Festival Films, critic’s pick: Egypt’s ‘Lust’

“Al-Shouq” (Lust) is the latest addition to a relatively new trend in Egyptian cinema: movies that realistically follow the lives of a group of characters living in one of the poorer areas around the main cities, whether it is Cairo or Alexandria. Think "Heya Fawda" (It's Mayhem) from Yousef Shaheen and Khaled Yousef's "Heen Maisara" (When Things Get Better) and "Doukan Shehata."

The plots are mostly harsh and gloomy, full of life-altering crises. Characters often, in order to survive the merciless circumstances around them, change their sweet nature and adapt to a new evil or sinful route in life.

Poverty, ignorance and illness are the trinity of causes that come together to transform these characters into anti-heroes. You spend the whole movie following their detailed lives with conflicting feelings towards them; should you care for them, pity them, hate them or just overlook their misery and enjoy the ups and downs in their lives?

“Lust” applies the same formula, following the lives of the residents of al-Labban, a poor Alexandrian neighborhood, where every day people fight the good fight in the hopes that their deranged financial situations will get better.

Om Shouq (or Fatima, played by Susan Badr), takes her daily journey around the neighborhood, selling the ladies coffee beans and using her talent of reading the bottoms of used Turkish coffee cups to provide a glimpse of their future.

Om Shouq never lies and is always accurate; everyone in her neighborhood knows that she is possessed by a demon who whispers secrets about the future to her, allowing her to become a source of comfort and knowledge in this changing world.

Om Shouq, however, is not without problems. Her two daughters, Shouq (played by young actress and singer Robi) and Awatif (played by the newcomer Koki) are blossoming and becoming young women with the eyes of the neighbors locked on them; her youngest, a son who is cherished by Om Shouq and her husband, is extremely sick; and her husband has become detached from the world, coming home drunk every night.

With her demon possessing her and inciting fits of anger about her children, Om Shouq ends up a beggar in Cairo, unaware that her son has died while she is on the quest for his treatment money.

Facing the truth, Om Shouq decides that she won’t allow her two daughters to live and die below the poverty line and she continues her visits to Cairo, trying to gather enough money to take them far away from al-Labban. She also manages to alienate her neighbors, forcing herself into their financial business. She believes that she needs to “break her neighbor’s eyes” (an Egyptian proverb meaning to have an advantage over someone, forcing them to obey you).

Badr is famous for being one of many good actresses who ends up in supporting roles without much freedom to excel. As Om Shouq, she reminds everyone that she is a powerful talent with extreme potential for a strong performance in a lead role. Her performance allows her to bring a diversity of emotions to the screen that could potentially relocate this actress back to the A-list.

“I had a hard time working on this role,” said Badr at the press conference following the movie. “The time I spent begging in the streets was hard, especially because these were real scenes where I begged real people for money. But I got used to it after a while.”

According to Badr, the hardest scene to deliver was the moment she returned from Cairo to her house in al-Labban to find that her son already died. “Silence fell backstage and everyone was quiet and respectful for this powerful scene,” Badr explained. “I felt the strong vibe of respect for such a tragedy affecting the cast and crew alike.”

Robi, as an actress, has a very limited range and this movie did not take her out of her comfort zone; she stayed in her usual role as the movie’s eye candy. She did not attend the press conference.

Koki’s debut, as a beautiful young girl who dances for seemingly no good reason and produces unholy voices while she kisses her male companion, does not predict a wonderful acting career.

The script, along with the great talent of Badr, might be the reason why this movie holds itself together. “Lust” develops the characters well and without any over-acting or unexplainable plot lines, and does not neglect the development of the supporting characters. Sayed Raghab, the scriptwriter and one of the actors in the movie, explained at the press conference that “the Egyptian society faces a lot of challenges at the moment. Everything can be sold in these dark times.”

Director Khaled al-Hagar managed to escape any overlap with director Khaled Yousef, who is the current leader of realistic Egyptian cinema. While Yousef’s work depends on exaggeration of the situations he presents and includes tons of sexual references that might not be important to the development of the characters, al-Hagar focuses on people, showing a deep understanding of each one of his characters.

“Lust” balances its dramatic plotting with an artistic delivery, and because of that it brings to light issues that other realistic movies have not been capable of tackling.

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