Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story Review

AKA: Ehki Ya Shahrazade, Mujeres de El Cairo, Femmes du Caire, Women of Cairo
Genre: Drama
Year Released: 2009
Distributor: ArtMattan/Facets Video
Origin: Egypt
Running Time: 132 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 17+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Hamza’s Suitcase, Caramel, Flimflam, The Dealer, Inch’Allah Dimanche, Neria, Network
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is the 7th film from Coptic-Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah. Some of his other films include After the Battle, The Gate of Sun, and Summer Thefts. He wanted to reverse gender roles by even employing female gaze and male-on-male gaze scenes in camera work while also critiquing the concept of patriarchal bargaining in his home country.

-The main character Hebba is played by Mona Zaki. She has been in films such as The Days of Sadat, Aabu Ali, and Halim.

-Culture Bonus/Bookworm Bonus: The title of the movie is a clear reference to the main character of 1001 Nights or better known in the West as Arabian Nights. As a twist in the meaning, Hebba listens to women telling their stories as opposed to Scheherazade telling her stories to the king. This is also the same anthology of stories that featured Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Sinbad, and Aladdin. Also, Osamu Tezuka made an anime version of those stories and .Hack//Liminality had an opening theme song called “Senyaichiya” which is the Japanese translation of 1001 Nights and namedrops Scheherazade in the lyrics.

-Composer Tamer Karawan did the music for this film. He’s regularly collaborated with Nasrallah and scored Ouija, Hobak Nar, and Cabaret.-Cairo is the 2nd most populated city in Africa and 6th largest in the world with over 9.9 million people living there (20 million in the metro area). It also has a record of having the most amount of Arabic speakers in the entire world.

-This movie faced a backlash in Egypt and there were calls to boycott it, but Mona Zaki and the filmmakers did their best to defend it despite the pressure.

Here’s another country getting representation on Iridium Eye that never got featured before. Of all the countries in Africa that I’ve reviewed movies from, I surprisingly have never seen an Egyptian movie until this review. Egypt is certainly a popular locale in fiction, but it’s misrepresented as well as being limited. It’s always about pyramids, archaeological digs, or whitewashed versions of ancient history. This isn’t just limited to Hollywood, but even anime is guilty of this, too. Yu-Gi-Oh!…I rest my case. This particular review doesn’t have any pyramids, mummies, or Egyptian gods in it as it takes place in modern Cairo and Alexandria (most of it was filmed in the latter from my research). While the modern Egyptian populace is certainly different than the country’s days as Khmet, the casting totally isn’t whitewashed at all given that it’s an Arab-majority nation, but that’s a story for another day. Don’t even get me started about how there’s people who don’t even believe Egypt is in Africa. Have those people not looked at a map or taken a geography class? Okay, enough about that.

How did I enjoy this movie from the Northeast corner of Africa?

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is about a talk show host named Hebba Younes. She’s happily married to a newspaper writer Karim and her show “Dawn to Dusk” on Sun TV (not to be confused with the Canadian channel of the same name) is a big success. They live in a luxury apartment and make a good amount of money with their jobs. However, they work on opposite ends of the spectrum. Karim is considered to be promoted as a potential editor-in-chief at the newspaper company, but said company is very pro-government and right-wing while Hebba tends to have thoughts that run contrary to the current administration. Fearing that Hebba’s political ideologies could ruin his promotion, he suggests that his wife could expand the talk show’s content by doing apolitical human interest stories. She takes his advice and decides to interview regular people from all over Cairo to tell their stories. To her surprise, her recent female guests talk about their experiences being wronged while making low-key political digs with taboo subjects even if they had nothing to do with the climate or politicians (well, except for the third guest). Hebba does everything to listen as well as getting their stories on national TV, but people in that newspaper company get very uncomfortable with the stories being told even though the content wasn’t directly political.

