Though treating women’s oppression as a political issue isn’t exactly new, the clarity with which it’s spelled out in “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story” is both bold and brave. Together with scribe Waheed Hamed, helmer Yousry Nasrallah presents women’s sexuality as an expression of self-determination, making clear the parallels with an ever-degenerating political system. Following a late June release, “Scheherazade” has become a hot-button topic in Egyptian cultural debates, pulling in a very respectable $2 million and counting. Fests will appreciate the form and message, while a small Euro arthouse run isn’t unthinkable.
At first, the teaming of Nasrallah, an art film director with a solid international rep (“El Medina,” “The Door to the Sun”), with a populist writer like Hamed, left many in the industry puzzled, but the combination allows both men to explore and mine each other’s style. The result created heated debates across Egyptian media and generated multiple Facebook groups both pro and con — as well as innumerable illegal downloads. Star Mona Zakki has come in for especially nasty criticism, with some feeling she betrayed her clean-cut image and alienated conservative fans.
Zakki plays Hebba, a smart, sexy TV host who grills guests about corruption and the tainted world of Egyptian politics. Her husband, Karim (Hassan El Raddad), is the deputy editor of a paper tied to the government, and his bosses make clear that his ascension depends on his getting his wife to change her target. Though reluctant, Hebba agrees, looking to the topic of women’s oppression and bringing different guests on the show to tell their stories, a la Scheherazade.
First up is fiftysomething Amany (Sawsan Badr), a fairly liberated and confident woman who decided long ago not to settle for anything less than love. Hamed has created a terrific, complex figure here, beautifully played by Badr: Neither prudish nor conservative, though still a virgin, she talks about sexual urges but also about the iron veil on women’s brains. A date with politician Ahmed (Hussein El Imam) turned disastrous when he proposed she give up her autonomy just so she could emptily call him “husband.”
Next up is Safaa (Rihab El Gamal), a veiled ex-con who murdered the family retainer. When her father died, she and her sisters (Nesrine Amin and Nahed El Sebai) overcame odds and took over the family store with the help of their servant, Said (Mohamed Ramadan). Realizing a male presence was needed for security (and pleasure), they agreed that one of them should marry Said, but he’s been playing all three.
Third story belongs to Nahed (Sanaa Akroud), a well-off dentist romanced by high-powered economist Adham (Mahmoud Hemeida). Determined to keep her virginity until marriage, Nahed agreed to bed her suitor only after a betrothal ceremony, but once he got what he wanted, Adham turned to blackmail.
Nasrallah has always reveled in mixing genres, and here he uses meller elements to foreground powerful female characters. Occasionally the women’s tales overwhelm the whole, and “Scheherazade” does have overlong stretches, but the power of the yarns and the strength of the ensemble perfs maintain high interest. Truly exceptional is the way the film acknowledges women’s sexual desires, making them something to grasp hold of rather than push away.
More explicitly than in his underrated “The Aquarium,” Nasrallah highlights the media’s role in exposing societal injustice. Hebba’s growing realization of her own oppression — and how it, too, is used to maintain the political status quo — can be breathtaking in its directness. Glances take on major significance in a society that demands female modesty.
Lensing by Nasrallah’s usual top-notch d.p., Samir Bahsan, is aces.