Nowadays, mainstream cinema genres are quite fixed. “Comedies” may not be funny, but with a few exceptions, they seldom aspire to be anything more complex than sentimentality. Serious dramas may cultivate a few laughs, but only to make the final knife thrust more painful.
These conventions weren’t engraved in stone in 1968, the year Egyptian director Farouq Ajrama (aka Frank Agrama) shot “Usabat al-Nisa” (“The Gang of Women”) in Lebanon and Turkey.
This Turkish-Egyptian co-production (titled “Five Hot Women” in Turkey) is being screened as part of the Lebanese film retrospective The Most Beautiful Days of My Life, currently up at Cinema Metropolis-Sofil.
Ajrama’s pastiche of pop cosmopolitanism has many ingredients in its formula.
As the titles suggest, there are several women in the cast – often pretty, occasionally rather scantily clad (and, if the musings of online film enthusiasts are to be trusted, there is a fair bit of nudity in some versions of the film).
Leading this bevy are Sabah and Taroub, prominent Lebanese performers who, being vocalists, bring a bit of singing to the mix. Song occasionally provokes dance, so you can also expect a belly dance or two, thanks to Taroub’s sister Mayada.
Where there’s a girl, there tends to be a gun. Usually they’re wielded by men but it’s one of the charms of Ajrama’s film that some of the gunplay is put in women’s hands.
Yet men there are. The hero is Turkish heartthrob Cüneyt Arkin, whose coiffeur – theatrically grey at the temples and lacquered in place, even during the most energetic punch-ups – is reminiscent of “Streets of San Francisco”-era Michael Douglas.
Suave studs like Arkin can induce yawns without a clownish sidekick, thanklessly played by Said al-Mughrabi – also the film’s screenwriter.
Leavening the violence, song and dance is a strong dose of criminality, explicit allusions to recreational sex (kept tactful in this version of the film), and inexplicable elements of B-movie horror.
Ajrama’s formula is a rich, and highly Egyptian, concoction, yet (like EM Forster before them) he and Mughrabi concede to the necessity of plot.
The film commences in the Bosporus, and a montage of vignettes which see comely young women stalk men of various dimensions, strike photogenic poses and dispatch them. In one James Bond-evocative scene, a pretty lass in a bikini guts a guy with a spear gun.
Anonymously led by Taroub, these dangerous damsels arrive in Beirut on an MEA flight, parading across the tarmac like models on a catwalk. It’s here that the female lead, Siham (Sabah) first encounters Murad (Arkin), her prospective love interest.
Distant relatives of Mastroianni’s “Marcello Rubini” and Walter Santesso’s “Paparazzo” in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” Murad is a Turkish journalist on the hunt for something florid to write about in Beirut, while Mughrabi plays his photographer sidekick.
The photographer possesses a snap of one of the femmes fatales, whose principal vice is counterfeiting U.S. bank notes. This sets up a gag or two – he hangs his socks in the darkroom alongside his prints, for instance. Yet most of his comedy stems from being Murad’s opposite – skinny, perpetually terrified and undersexed – as when a young Madhia Kamel turns up (purring “Nico. Nico. Nico”), does a striptease and, it seems, swipes the implicating photo.
By today’s critical standards, “The Gang of Women” is in no way a “good” film. Neither is it as inadvertently hilarious as some of the movies in this retrospective. That doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting or valuable.
One of the more striking things about Monday evening’s projection is the poor quality of the print (a digi-beta tape donated by ART). Color saturation levels varied within individual scenes. The film is riddled with abrupt cuts, testimony to ham-handed editing, censorship or the miserable condition of the original 35mm print – prints, actually, since around the last reel of this projection, it acquired French subtitles.
The aesthetic value of a work like “The Gang of Women” is debatable. They may not entertain contemporary audiences in quite the way that the filmmakers intended – how much cultural production does? – but these films remain strangely compelling.
This being the case, the print’s uneven quality highlights what a shame it is that the Lebanese state hasn’t been able to muster the self-awareness to take better care of its film patrimony.
A bit of online trawling will turn up a bit of information about “The Gang of Women” and some of Ajrama’s other works. Commendable as such dogged solo research is, without any semblance of an archived film library, the claims it puts forward are hard to verify.
Documentary filmmaker Hady Zaccak is acquainted with this period of Lebanese film production and the large hole that exists where a national film archive ought to be.
“In 1964,” he says, “the Ministry of Culture created its own version of France’s CNC [National Center of Cinematography] and with it a cinematheque, whose film archive holds the 35mm prints of 35-50 films, some of them foreign films.”
The CNC is now a moribund institution. The responsibility of promoting Lebanese cinema, Zaccak says, has been shouldered by the Lebanese Cinema Foundation, a non-state body that to this point is without an archive.
He estimates that up 120 Lebanese-made films were shot during the so-called golden age (roughly 1958-1975). If you include foreign films shot in Lebanon, with more or less Lebanese participation, the number may be closer to 300 titles. An archive of less than 50 Lebanese films is disappointingly small.
Based on what’s on offer in this retrospective, the films made in Lebanon in this period are clearly worth preserving. At times they’re riotously funny in that “it’s so bad, it’s good” way. They’re also engaging for what they betray about past filmmaking practices – even if the available print is only one of several versions cut for Turkish, Egyptian and Lebanese audiences – and the cultural and social underpinnings that guided the filmmakers’ whimsy.
Then, for non-specialist audiences and patriots, works like “The Gang of Women” provide a glimpse of a country as it was before it had accumulated quite so many scars.
The Most Beautiful Days of My Life continues Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Mohammad Salman’s 1965 song-and-dance detective flick “The Black Jaguar.” For more information call 01-204-080.