Emotional catharsis in El-Maslaha
BY MARIE-JEANNE BERGER
Cairo: If it bleeds, it leads. We fallible human creatures gloat over destruction, delight in the horrible and the macabre, and choose to see terrible movies full of unnecessary violence to amuse ourselves.
But it’s not as if violence is something rare: some sort of exceptional knowledge detached from our lived experience, isolated, occasional and infrequent. Violence is a frequent, necessary facet of experience. And don’t we get enough of it already? Susan Sontag used the opening phrase to censure society’s obsession with violence and trauma in news media and popular entertainment. Mulvey called it scopophilia: the pleasure people get in watching, a certain kind of voyeurism in transferal.
After watching this year’s biggest summer blockbuster “El-Maslaha” (The Benefit) — starring Ahmed Ezz, Ahmed El Sakka, Zeina, Hanan Turk and directed by Sandra Nashaat — I began questioning the role violence plays in film spectatorship in Egypt. When someone watches a film like “El-Maslaha”, what kinds of feelings are evoked during the crudest, most brutal scenes? Does the illustration of pain provide catharsis for the viewer, for the revolutionary, for the citizen?
While violence in film proliferates internationally, there is something very distinct about the Egyptian film experience that more distinctly illustrates the spectacle of spectatorship in general. I saw the film at 10 pm. Despite the adult nature of the film, half of the theatre was the 12-and-under set. Did they outgrow Miley and Dora already? Accommodating more refined tastes? At the back of the cinema, a line of parents stood rocking their babies back and forth, ready to exit when their teething, hungry offspring began to weep loudly. These were the tactful parents. The rest mucked in together.
The whole family had come to share in the experience of seeing “El-Maslaha,” a film ostensibly relying on a cameraman who suffers from attention deficit disorder, actors who are hearing impaired, and an editor who isn’t so sure of what happened at the beginning of the movie. Shouting, screaming, talking so fast it sounds like rap, zooming, running, zooming, shouting, shaking back and forth, shouting. Dance scene! Et voila, the Egyptian movie blueprint. An overwhelming experience. But it was the ending that caused a significant reaction in the theater. A shoot-em up, killing, blood, and everyone feeling empathy and release as the lights go up.
It is ironic that a film as vacuous as “El-Maslaha” could be all about providing emotional catharsis; that the film carries a weighty significance to the battered psyche. The plot is predictable and a little bit propaganda: Police vs. Bedouins, good girls vs. bad girls. Small time Bedouin drug-dealer with big brother kills newly married, promising police officer. Police officer’s brother seeks justice. Bedouin big brother protects idiot brother. Filial love reigns.
Characters fall on very simple lines: loveable doofus good-guy cop, ill-tempered drug-dealing misogynist bad-guy. Women are window dressing. The Lebanese chick who attracts Ezz’s attention (Kinda Alloush) does nothing more than totter around in heels, making cooing lady sounds, juggling her curvy body in tight mini clothes while speaking in a hyper femme coquettish Lebanese lilt. Comedic jest abounds.
Zeina plays the role of town girl (as in the girl that’s been with the whole town). Apart from being the pretty person in the shot, her role will forever be remembered by the scene of her being dragged down the marble stairs of big boy Ezz’s villa while he calls her a dirty girl. He sleeps with her after marrying the Lebanese woman, but it’s Zeina’s character who is worthy of such reprieve because she didn’t admit to sleeping with her boyfriend, idiot brother of drug kingpin. This kind of hypocrisy abounds, though most in the theater seemed to side with Ezz on this matter. Hanan Turk plays the role of the dutiful, religiously observant, kind, long-suffering wife of the police officer. As usual, moral values are reflected upon the honor of the main protagonists’ wives.
But it’s the ending that matters: the quick fire bullets, the pulsating bodies, loss of life with the bad guy at the end. This is the moment for which the spectators have all been patiently attending: vindication, retribution and oblivion. The emotional release happens on three axes: justice, personal catharsis and societal role-playing.
One, the one who dies deserves to die. The movie sets it up as such. The narcotics creep of Sinai, who killed the police officer, has bad teeth and an unfaithful girlfriend, justifies his own death through the law of retribution: an eye for an eye. The drugs are confiscated too and it’s a moment of celebration. The spectator knows that he is the enemy because he is clearly defined as such, and because the average moviegoer isn’t interested in being mired in some sort of intense moral dilemma. You can distinguish the good guy from the bad guy. We are relieved that the bad guy goes; it can bring a sigh of relief even.
The second point is death itself: seeking oblivion. Mulvey would say that the viewers are meant to associate themselves with the main male protagonist. In the climactic death scene, we either identify with the shooter or the shot. Those who identify with the shooter feel the power of life in their hands and the sensation of controlling another man’s fate. Those that identify with the bad guy feel the relief of punishment, the tallying of one’s crimes and salvation through death, and through the visible mourning of someone that loves you (Ezz). There is something gruesome and delicious about pondering your own funeral. This is the dramatic culmination of death as such.
The third issue has to do with a shared cultural memory and lived experience. As nationals, as Egyptians, watching a movie like this, where the pictures of Mubarak are still hung on the walls of the security service offices, and the government is still the good guy, how are viewers positioned in relation to the film? In the past year, everyone has been holding their breath. Discontent builds in the face of oppression, chaos, setbacks, elections, tear gas, street battles, snipers and tanks that crush the life out of citizens and society tries to run as usual. This is violence in the real, violence off the screen.
Society has been effectively traumatized by the events of the past year, but movies like “El-Maslaha” continue to draw in crowds. When does this kind of experience become distasteful or painful? Or more importantly, is it some sort of pressure valve for the cultural psyche?
Seeing “El-Maslaha” in the dark, cavernous hall of the movie theater is partly about living out grief in a sanctioned and safe environment. The battle on screen isn’t real, it’s fantasy. We as spectators consciously choose to believe in the story and as such hold much more power than we can ever hold outside of the theater. While the emotions that we express while seeing pain and trauma are very real, we are engaging and investing in nothing more than a story, transferring difficult feelings onto the plot of a silly movie that we can then step away from, because the movie doesn’t really mean anything.
Real life means something, but emotional expression outside of the theater could mean a potential loss of control. This loss of control is condoned, if not encouraged in the dark anonymity of a movie theater. We watch movies like “El-Maslaha” to let the fantasy intersect with the intimate, carrying us away for awhile knowing that after an hour and a half, it’ll be over. The lights will go up, everyone will blush and look at each other, disoriented, and we leave the darkened seats to return to real life. -The Egypt Monocle