Director: Yousry Nasrallah
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is possible in the most general terms to assign outstanding characteristics to various national cinemas. For example, Swedes seem to excel at introspective films with a fatalistic edge. Czech films tend to be absurd, sardonic, and visually stunning. And though my exposure thus far has been very limited, I’m starting to think of Egyptian cinema as excelling in the use of fables as a storytelling device. Perhaps it is only that Yousry Nasrallah learned at the knee of a master Egyptian fabler, Youssef Chahine, that he was drawn to depicting the political conditions in Egypt, particularly for women, through a modern-day Scheherazade. Whatever the reason, Nasrallah’s beautiful blending of political content and compelling storytelling makes Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story both an entertaining film and one that helps Western viewers understand the recent, courageous protests against government repression that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power.
Hebba (Mona Zaki), the beautiful host of a hard-hitting talk show on one of Egypt’s private television networks, has been married for seven months to Karim (Hassan al Raddad), an ambitious journalist who expects to be promoted to editor-in-chief of the state-owned newspaper where he works. The film opens with Hebba having a frightening dream in which violence silences her voice. She gets up and tries to work her tension off on her treadmill while watching herself grilling a government official on a tape of her show. Karim awakens, remarks jokingly on her vanity at watching herself, and then suggestively offers her another way to relax.
Karim has a problem. The newspaper isn’t happy with Hebba’s criticisms of the government. Fearing his promotion is in danger, Karim assures Hebba that her career is just as important to him, but cajoles her into offering viewers fluff until after he is confirmed. Fearing that this, her second marriage, might fall apart if she doesn’t agree, she decides to concentrate on women’s stories of love. Alas, no matter how hard she tries to find a noncontroversial subject to interview, each of the three women she brings on her show “Dusk to Dawn” highlights the woeful position of women in Egyptian society. Both she and her husband learn that everything is political, even love and marriage, as they reach a horrible crisis in their marriage that provides the climax of the film.
Just like Scheherazade, Nasrallah finds some compelling stories and tells them in such an exuberant way that the 134-minute film virtually flies by. The first story is the most benign, featuring Amany (Sawsan Badr), a 60ish woman who has lived in a mental hospital since she started screaming at a man who proposed marriage to her in a restaurant. To anyone who hadn’t heard the marriage negotiation, she certainly would have seemed crazy, but to us, it is the would-be husband who seems insane. He asks Amany merely to start wearing the veil, give him all her money, cook and clean for him without the maid she is used to, and allow his mother to come live with them to give her orders. In return, she gets a husband. Since he offers her no other tangible benefit than to simply repeat that she gets a husband, Amany rejects him as a lecher who wants to use and rule over her. It’s pretty clear Amany isn’t crazy, she’s simply mad, and has retreated to the hospital, where she is loved and useful, to avoid participating in a society that requires her to give up so much for so little in return.
Amany’s story is a big hit, and Kasim is thrilled with the new direction Hebba is taking. Encouraged by his response and the enthusiastic audience ratings, Hebba decides to track down Safaa (Rihab El Gamal), a woman in her late 30s who is living with the prison guard whom she befriended during her 15-year incarceration for murder. The modestly dressed, quiet Muslim seems an unlikely criminal, but her story is the longest and most compelling of the three.
Following the death of her father, a hardware-store owner, Safaa and her two sisters discuss their inheritance with their uncle. He abdicates his inheritance rights in exchange for maintaining his job managing the store. After three months of this arrangement, the sisters wonder when they will see some profits from the store. Their only worker, Said, says their uncle has been using it to gamble, drink, and take opium. The sisters banish their uncle and start running the store themselves, while paying Said, formerly an unpaid apprentice, as an employee. When they start to long for love and family, they are short on suitors. Reasoning that Said will be good to all of them if he marries one of them, they each begin trying to woo him. He responds to them all with promises of marriage in exchange for sex. When his deception is discovered, Safaa sends her sisters away and takes responsibility, as the eldest, for wreaking vengeance on him for treating them like whores.
This second story does not sit well with Karim or his employers, because it exposes the immorality of the men in her story. Despite Hebba’s protests that she presented a well-known story of love gone horribly wrong, Karim scolds her for not realizing that everything is political. It seems Hebba’s journalistic instincts simply will not be denied, as evidenced again in the third story she chooses to showcase. After seeing a well-dressed woman holding a sign up in the street, Hebba decides she needs to get to know her.
Nahed (Sanaa Akroud) is a dentist from a wealthy, conservative family who is wooed by a well-educated, influential economist. He cannot move in with her until renovations to his villa are complete, but he has a civil marriage with her in front of witnesses to confirm their attachment, and agrees to forestall consummation of the marriage until after the traditional ceremony. Nonetheless, he convinces Nahed, a virgin, to have sex with him—they are legally married after all—and succeeds in impregnating her. When he says he cannot be the father because he is sterile, he accuses her of adultery and tries to extort $3 million from her family in reparations. She finds this is his modus operandi for maintaining his plush lifestyle and finds his previous wife—actually an Egyptian who has a child by him—to testify in her divorce proceedings. But when he is appointed to an important government post, Nahed decides to protest, reasoning that a government that will do business with crooks is crooked itself. This story is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back and reveals Karim to be just as oppressive as the other men in the film.
The fact that each story can be summed up easily shows how self-contained and direct they are. Likewise the characters tend to be types, as is the custom and strength of fable in offering home truths. This is not to say that the acting is one-dimensional. Many of the women in this film, particularly Akroud, El Gamal, and Badr, invest their characters with hopes, anger, and disappointment. I particularly liked El Gamal’s uncontrollable rage in a brutal murder scene that felt earned but that signaled her own destruction, and Nahed’s crestfallen betrayal at her husband’s deception and her simple, courageous protest conducted like the intelligent lady she was raised to be.
Zaki does not lend particular nuance to Hebba, whose story stands as a reverse of Scheherazade’s own tale of begging a night’s reprieve from death with each story. Hebba is eliciting an opposite response, endangering her own well-being the more stories she reveals. The outcome of her telling is more in doubt as well. While Scheherazade slowly allowed her murder-minded husband to understand the worth of women as he came to admire her ingenuity and storytelling abilities, and absorb the morals of many of her stories, it is not clear that Hebba and her subjects will have the same effect on viewers of Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story. Describing injustices to women offers awareness, but it seems these days that awareness is the end of the road of righting many wrongs. Nonetheless, Nasrallah was cagey in setting his “1,001 Nights” on an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show, in which the juxtaposition of Hebba and her interviewee on a background screen gives visual reality to Oprah’s theme “I’m Every Woman.”
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is a superior melodrama full of intrigue, sudden violence, and knowing humor that I found exhilarating and the hubby found very moving and shame-inducing. I highly recommend this wonderful film with a message.