This was quite a fascinating look into Egyptian cinema and it shows how progressive movies can be in that part of the globe. Anyone who assumes that Cairo is nothing but slums, terrorist war zones, or pyramids should go slap themselves. It was great seeing both the middle-class and even ritzy parts of the city as Hebba goes to fancy malls or sees other people fixing up while looking sharp around this bustling metropolis. What could surprise most Western audiences is that the women don’t wear veils every minute of the day. Yes, you do see veils and headdresses in multiple scenes, but part of that is a subversion where Hebba and another woman named Salma (whom Hebba calls the Egyptian Salma Hayek) wearing their hair down in a subway as they’re surrounded by women with their heads covered and feel awkward in that situation. I can tell that women’s rights were a key motif in the movie, but it wasn’t done in a preachy way most of the time. The fact that you had female characters speaking their mind in private and in public with the talk show was impressive and certainly a huge artistic statement in the Egyptian much less the Arab community sociological zeitgeist across Northern Africa and Western Asia. The fact that this was directed by a man who doesn’t resort to cinematic mansplaining or feminist pandering is a huge plus with the presentation. The stories that are told to Hebba will certainly grab the viewer’s attention as there are multiple acted flashbacks to coincide with each tale while the women are interviewed. the relationship dynamics with the different characters was fascinating. Hebba and Karim start out overly-infatuated with each other at home and in some cases overdo the kissing and romantic stuff that would put the South Pacific Power Couple gimmick by TK Cooper and Dahlia Black to shame (I can’t believe I used an indie pro wrestling reference in a movie like this). The tension slowly escalates with the potential promotion opportunity as Karim and Hebba try to play it cool despite disagreements at first, but the husband becomes low-key self-important in little ways like claiming that them having sex is “the best reward” she can get as some kind of celebration. Things really pop off in the finale which get very unnerving. Besides their character arc, this film doesn’t hold back with the depictions of some of the actions when it comes to sexism, one of the interviewees being a convicted murderer (the murder scene was way more graphic than I expected), and there’s even an abortion angle that’s brief, but will make anyone’s skin crawl no matter if they’re pro-life or pro-choice. The camera work wasn’t expensive, but things were handled competently with the crisp shots of Cairo and Alexandria or even the basic TV scenes. The opening credits were interesting with the imagery of the fruit mixed in with fuzzy TV transitions. I can tell they used Final Cut Pro to do all of that (not a bad thing, of course), but they weren’t being basic about using that software. I was very impressed with the music which ranged from acoustic traditional Arabic rhythms to understated ambient pieces. The opening instrumental theme did catch my ears and I liked how it was repeated sparingly at key points in the film. the acting was very impressive with more understated performances to the scenes of pure outrage where one can really feel the drama pouring in. There was one scene that could look histrionic out of context, but I thought it was very necessary.

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story could use some revising here and there. While the cinematography was good, there were some dips in production. The scene with the three sisters were on the beach in Alexandria did get pixelated and aliased which was distracting. The murder scene despite having powerful acting did get very cheesy as there was clearly a green screen used for the fire as the character sets the building ablaze. It unintentionally reminded me of a low-budget tokusatsu work even if it was only for a few seconds and it took me out of the movie since everything was more realistic in filming. There were subtitle errors with some grammar, misspelling, and Hebba being called “Hedda” a few times in the movie. The editing going into the final story mentioned in Hedda’s program threw me off as new characters randomly popped up. I thought it would’ve been better to introduce the new character Nahed on the show first before she tells her story like they did with the other guests on the show, so there wouldn’t be any plot whiplash. While the movie did have a believable and progressive plot, there were some questionable implications in the movie. The ex-con Safaa did get imprisoned for fifteen years, so she didn’t get off the hook, but the reason why she killed someone (I won’t mention who lest it spoil a plot twist) is because he cheated on her. On one hand, this could destroy the trope of a woman getting away with murdering her cheating boyfriend/husband which invokes a “vagina pass” (I won’t use the cruder term for that gender double standard trope) plot convenience, but would a man catching the body of a cheating girlfriend/wife get the same amount of sympathy? Nobody should be unfaithful or be murdering people, but that thought came to my mind not long after Safaa’s story was presented. Regardless if it was in Egyptian society or Western society, there are people who’ve done more time (mostly men, and don’t get me started on the racial aspect) for less whether they committed a crime or not. While I applaud the Hebba character giving women a chance to speak as they deserved to be heard, some of the stories involved some talk show trash. One of the stories involved discussion of a DNA paternity test. I shouldn’t be thinking about obvious Maury Povich jokes with a storyline like that especially since the character is talking about this on a talk show. I dare anyone to watch that part of the movie and not have the phrase “You are (not) the father!” pop up in one’s head and imagine a crowd going “OH!” after it was spoken. It’s sad because it does have serious implications and the rest of the movie works fine, but some of those moments got a bit cringe-worthy.

This was a good introduction to Egyptian cinema. Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story did work in deconstructing female-based tropes in the context of Egyptian society as well as showing these characters as real people. The acting was splendid and the story was well-paced for over two hours of run time. The production did get to be hit or miss and some gender double standard moments do pop up which may or may not be intentional. Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is a brave movie that’s worth watching, but may not be for everyone.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like North African cinema.
Add 1 point if you like movies that destroy sexist tropes.
Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer lighter entertainment.
Subtract 2-3 points if you don’t feel comfortable with hard-hitting issues.

Pros:
-Fantastic acting from multiple characters
-Demolishes sexist tropes and expectations even with the filming
-Great soundtrack and sound design

Cons:
-Some production errors with filming and subtitling
-Trashy talk show tropes do creep up multiple times
-Certain stories have unfortunate implications if the genders were reversed

Final Score: 7/10 Points

Content Warning: Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is certainly not for kids. The language is definitely R-rated. The violence gets bloody and graphic with domestic abuse, a murder scene, and an abortion scene. The last example is very disturbing with the camera focusing on a bloody tray underneath a character’s legs (there’s no nudity in the movie though) and there are pieces of gore that plop down on the tray. There’s sexual content, but the sex scenes are tastefully handled. Some innuendo is mentioned and one scene involves a man trying to squeeze by a narrow space, but a woman is in the way which gets uncomfortable to watch when he does it a second time. One character is revealed to be an opium addict who suffers from withdrawls in one particular scene as he blows inheritance money on booze, coffee, and those drugs.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is property of ArtMattan The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of ArtMattan.

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