The struggle of young Egyptian artists in natural colors



 
In Natural Colors, Egyptian director Osama Fawzy's latest film, has caused a stir. Among its critics, students and staff from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo where the film is set have protested at "a distortion of their image on the big screen." Reem Shawkat went to see the controversial film.
 
Reem Shawkat
 
Extracts from the film "With Natural Colors", by the Egyptian director Osama Fawzy's.
Extracts from the film "With Natural Colors", by the Egyptian director Osama Fawzy's.

A few weeks ago, I was told that a new movie featuring art students had come out. An avid art lover, I rushed to the movies to watch art students paint and try to interpret, re-interpret, and reflect on their paintings.

I was excited. The actor playing Yousef, the film's main character, was my classmate in sophomore year. We took history of the theatre and drama classes together. Yosra Al-Lozy, his co-star, also went to my university. I took a class with her brother and I became acquainted with her mother when I organized a poetry night.

Finally, I believed, my generation, with all its contradictions, frustrations and attempts at escapism, was going to be represented.

The film opens with a clip of a young man by the name of Yousef, played by Kareem Qasim, reading verses from the Holy Quran, then praying to God. His prayer resonated some of my own prayers four years ago before taking my final high school exams.

Yousef is facing a serious dilemma too common to ignore in the Arab world. We are introduced to his mother's dream, to see her son become a doctor, and to his dream, to become an artist.

Yousef is fragile. He is sensitive to his single mother's sacrifices and he wants to please her, but there is one problem. He can't pass chemistry to save his life. In fact, organic chemistry makes him hallucinate. He is living in limbo. He can either pass chemistry to please his mother or follow his number one passion, art.

Yousef, like other young Arab men and women, is torn between his dreams and a society that sees science as superior to social sciences and the arts.

Artists are struggling all over the world, but sadly, in the Arab world, they struggle to secure much-needed resources in the form of grants, residencies and venues to showcase their work. I wasn't an art student, but as a student of journalism and sociology, I struggled to convince others that what I was studying was not easy or unproductive. Art students were met with even more criticism. Not only is art viewed as a major for the eccentric, but its students are written off as elitists living in their own secure bubble.

Chemistry pushed Yousef into the Faculty of Fine Arts. The school is a microcosm of Egyptian society - the ultra-religious with their beards and loud calls for prayers during classes, the westernized urban youth struggling to grasp the glaring contradictions between their religious and cultural heritage and their lifestyle, and the corrupt professors who are willing to sell grades in exchange for sex, money or even valuable resources.

In the film, Yousef leaves the Faculty of Fine Arts to retake his exams. The trigger is nudity as he decides to leave art school because he feels guilty about painting naked bodies. But his inability to do anything other than art eventually pushes him back to art school a few weeks later.

Art is embodied in the bodies of man and woman, declares professor Naeem in the movie.  Always in shorts, summery Hawaiin t-shirts, and with a scooter, his chosen method of transport, Mahmoud Al-Lozy shines in his role as Naeem, the hip and least corrupt professor on campus.

He brings in a number of male and female models who strip in front of his class. Yousef is flabbergasted, the veiled girls look away, and the students with beards are too shocked to even utter a word.

Naeem is uncompromising and, like Al-Lozy in his theatre classes at the American University in Cairo in real life, is a master at teaching students about art by teaching them about life.

Art vs. religion

Religion is so obvious in Egypt today that it's difficult not to include it in movies. With Natural Colors features veiled women and we see prayers or gatherings encouraging extremism, as well as many Muslims struggling to balance their faith with a modern life.

In this movie, the struggle between religion and modernity is portrayed through the voice of youth. It focuses on the internal dialogue of Egypt’s youth. They want to party, love and express their love by having sex, but then there is always remorse.

Elham, played by Yousra Al-Lozy longs for Yousef's kisses. She sleeps with him, but cries in his arms after sex. Guilt-stricken, she dons the veil, then covers her face with the niqab. We don't see her face much after that and she disappears from the movie. We only see her tearful green eyes in one scene when she is asking God for forgiveness and then again when she glances at Yousef. She stops returning his calls, because, she says, she has to chose between leading a sinful life or being a Muslim.


The struggle to choose

In my opinion, Elham emulates the main idea of the movie: struggle. All the students and professors are struggling to make choices.

Yousef has to choose between medicine and art. He has to chose between alcohol and his prayer mat. He has to chose between being corrupt and selling his art or not.  

There is the gay professor with little choices to make, and the young female professor in tight blouses and short skirts having to chose between money and love. A young artist played by Ramzy Lener has to choose between taking responsibility for a child born out of wedlock or living the free life that he thinks he deserves.

Yousef's struggle is always connected to religion, and throughout the movie, he is pursued by a sheikh. He haunts him like a ghost, appearing in different scenes and trying to lead him onto the right path. He chases him around to remind him that art is haram. He wants him to make the right choice.

Artists, we are reminded, are frowned upon by society. They are seen as enemies of religion by extremists who outlaw any work of art that is not a mere representation of nature.


Critics divided

I was introduced to the film’s director, Osama Fawzy, through his controversial 2004 film, I Love Cinema. Set in the 1960s, the story is told from the point of view of a six year old boy, Na'em, who loves cinema.

The main family in the film is a Coptic Christian family, a minority that is rarely represented in mainstream Egyptian cinema. As in In Natural Colours, it discusses the themes of freedom, the struggle to make choices, religion and art.

Some critics see Yousef as the grown-up version of Na'em, and the movie as a continuation of Fawzy's journey to tackle all the restrictions forced on art in all its forms.

Whether it is film-making, painting, writing or event performing, the significance of art is often overlooked. But art, contrary to a luxury, is a necessity in all societies that helps them grow and reflect on their development through creative means.

According to Fawzy, "freedom of thought and creativity is a victim of change in society, because of the wide incursion of fundamentalists, even in the Faculty of Fine Arts, which is a symbol of freedom of creativity in the country.”

The film was attacked when the trailer came out, and critics established a facebook group calling for a general boycott of the movie. Art students protested the negative light in which art was presented.

Fawzy was shocked at how the movie was received and perceived.  He viewed his film as much more than a film about Art students, in his view, it was a  documentation of Egyptian society over the last 25 years, the time interval was changed to five years to make more sense.


A reflective film

Fawzy's films tend to suffer. Their production time is usually longer than that of commercial films, and production companies tend to avoid artistic films like his because they don't consider them to be profitable.

Commercial films -the majority of films produced in Egypt- are box office successes because they are embraced by an Egyptian population desperately seeking a laugh. Perhaps the economic woes and difficult life in present-day Egypt forces Egyptians to shy away from more serious and reflective movies. They want a funny movie with one or two good songs to sing along to.

More reflective movies are rare, and this is mainly why I was certain that I wanted to watch this one.

As much as it was criticized for its unrealistic portrayal of art students, the critics should be reminded that any faculty or institution is only representative of the society in which it exists.

And In Natural Colors doesn't present a new image of artists to the Egyptian public. The image of artists here is already negative.