Ehky Ya Scheherazade (Youssry Nasrallah, 2009) is an Egyptian feature film which explores problems faced by women in contemporary Egypt. The title of the film makes an explicit reference to One Thousand and One Nights in which Scheherazade tells Shahryar, the king, stories in order to stay alive. Indeed, storytelling is a prominent narrative tool within the film. Even more, the connection to One Thousand and One Nights suggests that the women in the film had to tell their stories in order to stay alive. The film uses the talk show as a vehicle for women to publically discuss their concerns. Hebba—the lead character who is a TV hostess—invites a number of women to her show, all of whom with their particular stories to share. Stories about the search for a husband, women's sexual restraints, and the social traditions which propelled them to seek refuge in marriages they did not really desire, among other concerns.
A reasonable question to ask at this point is: Does the film belong to women's cinema? Typically women's cinema is concerned with a set of problems and issues which help identify it as such. To this extent, the film is a women's film. It is concerned with problems similar to those picked up by the so called women's cinema. Nonetheless, only one thing is really certain about this film. Ehky Ya Scheherazade (Tell me a Story Scheherazade) has a dominantly female cast. Thus, an alternative way of approaching the connection to One Thousand and One Nights is to think of the film itself as a Scheherazade narrating in order to save the society it depicts from further damage. In this view, women are the boat-rockers. They, perhaps because of their status as shown by the film, are more likely to demand social change.
Yet, what is the nature of their status? In this article in Salon, Prof. David Jacobson, a sociologist from the University of South Florida, made a linked women's "sexual" struggles to the more encompassing struggle "over the nature of self." Women, as depicted in the film, seem to undergo a search for selfhood, or feel a need to recreate such self. In this light, the complexity of Ehky Ya Scheherezade is better understood. Through storytelling, these women search for who they are, and who they wish to be. As the narrators of their own stories, they have the freedom to rewrite the parts of their history that they wish to reinvent. The film is a universal journey toward self-discovery and freedom. The film starts inside Hebba's nightmare. She wakes up gasping for breath: "there are no doors" she says. She is trapped because, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she is not offered the chance to recreate her past through the medium of storytelling. As the one who does not tell her own story until the very last scene in the film, she is given the least creative power. Her story is essentially told by the camera and not herself (the film even closes before Hebba tells her story).
Hebba is hidden behind a glamorous façade. In a scene where her husband Kareem attempts to scare her away from visiting poor neighborhoods (ironically by citing rape) he is shown painting her lips with a bright red lipstick. He is maintaining the façade with which he is comfortable. Although it is true that Hebba sometimes uses this pretty façade to manipulate others, mostly her husband, it does not seem to be a philosophical choice. In other words, she is not intentionally thinking of her appearance as a means for achieving greater freedom (even if freedom just means achieving the ends she desire). Instead, Hebba is trying to maintain a particular appearance for reasons other than freedom. If I am to describe this appearance, I will say neat, tidy, well-kempt.
Kareem—her husband—provides further insight. Kareem is a journalist who works in a daily newspaper. He is anticipating a promotion. More importantly, he thinks that the only way he would get the job he wants is by pleasing the "right people." Although Hebba does not seem to realize it, she is a lot like Kareem. They both feel a need to noticeably belong to one group and not the other(s). At a basic level, she maintains an image that separates her from a group(s) of people. The motivation behind this need to belong to one group and not another can only be explained through the benefits associated with belonging to either group. Without attempting to negotiate which groups Hebba aims to belong to, it is clear that such motivation to belong or not belong to any particular group is mediated by a clear recognition of social values and social value systems. Hebba, as is Kareem, does not seem to be able to construct a notion of self away from society, its traditions, norms, etc.
Expectedly enough, Hebba likes to be noticed. She dresses to be noticed. Thus far, she could be compared to the film itself. She is dependent on the act of looking—the observation of her audience, her fans, the lustful looks of her husband, and the disdainful looks of the poorer women on the subway. Like Hebba, some of the film's images seem too polished, neat, hyper aestheticized. Yet, in relation to Hebba this hyper aestheticization of the frames gains a greater meaning. In the case of Hebba, one can argue that she is maintaining a façade. In relation to the film, however, maintaining a facade becomes maintaining control over the images on the screen. This film is consciously a controlled environment. This control of the frames draws the viewers' attention to the boundaries within which the women--and men as well--search for their individual selves. Within this boundaries such search is not only acceptable, but also less disturbing to a watching audience.
The film is a controlled unit where true freedom cannot really be achieved. "Gender war in Egypt: a film about women who fight back" states the film's poster, but what is the nature of this fighting back? Are women really boat-rockers or are they put in situations where even their "fighting back" is pre-mediated by society—controlled by social traditions, structures, norms and orders. Is their mode of resistance real fighting back? If this film is indeed showing a gender war, who has the upper hand ? The struggle seems to encompasses both genders, indeed all human beings in modern societies. The filmmakers chose to create a restricted space in which the stories told by the women do not upset the established order. Rather, these stories and their narrators all fall in place as calculated parts contributing to a greater whole that is restricting to all individuals within it.
This film depicts a controlled struggle. Ehky Ya Scheherazade is a women's story, but one not told by the voice of women. It is told by the voice of that who/which controls women (and men for this matter). Order is created, maintained by and for the camera—not challenged by it. The camera moves from space to space showing individuals each carrying out his/her designated role. Even those who seem to rebel are playing out a role to which they've been assigned. The relation that this film has to women's cinema is not straight forward. Assuming that the film is a Scheherazade, the audience is the king. The film seems to negotiate the relation between the two. Even if by the end of the film the women do not seem to have fought back, the film (by offering a frustrating narrative) allows for a kind of resistance.