After a string of credits as assistant director on films as varied as The Aquarium (2008) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Nadine Khan directed her first feature Chaos, Disorder, which was released in 2012 and went on to win big at the Dubai International Film Festival the following year.
In fact, the year of release is quite significant; some scenes were filmed as early as 2010, but resistance from censors while Mubarak was in power meant that the project was delayed until after the uprising of 2011.
THE PLOT of the film is one of storytelling’s great clichés and boils down to the rivalry between Mounir (played by a brooding Ramsi Lehner) and Zaki (Mohamed Farag), two young men in love with Manal (Ayten Amer), the daughter of village patriarch Haj Sayed. The tension between the men leads to a duel – in this case a football match – while dirty tricks from Mounir makes him try to blackmail Haj Sayed into granting him his daughter’s hand.
"Surely a more progressive film might have had Manal choosing her own suitor?"
Unfortunately, characters are too poorly developed to really engage viewers. It’s difficult to care for either of the main protagonists, or to choose between Zaki and Mounir as to who should get the girl (although surely a more progressive film might have had Manal choosing her own suitor?). The only character who does divert attention is that of Tok Tok, the shit-stirring ‘fixer’ of the football duel who conducts himself with zany abandon. And without well drawn characters to relate to, some audiences may find the film a difficult one to stick with.
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However, I would urge viewers to forget about the storyline and instead focus on the more subtle yet unique world created in the film. The story takes place in a poor, unnamed neighbourhood of Cairo, seemingly cut off from the rest of the city, whose major landmarks are ruined or unfinished buildings, a dusty public square and a rubbish heap where residents salvage what they can. Trucks arrive daily bringing in goods such as water, gas, and food, reinforcing the sense that residents are trapped where they are and cannot leave in search of sustenance themselves.
THERE IS ALSO the sense of a community permanently on edge. From the opening scene of two young boys who head off with an air rifle to kill a neighbour’s pigeons for fun, to the combative dialogue of the film and the escalating rivalry between Zaki and Mounir, the feeling is of a claustrophobic, prison-like township coloured by conflict and sexual tension whose residents falter between the poles of power struggle and survival.
The search is on for the films which will capture the myriad stories of Egypt after the uprising of January 2011. There are also many contenders for the films which ‘predicted the Arab Spring’. Chaos, Disorder is neither of these, but does give a sense of the pressures of a society on the road to revolt.
Chaos, Disorder is being screened as part of the Safar Film Festival at the ICA, London. For more films showing at Safar the coming week, check out the full programme here.