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Director takes on corruption in Egypt

January 30, 2008|Noha El-Hennawy | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO -- "Here there is only one law; it is Hatem's law," the voice of a police patrolman echoed across prison cells packed with political activists who dare to protest their illegal detention.

This is one of the most telling scenes of the newly released feature film "Heya Fawda" or "Chaos," which has elicited a storm of controversy over its ruthless critique of the police establishment in a state where the guardian of the ruling regime is believed to be the iron fist of the security apparatus rather than genuinely politically legitimate. While exploring the most notorious extrajudicial practices of the police, the movie explicitly condemns the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

"I believe that we live our worst days," says Khaled Youssef, the movie's co-director. "We have been awaiting, hands tied for more than 30 years, the hero who would save us from the conditions under which we have been living. Things move from worse to worst on all social, economic and political levels."

The Egyptian-French production features Hatem, a corrupt policeman in one of Cairo's most populated neighborhoods. Despite his relatively low rank, Hatem has garnered an unprecedented leverage that enables him to detain political prisoners without charges, torture detainees, release criminals, all with the blessings of his superiors. Raising the slogan "Whoever is not loyal to Hatem is not loyal to Egypt," the policeman establishes himself as the center of power and earns the envy of the neighborhood.

Nour, a beautiful young woman who lives on Hatem's floor, emerges as his Achilles' heel. He's mad about her, but she prefers the neighborhood prosecutor, Sherif. When Nour and Sherif become engaged, Hatem exacts his revenge. The movie reaches its climax when he abducts and rapes the young woman.

Yet the most incendiary tip of the movie lies in the denouement, during which the neighbors break their silence by attacking the police station.

Youssef, who is not shy about his revolutionary leanings, admits his aim is to incite revolt. "We want the people to act and work on getting their rights back. This is what we dream of, and we hope not to be deluded in that," Youssef says. "I believe in the masses, and the minute I lose faith in them, I will commit suicide. Betting on the masses is the only option left, and I don't think there is any other option."

"Chaos," a popular, much-written-about movie here, stars a bunch of young talents, including featured stars and a few new faces. The movie has made its way outside Egypt, screening at the Venice and London film festivals last fall.

Youssef, an engineer by training, has only a handful of films to his credit but has established himself as an auteur of politically controversial films. Shortly after the release of "Chaos," which he co-directed with his mentor, veteran director Youssef Chahine, Youssef surprised his audience with "Heen Maysara" (an Arabic expression meaning "When things improve").

"When Things Improve" was no less explosive. The film focuses on the dehumanizing conditions in the slums on the fringes of Cairo. It has shocked Egyptian society by shedding light on different deviant practices that prevail in poor areas, including sexual perversion and religious extremism.

Youssef contends the movie is a warning that the disenfranchised pose an imminent threat to an entire nation. "Those people have no shelter, no food, no source of living, no potable water and live in the middle of Cairo, where the very few have billions and billions" of Egyptian pounds, the 46-year-old director says. "If those people remain under pressure, they will explode and put the whole country under threat."

Who's to blame? "Chaos" provides an equivocal answer. In fact, the movie is upfront in condemning Mubarak's National Democratic Party for Egypt's social and political malaise. "You have been imposing yourselves on us for 24 years. What else do you want?" one of the leading characters yells at an NDP parliamentary hopeful while tearing the candidate's campaign posters off the walls.

The movie indirectly mocks the president's son, Gamal, who many believe is being groomed to succeed his 79-year-old father. "Chaos" features the spoiled daughter of a senior politician who belongs to Gamal Mubarak's camp in the ruling party. Sylvia is a brat who has deviated drastically from the conservative norms of her society, indulging in drug use and extramarital sex, with no protest from her father.

Given its ruthless political content, the movie was not easily approved by the government censor. Prompted by scenes of torture, prison cells and of people attacking the police, censors wanted to cut 30 minutes from the 125-minute movie, Youssef recounts. "They wanted almost to cut the whole movie out," he says. "I refused to take out any shot that I felt would affect the movie and asked them to ban the whole movie instead."

By taking this position, Youssef believes he backed the government into a corner and ultimately won.

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