Like most of us, Mohamed Saad did not see the revolution coming. The actor, known for his inexplicably popular “comedic” portrayals of cross-eyed, slinky-waisted degenerates, kept a low profile during the earlier, chaotic days of the uprising. He eventually returned to his idea of filmmaking after things calmed down, at a time when we were all riding high on a wave of post-Mubarak euphoria, and celebrating the end of the dark ages, supposedly.
But when the cameras started rolling on his latest feature, Saad went right back to belly-dancing and pratfalling, only this time, while mumbling something about the glory of the revolution. The result, “Tak Tak Boom,” was a tasteless, juvenile mess. But the bigger problem was this: Nobody, it seems, had told Saad that he didn’t have to make a movie “about” the revolution.
It’s impossible to overstate just how tumultuous 2011 was for Egyptians, and it’s only natural to expect the revolution to not only prominently feature in, but fundamentally shape, our cultural landscape for years to come. But when considering the issue of whether art shapes society, or simply reflects it, it’s easy to recognize Saad’s contribution for what it really is: a suspiciously smelly pie, gleefully shoved in society’s face.
“Tak Tak Boom’s” awfulness was inevitable. Nobody expected anything less from Saad. But the other actors, writers, producers and directors who have drawn inspiration from the year’s events didn’t have the same excuse — many of them were relative newcomers to the industry, and a few had been in some of the best Egyptian films in recent memory. Yet, that hasn’t stopped most of the films so far released — whether commercially, or along the more artistically-inclined festival circuit — from being naïve, short-sighted, and fairly superficial affairs, many of which backtracked in their productions in order to add last-minute references to the revolution.
Concerning films that premiered at foreign festivals, despite the awards they’ve garnered, most of these works have been met with lukewarm reviews in international and regional publications — including this one — and have yet to be screened to the Egyptian public, otherwise known as the filmmakers’ subjects.
This inadequacy can’t be intentional, for the simple fact that if these people were so against the revolution, surely they could come up with more efficient ways to subvert it than by making terrible movies. And while it may be too early to gauge how this past year’s events will influence literature, it remains all too easy to spot the same deficiencies in several hastily published books that clearly suffered because of it. The same is true of the overwhelming majority of plays, songs, television shows, advertisements, and art exhibitions — including one curated by this reporter — supposedly inspired by the revolution, but which failed to convey any of its emotional weight, or sense of cultural, national, or even personal significance.
Which brings us back to Saad: 2011 not only shook the cultural landscape, it tore it in two — predictably, between works informed by the revolution, and those that existed independent of it. The common flaw shared between works from the former category, and of which “Tak-Tak Boom” is a big, belching example, is how forced they all seem, as if those responsible for them were responding to what they felt to be some sort of national duty. These works did not convey anything as much as a sense of obligation, and, in some uglier cases, sheer opportunism. Even the more honest among them failed to provide anything other than basic, and in many cases, highly subjective documentation. Most disappointing was how shallow that work all seemed, which isn’t surprising considering the past regime’s mind-shriveling policies and practices.
Clearly, we’re generalizing, but in painting the revolution with the broadest of brushes, so were most of the artists who sought to depict it. There have been a few works that aimed to do more than merely acknowledge current events, but even the artists responsible for those works tread among familiar lines and heavily-charted territory, instead of using the revolution as a starting point to do something, well, revolutionary.
The past eleven months have exposed critical flaws in our cultural institutions, mainly through the arguments they’ve inspired. Previously idolized celebrities were blacklisted for everything from inciting violence against protesters, to blaming the revolution for creating a temporary discontinuation of pizza delivery services. In the immediate days following Mubarak’s ouster, it was amusing — albeit in a sad kind of way — to watch state television anchors struggle against years of imprinting, much like watching Dr. Strangelove fighting the urge to deliver a Nazi salute, and failing. Less amusing was the realization of the extreme extent to which national media has been — and continues to be — used as a weapon against the public, aiming to confuse, distort, and impede a process that, by any logical evaluation, appears to be inevitable.
The revolution is still ongoing, despite the finality with which most commercial artists have treated it. But perhaps these artists shouldn’t be so concerned with documenting a glorious triumph, or the subsequent, systematic attempts at dismantling it. Maybe what’s needed is a shift in focus, reassigning our concern to changing mindsets and wiping out all the vestiges of the former regime that lurk not only in the corridors of power, but in our own artistic sensibilities. Brash statements may be great for starting fires, and obviously, history needs to be documented. But if real, lasting change is to come about, it will likely be through patient persistence, attention to detail, and the ability to see beyond the limited scope of a camera lens. Annoyingly, this metaphor doesn’t work when applied to anything other than film.
In the meantime, Egypt’s cultural establishments — along with all the other ones — continue to crumble, as they were doing long before 25 January. Between Dubai swiping our film festival limelight (fair and square), Salafis smashing historical artifacts, the heart-wrenching looting and burning of institutes, the SCAF making its own videos (surely a feature film can’t be that far removed from their wide-ranging economic ambitions), and the likes of the bumbling drug-addled thug character, al-Limby, taking a prolonged squat over the commercial arts and their audiences, not to mention our general inability to provide any insight on our current state, we’re in a pretty precarious position. The future of the Egyptian art scene remains as murky as its political and economic ones. At this point in time, only one thing’s for sure: It’ll take more than a revolution to keep Mohamed Saad from belly-dancing.