"Cut & Paste" A Woman's Place is Behind the Camera By Safaa Elaisy Haggag
There were three Egyptian films in the international competition at the 2006 Cairo International Film Festival, but this does not mean that Egyptian film is ready to compete on the international level. Only Hala Khalil’s Cut & Paste (Qass We Lask) truly deserved to be included; the other two films are really primitive, naive.
With the lifting of governmental restrictions, it’s left to producers and distributors to steer Egypt’s film industry to new glories. But the title of Khalid El-Hagar’s None But That! (Mafeesh Gher Keda!) seems to sum it up: He’s speaking about himself, and his inability to do anything new. This is depressing, because he made a strong debut with Little Dreams (Ahlam Saghira), about his youth during the Six-Day War. And Emad El-Bahat’s Hide and Seek (Ostogomaia) is a perfect example of a half-wit trying very hard to communicate great ideas he doesn’t actually understand. (It turns out that being Youssef Chahine’s assistant does not necessarily guarantee that one will be able to direct a decent film on one’s own.)
When the success of Hani Khalifa’s Sleepless Nights (Sahar El Layaly) seemed to point the way to a new model for Egyptian cinema, producers immediately tried to make all their films conform to it. Constructed from trends in recent American and French cinema, this Egyptian New Wave concerns itself almost exclusively with relationships between men and women, with no acknowledgement of their social realities; the characters have a high standard of living, well beyond the reach of most Egyptians.
Hala Khalil, on the other hand, seems determined to pursue her own vision; like the Egyptian neo-realists who came before her, her cinema is one committed to social stories. Her second film, Cut & Paste, is a throwback to the 1980s work of Khan, Dowd and Khairy; at Cairo, it was recognized with the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for a director’s best second feature, and shared the Ministry of Culture’s award for Best Arabic film with the Algerian Barakat, directed by Djamili Sahraoui.
Khalil’s first film, The Best of Times (Ahla al Awqat), was an intriguing work of woman’s cinema, if not a feminist film: Khalil and her co-writer Wessam Seliman told their story in a manner no male writer could have accomplished, with each of the film’s three leads seeking happiness in her own way.
With her second film, Cut & Paste, Khalil takes full control, writing a simple story about an independent woman, Gamila (Hanan Turk), who wants to create her own life in a new country. But travel requires a husband, which leads her to meet Youssef (Sherif Munir), who wants to move out of his family home so that his eldest brother can live in it with his new bride. Gamila’s arrangement with Youssef is strictly for a paper marriage… but as formula demands (and audiences expect), they fall in love, stay in Egypt and forget about immigration.
The script folds in both romantic drama and social realism, and if Khalil can’t break free of the Egyptian formula of songs, comedy and melodrama, at least she struggles to subvert it. Cut & Paste offers realistic characters drawn with convincing emotional notes; consider the relationships between Youssef and his brother, and between Gamila and her mother. Fathers are always missing, either due to death or divorce, which means the characters have to be strong enough to survive without a patriarch; in one key scene, Gamila and her mother take turns trying on a dress, two women encouraging one another to be vital and relevant.
Cut & Paste is not quite revolutionary; it’s still a conventional work, a “film Masry”, perhaps too reliant on expository dialogue to make sure we understand the story: An early scene in which Youssef is shown preparing a fried-fish lunch is underlined, unnecessarily, by his brother’s later comment to Gamila that Youssef has their late mother’s gift for cooking. The late, great director Salah Abu Saif famously told his students never to treat the audience as if it was stupid; Khalil does make that mistake, but Cut & Paste still stands head and shoulders above its competition.