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French Version

An Egyptian imagining of hip 1970's Beirut

Late filmmaker's 'The Cats of Hamra Street' whets the appetite for how things looked during the 'golden age'

It is the mark of the emotional maturity of a country when its citizens have a good sense of humor about themselves. There was thus something reaffirming about the recent screening of the late Samir al-Ghoussayni's "The Cats of Hamra Street" (1972), which sent the audience into peals of laughter virtually from start to finish.

It might be argued that audience members weren't laughing at themselves at all, but the reek of cheese arising from this very Egyptian imagining of hip, prewar Beirut, but never mind.

"Cats" is a marvellous hybrid. Inspired by counter-culture America, it's set in Beirut and Lebanese-directed, but the film speaks Egyptian. The production values, dialect, and principal actors - all of whom have tragically expurgated "Cats" from their acting credits on the International Movie Database (IMDB) Web site - are from Anwar Sadat's Egypt. It is a snapshot of late Nasserism conflated with late Shihabism.

"The Cats of Hamra Street" is one of four vintage Lebanese films that the European Film Festival is presenting in collaboration with the Lebanese Cinema Foundation. Local nostalgia for prewar Lebanon - back when it was the so-called "Switzerland of the Middle East," when Beirut was its Paris and Hamra Street its Champs-Elysees - continues to be a feature of the local landscape.

The curiosity, and scepticism, that this nostalgia arouses ensured the "Cats" screening was sold out. Even if the other vintage selections are utterly abysmal, these screenings will likely pique interest in past film representations of Lebanon.

A romantic comedy-cum-morality flick, "Cats" follows the hijinks of two couples. At the center of the story are Sami and his fiance, Mona (Youssef Chaaban and Madiha Kamel). Sami comes from a respectable family but he's fallen in with a bad crowd - the eponymous biker gang, the Hamra Cats.

The Cats look much like the bikers that adorned the American pulp cinema of the period - fond of long hair and headbands, swaggering around with their shirts off and generally conveying the impression of lunacy. The lads are fond of sitting together and cackling uproariously into Ghoussayni's lens, apropos of nothing but presumably meant to signify drug-induced hysteria.

For his part, Sami has the biker-gang look and enjoys regaling Mona with counter-culture rhetoric about peace, love and living free. He lacks the patina of degenerate madness cultivated by his chums, however. Furthermore, he is in a power struggle with the villainous gang leader for control of the Cats, which calls upon the two to have badly choreographed fistfights from time to time.

Sami also seems to have retained some of his native entrepreneurial instinct and bourgeois sensibilities. He opens a nightclub on Hamra Street and, as Mona later discovers, he makes enough money to live in a posh apartment and indulge his taste for cognac. The audience later learns that Sami's opened the club with the Cats' financial assistance, suggesting there is a bit of shrewd (if ill-advised) business savvy beneath his excesses.

Bourgeois Mona is a bit of a limp rag by comparison, asking Sami why "living free" means having to forego regular bathing. The conflicting lifestyles come to a head when Mona's stern father - who has no time for hippies - breaks off Mona and Sami's engagement, just before the opening night of his new club.

As might be expected of Egyptian cinematic standards of the time, the supporting couple are foils designed to provide grist for the comic and melodramatic mill.

Kamil (Mahmoud Jabre) is, as he constantly reminds his flighty fiance, about to graduate with a degree in architecture. A straight arrow far too square to be interested in partying or mind-altering substances, Kamil provides comic relief for the better part of the film.

Souad (Nawal Abul Foutouh), on the other hand, might today be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder. Sexy by early-1970's standards, and tuned-in to the era's ridiculous sense of style, she is childlike in her naivite. Though she professes to be happy with Kamil, it's immediately evident that she's infatuated by Sami's rough-and-ready persona, and during moments of weakness she fantasizes about him.

Well-off, alternatively boring and impressionable, Kamil and Souad are a mirror image of Sami and Mona. The difference is that Souad is a woman, of course, and so destined to be drugged and taken advantage of by Sami's degenerate friends during his club's opening-night party.

"Cats" is an eccentric film and very much of its time, which may detract from its aesthetic value but only adds to its oddball charm. There is something peculiar about watching these Egyptians parading around, masquerading as Beirutis. It contributes to much of the inadvertent comedy of the film, and renders the intended humor downright bizarre.

One example of that inadvertent comedy comes in the oddness of the Cats themselves. Though the film is more or less entirely in Egyptian dialect, for unfathomable reasons Ghoussayni has his bikers speak to one another in English.

Perhaps his object was to convey the street-scum cosmopolitanism of the counter-culture - thereby allowing stolid Lebanese families to blame "outsiders" for what was happening to their adolescent kids (sound familiar?) Perhaps he was simply emulating American pop cinema - as it happens, exchanges of heavily accented, sometimes dubbed, English always precede the badly choreographed punch-ups.

Whatever the intention, the effect is hilarious.

The intended humor is, by today's standards, sometimes tasteless. One of the Cats is a dwarf (he drives a mini-bike and wears an MP helmet) and there is an early scene of extended guffaws that sees gang members enjoy a bit of dwarf tossing.

At other times the humor is simply surreal. Whenever the villainous gang leader gets a thrashing, he weeps like a child and cries out for his mommy. His guitar-playing sidekick even provides him with a pacifier.

Childishness - whether it be that of the gang members, Souad or, to a lesser degree, Sami - is a leitmotif in this film. It is upon this theme that "Cats" turns from a screwball romantic comedy to a morality flick, and the increasingly blatant moralising definitively stamps it an Egyptian film.

There is a genre of "modernist" Egyptian cinema. The plots usually involve the pairing of a boy (or girl) of modest means but upright moral fibre with a girl (or boy) from the urban bourgeoisie, which may betray symptoms of corruption. After some travails, the couple comes together, a consummate symbol for modern Egypt. The pattern is oft repeated, but one good example of Egyptian modernism can be found in "Everyone Listen to Zouzou," whose principle saving grace is that it affords the beautiful Souad Husni several opportunities to belly dance.

"Cats" is a Lebanese variant of this theme. Here all the principals are bourgeois, but Sami and Souad - symbols for Lebanon's impressionable youth - are being led astray by counter-culture deviance. Souad's lifestyle choices bring her to a tragic end. During her wake Kamil regales Souad's morally upright friends with a stirring speech, basically affirming that ambition is commendable, but craziness is something else again.

They all agree that Sami is ultimately responsible for Souad's tragedy and march off to his club to tell him so. Before they can arrive, though, Sami - a decent sort at heart, with a good instinct for making money, let's remember - has already accepted blame and confronts his demented chums about their misdeeds. They turn on him like the feral cats they are (sorry about that), and so reaffirm the moral equation that's been out of whack for the whole film.

All turns out for the best in the end (except for Souad, of course, a sacrificial lamb to Lebanon's patriarchal-mercantile morality). In his final scene, Ghoussayni has Sami, Mona and Kamil drive down to the Beirut Port.

It is intriguing to speculate about his intentions here, since the port plays no thematic role in the film whatsoever. Was it meant to be a metaphor for things coming into the country, like unsavory Western counter-culture, or for people leaving, as so many youngsters were even in those days. Was it done at the behest of Lebanon's Tourism Ministry, or did a shipping company help finance the film?

Christian Ghazi's "Miat Wajh li Yom Wahed" ("A Hundred Faces for One Day", 1972) screens tonight (Friday) at 8pm. Georges Chamchoum's "Salam ... baad al-Mawt" ("Salam ... After Death", 1971) runs at 8 p.m. on Saturday. All films are playing at Beirut's Cinema Sofil

Beirut 06-12-2004
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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