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Youssef is a hotshot anesthesiologist who often sleeps in his car for privacy. Laila (Hend Sabri) is the careerist host of a late night radio call-in show. These two members of Cairo's elite, lost souls traveling parallel paths of longing and disconnection, are the principal fish in Yousry Nasrallah's The Aquarium, a meditation on the intellectual capital of the Middle East, now bent under the sway of repression in all its forms.
There is an aquarium in The Aquarium-the one in Cairo's landmark grotto gardens. Youssef circles the gardens endlessly, but he's never gone inside. As he explains to Laila, it seems to him the kind of place you enter knowing you will never leave. This motion-around, but never into-accurately describes Youssef and Laila's identically arm's length approaches to their lives and to their city. Government corruption and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism are given the same sidelong glance as the characters' more intimate troubles-Laila's inability to buck her class-conscious mother or let herself fall in love and Youssef's fraught relationship with his father, who is dying slowly and painfully. But the metaphor of the aquarium is only one of Nasrallah's narrative strategies in this poetic and multilayered film. Brechtian interstitials break up the action, with actors stepping out of incidental roles to give context to their characters and hypothesize Laila or Youssef's true motivations. A fairy tale Laila makes up gets its own stylized depiction. And Nasrallah shoots The Aquarium in long and glacial takes, imbuing the movie with a stillness that borders on the inert. Only in the final frames does this aesthetic choice reveal a political intent: The Aquarium closes on a claustrophobic shot of protesters, the camera poised, for once, in the middle of the action.
Director's Statement Collapse
The Aquarium tells the story of two well-off characters that hide their inner selves by clinging, leechlike, to the lives of others—others who are less comfortable than they are, and consequently easier prey to the harshness of the ‘real world.’ By the end of the 72 hours, which the film spans, these two characters become aware of their own internal misery. By choosing this story, I hoped to show modern Cairo as a sort of brain-like structure, a monster that devours itself by never allowing its inhabitants to bare their souls except in moments of delirium, in anonymous nocturnal confessions, or in badly lit streets where lovers touch one another in secret.
My co-writer, Nasser Abdel Rahmane, and I intentionally avoided setting the film at a precise political or social moment. Political repression is nothing out of the ordinary in Egypt. The wild propagation of a fundamentalist, reactionary discourse began in the 1980s. Mubarak has been in power since 1981. The only new element in this stressful situation is the bird flu, which began wreaking havoc in 2006. It functions in the film as a metaphor of fear. Everything and everyone inspires fear. We didn't want to turn our characters into victims of a social reality bigger than they are. The two main characters, however sympathetic they may be, exert power over others. They are in their early 30s—not young enough to be forgiven everything, not old enough to be dismissed for having failed their lives. Such are young wolves of today's Cairo, who do not realize what they are, who do not realize the monsters they can become. We leave our characters just as they begin to perceive certain truths about themselves.
The film begins on an island: Zamalek. A residential area for the middle-class and a certain bourgeoisie scattered with embassies, five-star hotels, and country clubs. The aquarium of the title is situated here in Zamalek. It is symbolic, and symptomatic, of the love lives of Cairo's underprivileged youth. Its maze-like structure leads you to believe that when inside it, you are hidden from the gaze of others. But in fact you are completely exposed. And if you want to cuddle there with a loved one, you have to pay the ‘security guards’ like everywhere in Cairo. Everything is hidden. Everything is exposed.
And where is ‘reality’ in all this? In the voices ‘off.’ In the highly censored nocturnal confessions that Leila receives during her radio show. Leila, whose disembodied voice dominates Cairo nights. In the underground gynecological clinic where Youssef is an anesthesiologist, where he listens to the ramblings of young women who are ‘guilty’ of falling in love or getting raped. They come to get abortions or become virgins once again. In Egypt, this is called ‘being patched back up.’ Another metaphor for the way we deal with our wounds.
But I have written only about the script—a script that is uncluttered, laconic, and possibly very constraining. But ‘uncluttered’ and ‘constraining’ have never been my style. The arch of the film is indeed the script, but the director in me wanted to blast it to pieces. So I punctuate and contradict the story with interviews with the actors who play the supporting roles. Interviews about what it is like to be a man, a woman, in Egypt. Why? Probably to re-think The Aquarium not as a ‘simple’ intimate story of two laconic and secretive characters—from which I sketched a minimalist portrait of my city (something with which I haven't the slightest problem; in fact the version I intend to show on television has no interviews)—but as a formal and political adventure, the ambition of which is to show Egypt as it is today.
Film Information Collapse
[AQUAR] | 2008 | 111 | Narrative Feature
Directed by: Yousry Nasrallah
Foreign Title: (Genenet al Asmak)
Premiere: North American
Cast & Credits Collapse
Principal Cast Hend Sabri, Amr Waked, Gamil Ratib, Bassem Samra, Ahmed El Fishawy, Samah Anwar
Screenwriters Yousry Nasrallah, Nasser Abdel Rahman
Producers Gabriel Khoury, Denis Freyd, Karl Baumgartner, Layaly Badr
Director of Photography Samir Bahsan
Editor Mona Rabi
Composer Tamer Karawan
Production Designer Adel El Maghrabi
About the Director(s)Collapse
Yousry Nasrallah (b. 1952, Cairo) studied statistics at Cairo University, where he participated in Egypt's film club movement. His early work in cinema included stints with one of the most important directors in Syria, Omar Amiralay, and the most important director in Egypt, Youssef Chahine. His first film, Summer Thefts, played at Cannes in 1988 and later won 17 festival awards. His subsequent films have also been widely screened and honored at festivals worldwide. They include: 1993's Marcides, the 1995 documentary On Boys, Girls and the Veil, 1999's El Medina (The City), and 2004's Bab el Shams (Gate of the Sun), based on the novel by Elias Khoury. Nasrallah divides his time between Cairo and Paris.