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Retro Reviews: Film Sakafi and Egypt’s Deranged Spin on Sexuality

Who knew an 18-year-old comedy would have this much depth when it comes to matters more intimate?

I doubt there was ever a mainstream Egyptian film that hit so close to home with the 20-something demographic (and arguably 30-something) than Film Sakafi (literally: Cultural Film). Yes, friendos, Mohamed Amin’s seemingly simplistic, 2-hour-long innuendo-saturated romp through the saddest corners of coming to age is nothing short of a gem in the rough.

"It’s a movie about three idiots trying to watch porn. What exactly can anybody glean from something as juvenile as this?” Alright, let’s just get this out of the way not before it spikes me in the uvula later. Chances are you’ve seen this cinematic masterpiece when you were either too young or too distracted (read: dense) to grasp the full scope of what’s going on throughout the whole production. What might have appeared to be a saga about three young men trying to get off (together) is, for all intents and purposes, a not-so-stealthily and pretty scathing critique of Egypt’s litany of unresolved (and selectively ignored) societal disasters. A social commentary the likes of which we haven’t approached in the 18 years since its release, this is one you need to give another go.

Stark Comparisons, Funny Parallels

Our three paragons of virtue – featuring Ahmed Rizk’s ‘Effat’, Fathi Abdulwahhab’s ‘Ashraf’ and Ahmed Eid’s ‘3ala2’ – are about as overtly symbolic of Egypt’s pervasive plight of youth as they can possibly be. At the same time, maintaining a veil of hilarity so as not to reel in the viewer too deep; life is already pretty grimy. The three loitering companions seem to all have an overly vested interest in the more sexual side of life; adult magazines, sexual harassment and the titular “cultural films” that they sniff out are pretty much their stake in life. They also coincidentally look like the team of our very own sister site, SceneNoise.

Pictured (left to right): Ramez Mofeed, Tucker McGee, Ahmed Diaa

Now take that angle and keep it in focus for a bit. Throughout the entire film, the objective of the whole cinematic work – the guys’ quest to eventually watch an adult film in a safe enough spot – is portrayed as something much more insidious than the subject matter. These idiots have a supposedly three-hour-long, Arabic-subtitled piece of anatomical footage, but no VCR to play it. They venture out to meet (and eventually recruit) seemingly dozens of side characters to get their quest done. But in true-to-life fashion, nothing comes easy, and whenever they get their hands on one piece of the puzzle, another slips through the cracks.

It’s not unlike an unnecessarily long, seemingly doomed drug transaction; you’re trying to get a dealer in a close enough area, then go from contact to contact trying to source money in the meantime. More people show up to join you, less money you have to pay, but then the dealer switches. No funfuns for you, Mostafa. You call your friends for more leads, and you manage to get your stuff, but then you don’t have appropriate accoutrements. Most of all, you don’t have a place to indulge in, so you go through even more people. Hell, it doesn’t have to be a drug deal; it could just be the same scenario but with an actual film, or whatever other random McGuffin that Egyptian society tries to make too difficult.

A Grim Analogy

A fact such as this (I hope) should come as no surprise to anybody; the film tackles a lot about sex. Specifically, sex in Egypt; something that I enjoy likening to rubbing your forehead against a cheese grater and then being surprised at the outcome. Within the drug deal analogy lays another parallel analogy; one that gives the film its unique backbone. These kids are essentially trying to have sex. Now before I go any further, I’d just like to post somewhat of a “trigger warning” for those of you sensitive to potential misogyny, sexism, overt symbolism and just misery as a whole. These guys have the kind of strong willpower an Egyptian man needs to get his rocks off without having to go through more official channels. With their ‘powers’ combined, the three manage to ascertain the tape – which is essentially a woman. The three then try to go through as many people as they can to try and secure a closed door to shack up behind, but find that they’re either unable to provide, or want to get in on the deal. Yes, as sickening as that sounds, it happens all too often.

The journey is, for realism and hilarity’s respective sakes, difficult. People questioning your intentions, the extortive nature of Egyptians’ dealings among each other, the inability to hide away from the outside world for just a couple of hours, all are things that weigh heavily on a person trying to enjoy a natural, human sex life.

The Root of the Disaster

You don’t need to look too far to figure out why this simple, yet hostile notion is as pervasive as it is. The country – and perhaps the region – is programmed to treat anything of a sexual nature as if it is on the same ground as narcotics, theft or even murder. Naturally, sexual education doesn’t have much room to run around in, causing the whole country to act kind of like a pressure cooker. We’re all basically rice, and the steam is horrifically pent-up sexual frustration that seems to never escape the steam port. We’re all just bathed in it, even those of us who are capable of maintain a semblance of a sex life. It clouds our judgement, impairs our vision, makes everything turn into an off-white blur that has no business being there, but is just a nearly-permanent result of society, religion, and eastern philosophy.

