Aptly billed as a “social fantasy,” Nadine Khan’s debut, “Chaos, Disorder,” reps an intriguing vision of a community cut off from the outside world and controlled via irregular truckloads of necessities. Much like a lab experiment in which researchers study the effects of isolation and domination, the pic sounds like sci-fi, but Khan more interestingly chooses an almost Fellini-esque evocation by means of a purpose-built set whose artificiality disrupts specificity of time or place. While it’s unquestionably a freshman work and suffers from a saggy midsection, “Chaos” shows thought-provoking originality and should garner respectable fest exposure.
Though Khan claims she conceived the idea without giving a thought to Egypt’s dictatorship, it’s hard to imagine the political ramifications remained only in her subconscious for very long. The pic was first presented to the censors while Hosni Mubarak was in power (some interior scenes were shot in 2010), but unsurprisingly, the authorities rejected the script, and only after the 2011 revolution was production restarted. Certainly as a metaphor, “Chaos, Disorder” can be seen as universal in scope, although given Egypt’s recent history, it’s hard to think of anywhere else.
The action takes place over the course of one week, each day forming a chapter punctuated by seemingly incongruous piano music whose mathematical precision handily brings order to the disorder. The town is on the edge of nowhere, encircled by desert and a trash heap; the horizon is a haze of sand-colored emptiness. There’s a shop, nondescript low-rise buildings, and a dusty soccer field that is the village’s focus.
Supplies arrive by truck: On Monday it’s water, Tuesday it’s gas, Wednesday it’s vegetables, etc. Each commodity is parsed out according to a strict hierarchy, with shopowner Haj Sayed (Sabry Abdelmenem) getting the choicest provisions. In contrast with the pandemonium that erupts among locals each time the truck arrives, an entitled ease reigns within Sayed’s establishment.
His daughter Manal (Ayten Amer) is romantically involved with Zaki (Mohamed Farag), but their relationship is stormy, and Monir (Ramzi Lehner) hopes to take his place in her affections. With little to do in town and barely any employment, the two rivals only have soccer as a means of battling it out.
With such a bubblelike atmosphere, the script really needed to develop character, and that’s where “Chaos, Disorder” falls down the most. After giving each of the leads some germs of personality and a few ounces of motivation, writer Mohamed Nasser Ali (developing Khan’s initial concept) neglects to expand further, which leads to a sense of sameness come midweek. Fortunately, energy gets injected by the weekend, in time for a reasonably satisfying conclusion.
Plot, however, takes a backseat to the idea behind it all. Within this small, poor community, a sense of expectation (will the supply trucks arrive?) creates a disorder eased only by soccer and the local radio station, whose sardonic DJ (voiced by Said Ragab) announces song dedications; the humor of this device is the script’s strong suit. Yet it’s the social control by an unseen government that fascinates the most, and the lack of background info furthers the sense of a lab experiment that anonymously doles out occasional treats — bread and circuses — to a captive community while maintaining constant uncertainty. The parallels with authoritarian regimes aren’t hard to decipher.
Assem Ali’s production design is especially commendable, creating a hermetic world whose population could apparently simply walk away, but there’s nowhere to go (following the trucks isn’t presented as an option, though it’s unclear if it’s forbidden). Visuals alternately evoke a sun-baked locale and a place where direct light is blocked by a sand-filled haze.