to physically face the angry crowd gathering in front of the morgue, chanting against him, chanting against “the truth.” The media, meanwhile, is shown to be torn between a duty to report the truth, and a need to cater to the popular mood, at a moment where the revolution held sway while the state was in relative retreat. Throughout the film, we hear several references to “news that the people would want to believe,” both by the doctor and the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

The above examples make the decision to maintain a distance from the revolution — assuming it was an artistic one — seem rather muddled. If it were, however, an imposed choice, then the inclusion of such poorly executed denigrations of the revolution makes perfect sense.

Anyone currently working in the film industry or any other field involving content creation in Egypt is well aware of the many production and distribution hurdles the filmmakers would have faced had they set out to make a serious work, presenting a minimally convincing depiction of its setting — complete with the politically charged discussions that were the people’s daily bread at the time — or to present a diverse, somewhat balanced portrayal of activists or the revolution’s supporters and detractors. They, however, opted to make a “lacking” film, selective in regard to which parts of the picture it shows, because this is the limit of what they can do right now.

Setting aside the revolution and all big ideas about truth and the socio-political context, what starts off as a story brimming with mystery and suspense is eventually reduced into a caricaturish attempt at playing detective. The doctor parks himself daily at a coffee shop facing the victim’s house, trailing his brother and fiancee, whose comings and goings immediately reveal crucial details in the case. He then visits the victim’s mother, claiming to be an electricity inspector, before she lets him in and heads back into the kitchen, leaving him alone in the foyer. He proceeds to roam around at his ease, as though it were his own mother’s house. Rather conveniently, he stumbles upon the victim’s mobile phone on the dining table, and quickly slips it into his pocket before the mother can see him. The phone ends up providing a major clue to solving the mystery — of course.

The case is resolved near the end of the film, when the doctor, this time accompanied by the journalist, heads once again to the mother’s house, to find all concerned parties — once again, rather conveniently — gathered there. They both confront them with their suspicions, adding some threats, until they all break down and finally confess ”the truth.”

The filmmakers could have left more room for doubt around this “truth,” but chose to make it the key that opens up a clear, indisputable solution to the mystery. The victim — made out to be an idealistic revolutionary, a martyr — turns out to be a criminal, one who had physically abused his own mother. His killer, on the other hand, had only been trying to get him off the path of wrongdoing, and had not actually intended to murder him. He kills him by mistake, or because he had no other choice. He then participates in commemorating him as a martyr and defends this portrayal, using his death — after which his life vastly improves — to his advantage. The mother, who also participates in keeping this truth from the public, addresses a melodramatic plea to the camera, after the case is finally cracked: “I pray to God to have mercy on them both.”

The film’s disappointing finale is so mediocre it doesn’t encourage any serious discussion about the revolution or the truth; nor does it work as a decent conclusion to a mystery story. It starts off well enough, like many other works, but in the end comes off as patronizing and shallow. The filmmakers throw around phrases like “the many facets of the truth” and “the whole picture” while their story and their camera aren’t allowed to capture a minimally acceptable image of its protagonists’ conflicts, which take place in the context of a raging revolution. Gunshot makes the smug claim of distancing itself from engaging with the many narratives around January 25, but in doing so actually gives room to the most derogatory of these narratives in the most superficial, flagrant manner possible, all under the flimsy guise of so-called courage.

If anything, this film offers the opportunity to critique the film industry at this pathetic juncture. Rather than confront the bigger event, it hums and haws around issues distantly related to it, and ironically does little more than rehash the same ideas, serving only to sum up the moral and artistic conundrum of the moment. The film’s dialogue is filled with clichéd statements about the harsh truths we often prefer to ignore, out of a desire for sympathy and in the face of the temptation of financial gain, while logic could apply the same paradigm to the filmmakers’ decision not to engage with the more pressing aspects of the revolution to create a solid, nuanced portrayal of it. After all, in the current political climate, the attempt to create such a representation could incur dire consequences for anyone who comes close.

The film paints a crude portrait of the “activist,” opportunistically latching on to the idea of passing his friend off as a martyr and pushing for a fake coroner’s report because it creates the perfect opportunity to incite people against security forces and the state. The filmmakers are, in fact, guilty of the same thing. They use the intriguing premise of the film — unveiling the truth behind the murder of one of the revolution’s martyrs — to promote Gunshot as a suspenseful thriller bound to generate controversy around “what actually happened during the revolution,” when they don’t have the slightest interest in approaching “the truth” with any measure of seriousness.

The film implicitly critiques the limits of what was permissible to discuss during the days of the revolution’s victory, that it was only acceptable to celebrate martyrs and praise the way they had lived before their deaths because this was what suited the people’s mood at the time, rather than revealing truths nobody wanted to hear. Meanwhile, the film itself is a prime example of sticking to what is permissible right now, at the peak of the revolution’s defeat, when its supporters are being punished left and right, their narratives being destroyed. Now the permitted narrative is that police officers were often innocent of killing protesters, ministers accused of corruption — like Yassin’s father — were often actually honest men, activists and revolutionaries are nothing but angry youth, railing against “the truth” and any attempts to reveal it.  

The filmmakers make use of today’s limits — guaranteeing the support of producers and censors alike — to reach an audience that is eager for a chance to critique the revolution, claiming to offer “the other side of the story.” Their film ends up becoming a product that negates the message it so noisily claims to defend: a story that conveniently picks a single side of “the truth” to show, and that is so obviously severed from its immediate context, except in those instances where it faintly appears in the form of tired plot or character tropes. A story that lacks in artistry what our current moment lacks in morality.


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