More than You Bargained For

The topics of human sexuality, drug use, politics, philosophy and human nature aren’t the only things interwoven in Amin’s legendary cinematic work. Throughout the film, parodies and parallels of other issues blighting Egypt’s youth are topics such as finding inspiration in life. The latter is evident in 3ala2’s younger brother – a young man still in university who sees his graduate brother as nothing but a cautionary tale of what truly happens after higher education concludes. Sleeping in, porn mags, desperation and a prolonged stay at the local ahwa. Speaking of the ahwa; employment seems to be at an all-time low for the trio; seeing as none of them have neither language skills nor a degree in something prim and proper, and they all lack the quintessential ingredient for a prosperous career; higher social stature. How the hell else are they supposed to have about an hour and 56 minutes (or a whole 24 hours in their world) of time to look for a place to jack off?

To delve into the kind of moral degradation that our three friendos are notorious for is a separate article altogether. Suffice it to say; they look at every passing female behind this side of the Nile. Apart from that, the film does its best to show you that sexuality isn’t just a male-specific curse (and it is a curse); the female characters throughout the film show you varying degrees of how curious they are – not unlike the males at all. Yes, who could have guessed that Egyptian 20-somethings of all genders, creeds and backgrounds constantly think about sex? We certainly don’t.

Folks to Remember

Human codes of ethics, stark foreshadowing of a lost future, dealing with different religions and intersex relationships are all topics slowly cooked throughout the film; all blending together to form a veritable smorgasbord of enlightenment. But above all; its characters are what truly set it apart from something along the same vein.

Tarek

Ashraf’s younger brother Tarek is pretty much the stage of acceptance that every man, woman and child in the country should study in detail. Only appearing in a grand total of about ten minutes in the movie, the young man is neither a fuckboy nor a studious nerd. He thinks rationally, looking at concepts the likes of mixed-gender relations, sexual attraction and flawed social ethics with an incredibly rare brand of rationale that folks the world over just can’t seem to grasp. In his final appearance, he alongside his girlfriend (who is fucking Ruby) are seen holding hands, talking about going to each other’s houses to share the computer they bought with their savings, and just far, far better off than all fifty or so of the characters alongside our three friends. Ruby even has one of the best lines in the entire film.

Gamal

Perhaps the most relatable character (to me at least) had to be the morbidly (and I mean morbidly) depressed Gamal. A possible source of all three pieces of the sexual puzzle to our friends’ shared conundrum, Gamal seems unable to look past his eyelids out of desperation, much less interact with other folks. After the trio manage to seemingly convince him of their intentions, the young nihilist rages, forbidding the three from watching the educational romp. “I cannot allow you to debase yourselves any longer than this.” These are the words of a man who is truly woke about the extremely depressing futility of trying to maintain a regular sex life in Egypt. He’s seen it all, possibly even done it, but neither of which are needed for a kindred spirit to see how maddening this whole affair truly can be.

The Neighbour

The strange neighbour that the trio encounter is a healthy coat of foreshadowing symbolising a very real turn in their future. Perhaps tinged with a bit of subjectivity, the man is a 37-year old chemist who seems to be still deep into the same vicious cycle that the three are embroiled in. His apartment is lined with video tapes, his hands shake, and he has a slightly delusional yet delightfully realistic outlook on life. A future mirror of sorts that our three friends – chiefly Ashraf – seem to find a bit too morbid for their tastes.

The Maid

Botros’s maid is the group’s potentially first encounter with actual, true-to-life sex (she even comes with a whip HMU fam). Unfortunately, she’s more interested in printed pharaohs than she is in pasty fellows, forcing the three to have to pay in order to see her upper thigh (because this is the 1930’s apparently). EGP 25 back then is a lot of money, and the kids don’t even seem that interested in her as much as they are in their tape. Short but sweet, she’s a welcome addition to any production, really.

The Young Doctor

The fellow med student (or doctor) to their friend 3atef is also a pivotal example of my prior point. Girls also get horny (air horn noises). She bursts in after witnessing the trio getting their culture on and goes off into perhaps the most passionate rant of the year 2000. Egyptian girls deserve a break, they deserve to be treated better and regarded just as well as (if not better than) foreign girls and celebrities. The young doctor (who looks like everybody’s sister) has 28 years of female sexual frustration on her mind, and it all goes off on 3atef and the hospital, just wishing for a chance at love.

Mansour and Nousa

Though Mansour and his newly-wedded wife Nousa only appear in all of five minutes of the film, they can be considered an example of another future path for a culture addict. Still hogging the titular tape even for his wedding night (in order to practice one more time), Mansour and Nousa say goodbye to their last night of being single and take a tour around the house for absolutely no reason other than showing off the kind of acting chops we have. Oh and they die from the shock of actually getting to knock boots. Go figure.

Barayez

And then there’s fucking Barayez. I’ll let him do the talking for me.

Yousra <3

Oh and just Yousra out of fucking nowhere, rocking that late 90s chic.

Think Amongst Yourselves

If you’ve watched this thing as a kid, give it another go when you’re well into your mid-to-late 20’s. If you’ve never watched it, slowly walking into my hand and slap yourself against it. This is something that should go down in the archives of Egypt’s awkward and distorted social structure and culture. So if maybe give it another spin? It’s right up there.


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