Saturday, March 12, 2011

Scheherazade Tell Me a Story (aka Women of Cairo) [2009]

MPAA (not rated) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb Listing -

I had actually planned to see another movie this evening but the time had not worked out. And while scanning through the movie listings, I came across the 2009 Egyptian movie Scheherazade Tell Me a Story (aka Women of Cairo), written by Wahid Hamid and directed by Yousry Nasrallah, playing at a more convenient time at Facet’s Multimedia on Fullerton St here in Chicago.

This January-February, Egypt captured the imagination of the world with its bringing down of the much despised regime of Hosni Mubarak. Further, the reference to Scheherazade in the movie’s title (Scheherazade was the woman character around whose storytelling abilities The 1001 Arabian Nights were built) even as the movie summary promised a modern reworking of the story immediately caught my attention. Finally, during this winter’s Egyptian Revolution both the role of women in Egypt's revolution as well as their particular struggle against endemic sexual harrassment was covered by the press. As such, I came to Facet’s Multimedia wondering what I would see. And the film did not disappoint. I found it to be a compelling and often surprising film.

Indeed, Scheherazade Tell me a Story immediately reminded me of the Czech movies (esp. Loves of Blonde and Fireman’s Ball) of the mid-1960s made in the period immediately preceeding the Prague Spring in a political climate not altogether different from that of the closing years of Egypt Mubarak regime. A corrupt and widely discredited regime was collapsing and people, especially artists, were dreaming.

Scheherazade Tell Me a Story also reminded me of the 2001 Indian film Monsoon Wedding which presented India to the world as a vibrant modern society, capable of not only addressing but contributing to the discussion of the major social issues facing the world of our time. Scheherazade Tell Me a Story also presents a thoroughly modern face of Egypt (without denying the other parts of Egypt as well) that _honestly surprised me_ and probably would surprise most Americans.

The conflict between modernity and traditionalism as well as the sclerosis of a regime that had outlived any usefulness formed the backdrop to the story.

The film’s principal characters, Hemma and Karim, played by Egyptian actors Mona Zaki and Hassan El Raddad respectively, are young successful Egyptian yuppie journalists living in a swanky apartment in Cairo. Karim finds out early in the movie that he could be made editor in chief of one of Cairo’s (government run) newspapers if only he could encourage his wife, Hemma, to steer her television talk show away from "political" topics like corruption or even poverty. Young, spritely, optimistic 30-something Hemma who’s in her second marriage (did you know that could be possible in Egypt? I did not) reminds Karim that when they got married they had promised each other not to interfere in each other’s careers. Nevertheless, to not cause her husband needless problems, she decides to take her show in a direction that appeared to both her and Karim to be safe: She decides to simply do a series of shows on women’s lives. Both she and her husband quickly discover that truly _everything_ is political.

The movie proceeds with three Egyptian women from widely varied sections of Egyptian society (veiled and unveiled, from among the rich, poor and middle class) telling their stories on Hemma’s television program, each story becoming more compelling and more dangerous than the previous. The stories are not pleasant, and burrow into male-female relational issues that make the incompetence and corruption of Mubarak’s regime beside the point. (Perhaps this is why the movie was even allowed to be made, because it appears to have been filmed in Egypt).

It is here that director Nasrallah’s invocation of Scheherazade becomes truly fascinating and pointed. In the 1001 Arabian Nights, Scheherazade was a woman who was able to survive solely by her wits through her ability to tell stories to her husband/king that would entertain and distract him enough to want to keep her alive. On one level, all the journalists in the film were similarly dancing and spinning tales that kept them both honest with themselves and out of trouble with the authorities. But in particular, it was the women who lived in situations where the society’s rules were just horribly stacked against them.

One hopes that with the fall of the Mubarak regime and brave film-making/story-telling such as this, today’s Sheherazades will not merely spin tales to stay alive but be able to continue to now tell things as they are so that the conditions of women in the Middle East will improve.

A final note, while Scheherazade Tell Us a Story presents difficult/painful themes and in a few instances the movie shows more blood than an American would be comfortable with, one of the remarkable features of this movie is actually _how gently funny_ it often is.  It touches some very big problems, but does so in a surprisingly light/gentle if still pointed way.

So while the movie does focus on the difficulties of women in Egypt's society, I would recommend this movie to anyone (especially a younger college aged/young adult audience) who'd be interested about learning more about Egypt today and its recent history/problems.

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