Cairo though a film noir lens

‘The Nile Hil­ton In­ci­dent’ trans­plants Amer­i­can gang­ster to con­tem­po­rary Egypt

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Jim Quilty

BEIRUT: No ques­tion. When a film­maker em­braces genre – tightly enough to see the sweat-stained shirt col­lar and smell the nico­tine smoke in the hair – some en­ter­tain­ing cin­ema can squeeze out.

That’s the story with “The Nile Hil­ton In­ci­dent.” The third fea­ture of writer-di­rec­tor Tarik Saleh pre­miered early this year at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, where it took the grand jury prize for in­ter­na­tional fic­tion. The film en­joyed its Le­banese pre­miere this week at Me­trop­o­lis Cin­ema, where it opened Maskoon, the film fes­ti­val de­voted to qual­ity genre film.

“Nile Hil­ton” is set in Cairo in early 2011, the run-up to a pop­u­lar up­ris­ing that top­pled Hosni Mubarak and re­in­forced the power of the deep state that had sus­tained his regime. The story’s told from the per­spec­tive of Noured­din Mustafa (Fares Fares), a po­lice force ma­jor.

We’re in­tro­duced to the ma­jor dur­ing a slow pan­ning shot that opens on the screen of his tele­vi­sion.

A talk­ing head notes how, in the old days, everyone worked over­time be­cause “we were build­ing the coun­try.” Now that’s been ac­com­plished, so no one needs to work that hard any­more.

The clut­ter of the cop’s modest sa­lon drifts through the frame un­til the lens set­tles on Mustafa him­self, preen­ing in the mir­ror be­fore work.

Saleh de­votes the first act of his film to sketch­ing the cor­rupt char­ac­ter mak­ing up this Cairene echo of “Bad Lieu­tenant.” After his younger side­kick Momo (Mo­hamed Yousry) has in­tro­duced him to a dat­ing site called Face­book, the cops are shown cruis­ing a Cairo mar­ket district. Mustafa holds court – hear­ing (or ig­nor­ing) sup­pli­cants and col­lect­ing bribes – sel­dom hav­ing Momo pull over.

At the end of his work day Mustafa re­turns to his flat and stuffs the day’s take into a zi­plock in his freezer. He prays, then drinks a beer over a take­away sup­per. He lights a spliff and watches Mubarak give a speech about Po­lice Day. It’s Jan. 15.

The next day, a young Su­danese woman named Salwa (Mari Malek) is tak­ing the bus to work. A ca­sual la­borer, she works as a cham­ber­maid at the Nile Hil­ton ho­tel. While push­ing her trol­ley up a cor­ri­dor, she over­hears a woman shout­ing from one of the rooms. An an­noyed-look­ing fel­low bursts from the ho­tel room and strides away.

As an­noyed man leaves the ho­tel, he passes an­other dodgy-look­ing guy sit­ting in the lobby. This sec­ond man goes to the room an­noyed man’s just left. As Salwa is hav­ing a smoke in a nearby room, she hears the woman’s throt­tled scream. Con­cealed be­hind her clean­ing trol­ley, she wit­nesses the as­sas­sin as he slips out of the slain woman’s room.

Mustafa ar­rives at a com­i­cally com­pro­mised crime scene. The cops ap­pear to be hav­ing a pic­nic. One of them has cov­ered the vic­tim’s face with a towel. The se­nior pros­e­cu­tor has or­dered dessert from room ser­vice. “Charge it to the room,” he tells the server with a wave of his hand.

Mustafa goes through the vic­tim’s purse and pock­ets her money, along with a re­ceipt from Photo Amir. The front desk clerk re­fuses to tell him who re­served the room, say­ing only the owner knows. When he de­mands to know the name of “the owner” – a big-time de­vel­oper named Hatem Shafiq – the clerk presents him with the guest book.

Mustafa opens it to find a thick wad of Egyp­tian Guinea.

“A lit­tle com­pli­ment,” he says, “from the ho­tel, sir.”

