Can a film lead to a revolution? The question crossed my mind after I watched Hiyya Fawda? (Is it a Mess?) written by Nasser Abdel-Rahman and jointly directed by Youssef Shahine and Khaled Youssef. The main reason for the question lies with the State censorship insisting on adding a question mark to the title of the film and thus varying the entire implication of the phrase. The original name was Hiyya Fawdda (It’s a Mess), which was meant to reflect a state of real chaos befalling the nation. However, by adding the question mark, the idea was changed into questioning the fact. The censorship also insisting on modifying several scenes and muting the sound in others; this was done in a very primitive way that involved the actual scratching of the film, which was very obvious to the viewers. It induced the feeling that Egypt was still entrapped in the old ‘Big Brother’ policies of the Nasser and Sadat eras of the 1950s to 1970s.
Two sides to the coin
The film began with a precautionary message that it respects the role of the police and that the protagonist represents himself alone and no one else.
The main character is the tyrannical police officer Hatem, ably played by Khaled Saleh, whose character is deeply complex. People greatly fear him to the point of paying him tribute to avoid being trampled by his wicked schemes. Hatem sees himself the incarnation of Egypt’s law and gives himself the right to torture prisoners in secret cells and force them to recite meekly, “Those who are not devoted to Hatem, are not devoted to Egypt”.
The other side of the coin to all Hatem’s cruelty and oppression is his feverish passion for his lovely neighbour Nour, played with fervour by the beautiful Menna Shalabi. Nour does not reciprocate Hatem’s love, which drives him madly to ask for the help of Sheikhs and even visit the famous St Teresa’s church to ask for her intercession to make Nour love him. But Nour is not only cold to Hatem’s advances, she is also in love with the young prosecutor Sherif who is very dedicated in his work but, in his private life, he flirts with a reckless girl. Sherif’s character is realistic enough since he is not portrayed as the squeaky-clean, pure hero. He later gets emotionally involved with Nour, thus arousing Hatem’s bitter jealousy. The conflict between tyranny represented by Hatem, and justice represented by Sherif, is transformed into a private conflict over the love of a woman. The argument between both characters was seen by censorship quite suspicious and was subject to cutting.
The conflict peaks when Hatem, in despair of Nour’s love, rapes her in revenge. Veteran actress Hala Fakher as Nour’s mother was unforgettable in her agonising disbelief when she receives her daughter home after the rape incident, wretched, shattered, with blood all over her clothes. Hatem’s colleagues collaborate to hide his crime, certifying that he had been in an official errand at the time the rape took place.
Nour remembers that there was another man who helped Hatem when he abducted her and tries by means of the Interior Ministry computer network to identify him. Had conspiracy theory and over-sensitivity been set aside, this incident might have easily been taken as a good indication of the adequate use of technology by the Interior Ministry to expose the truth. The film winds up as Hatem’s crime—and all his other tyrannical ones against the people—are exposed. He cannot take it and commits suicide.
The film courageously tackled many critical issues. It blended the spirit and experience of Youssef Shahine and the quick shots of Khaled Youssef. It treaded several agonising realities that are ignored by the majority of Egyptian films. But the most significant credit earned by the film is the wide public approval it gained.