The use­less desk clerk is un­able to tell Mustafa the full name or ad­dress of the Su­danese cham­ber­maid – the sub­ject of one the film’s prin­ci­pal sub­plots – who found the vic­tim’s corpse.

Stuck in traf­fic en route to Photo Amir, Mustafa looks up and finds the vic­tim’s face along­side the name “Lalena,” on a bill­board ad­ver­tis­ing her CD.

A quick stop at a CD kiosk re­veals the vic­tim to have been a crooner of Umm Kulthoum-ish torch songs.

At Photo Amir, the bird­like pro­pri­etor hands over Lalena’s prints and neg­a­tives, glanc­ing up from his pot­ter­ing ev­ery now and then to watch Mustafa as he ex­am­ines pho­tos of the vic­tim’s in­ti­mate mo­ments with the im­pa­tiently-leav­ing-the-ho­tel-room man from the day of her mur­der.

The can­did-pho­tos-of-in­ti­macy trope is a bit “L.A. Con­fi­den­tial,” but the film moves swiftly on with a wink­ing joke. Stuck in traf­fic again – not a rare oc­cur­rence in Cairo – Mustafa glances up to find the smil­ing face of the man in the vic­tim’s pho­tos. He too is on a bill­board, this one adorned with the slo­gan “Build­ing a new Cairo with a mod­ern vi­sion.” It’s Hatem Shafiq!

In a re­gion whose so­cialpo­lit­i­cal va­garies are not in­com­pat­i­ble with gang­ster movies, “The Nile Hil­ton In­ci­dent” is a par­tic­u­larly adept adap­ta­tion of Amer­i­can noir con­ven­tion to con­tem­po­rary Cairo.

DP Peter Aim (whose ca­reer has seen him shoot such di­verse pro­jects as “La Haine,” 1995, “Im Juli,” 2000, and “Polisse,” 2011) has cho­sen an ap­pro­pri­ately muddy palate for this de­pic­tion of Cairo, and he makes good use of the of­ten-snug in­te­rior lo­ca­tions.

As is cen­tral to noir, “Nile Hil­ton” is re­plete with comic mo­ments. The most suc­cess­ful comic plot mo­tif is Mustafa’s re­la­tion­ship with his handy­man. An earnest young fel­low charged with fixing the ma­jor’s tele­vi­sion re­cep­tion, he gets his cousin to do the job and leaves Mustafa with only Ital­ian chan­nels. Later he finds him more Euro­pean TV, but noth­ing Egyp­tian.

When the cops start haul­ing in univer­sity stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, Mustafa as­sesses the young­sters in the lockup and asks, “What are they in for, not do­ing their home­work?”

Saleh’s most ac­com­plished tragi­comic di­a­logue ex­change, how­ever, drops dur­ing Mustafa’s chat with an opin­ion­ated cab­bie, ou­traged at the news that some Alexan­dria cop­pers killed a young de­mon­stra­tor dur­ing ques­tion­ing.

“Scum­bag pigs,” he ges­tures to his rear view mir­ror. “Peo­ple are pissed. They’re plan­ning a demon­stra­tion out­side po­lice head­quar­ters on Po­lice Day. Will you go?”

“I have to go,” the ma­jor replies, draw­ing on his fag. “I’m one of those scum­bag pigs.”

The driver glances over his shoul­der and pauses. “Those peo­ple in Alexan­dria,” he says en­er­get­i­cally, “they’re such liars!”

The laughs, of course, are de­signed for brief respite from the som­bre weight of the pro­ceed­ings.

By the time the last imag­i­nary film reel has fully un­coiled, it’s ap­par­ent who the real vil­lain of this story is.

It’s not the perp Mustafa’s been pur­su­ing, nat­u­rally.

“Maskoon” is run­ning at Me­trop­o­lis Cin­ema-Sofil through Sept. 17. See http://www.metropoliscin­ema.net.

Fares Fares and Ha­nia Amar in a scene from “The Nile Hil­ton In­ci­dent,” the third fea­ture of writer-di­rec­tor Tarik Saleh.

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