Chaos, Disorderis the debut feature of Egyptian director Nadine Kahn. In interviews, Kahn professes to have drifted towards filmmaking after having failed to secure a place to study at art school. She can also be seen as simply continuing the family tradition: her father is the noted Egyptian director Mohamed Kahn. She has worked since the mid-2000s as an assistant director on a diverse range of feature films— from Egyptian drama The Aquarium (2008) to Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch's French-Canadian romantic drama Whatever Lola Wants (2007), to the Michael Bay blockbuster Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). In developing the screenplay for what would become Chaos, Disorder with co-writer Mohamed Nasser over a six year period, Khan faced the challenges experienced by many Arab filmmakers in fundraising and overcoming problems of censorship.
The film was eventually released in 2012, two years after the Arab Spring and the subsequent period of joyful optimism, political turmoil and conflict experienced by Egyptian society following the popular uprising that led to the downfall of the Mubarak regime. Chaos, Disordersecured a modest release in Egypt and proved a hit with festival audiences around the world, winning the Arab Film Competition's Jury Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2012.
The film's narrative unfolds over one eventful week in a poor urban community on the outskirts of Cairo, where life revolves around the delivery of essential supplies, local gossip, neighborly disputes and the football matches that take place at the heart of the neighborhood. Two local wannabe bosses, Zaki (Mohamed Farrag) and Mounir (Ramsi Lehner), battle for the attention of Manal (Ayten Amer): the daughter of the grocery store owner and current boss of the neighborhood, Haj Sayyed. Their rivalry culminates in a football match which will decide who has the right to be with Manal. Around this central narrative orbit a series of sub-plots and intrigues in a screenplay that fizzes with energy and humor. The film's cinematography contains a similar inventiveness and energy, as Kahn and DoP Abdelsalam Moussa display a rare talent for immersing the viewer inside the crowds that gather in expectation of delivery trucks and the makeshift football pitch.
Chaos, Disorder begins at night in an undisclosed location. A medium-shot tracks two young boys holding a rifle. The shot is framed from the neck down, as if to hide the boys' identity. As they walk side by side, the boys casually discuss who their next 'target' will be: a man called Tok Tok and the pigeons belonging to another as yet unknown character, Umm Ghada. After a stylized black-and-white credit sequence that replicates the pixilated blocks and angles of early 1980s computer graphics, we arrive at dawn on a misty rubbish dump as three male characters sift through a mass of plastic bottles, searching for something more valuable.
If we are expecting this opening sequence to act as a dramatic springboard for the action to follow, we will be disappointed. The two boys play a minor role in the film; Tok Tok and Umm Ghada are also secondary characters and their conversation seems to bears no relevance to the men sifting through items on the rubbish dump. Why, then, does the director open the film by sending us up this blind alley? In one sense, the scene is a prelude: warning us spectators intent on looking for a clear explanation for the actions and social interactions of characters in the film to follow, that we will not get very far. We must, instead, work as an audience to decipher the meaning behind Nadine Kahn's social fantasy, described by Jay Weissberg in his review for Variety as "a lab experiment in which researchers study the effects of isolation and domination," and not always settle for the most obvious explanation.
By way of example, while on one level Chaos, Disorder can be read as an allegory of the social turmoil that followed the mass protests and popular uprising of January 2011, the first idea for project actually came five years earlier, when Kahn was working as an AD on a film being shot in a Lebanese refugee camp. After years spent financing and developing the script, a limited number of interior scenes of Chaos, Disorder were shot in 2010 and an original version of the screenplay was presented to the Egyptian authorities in the same year, when Hosni Mubarak was still in power. The film was rejected by censors at that time, who were presumably concerned about the screenplay's focus on a poor, working-class neighborhood where simmering resentment builds, especially among the young, as a result of limited opportunities and a reliance on handouts of basic supplies (water, food, gas) that arrive on specific days of the week.
The film eventually returned to production in 2011, after the fall of the Mubarak regime. Chaos, Disorder's narrative is therefore just as concerned with the ongoing subservience of a working-class community who remain unhappy with conditions imposed on them by an unseen regime but struggle to find any solution beyond their current predicament. As is often the case with the chaotic but potentially limitless possibilities brought about by radical social change, such realities were occurring in Egypt in 2011. Pacified by handouts, the distraction of video games and the temporary excitement of local football matches, the inhabitants of Chaos, Disorder settle for the status quo, seeming unwilling or unable to consider what lies beyond the horizons of their neighborhood.
While recognizing the localized and immediate socio-political references to contemporary Egyptian society, Chaos, Disorder also operates on a more universal, even transnational level. Unable to find a suitable and accessible location in Cairo, and refused the relevant shooting permits by Egyptian authorities, Kahn eventually decided to rent a plot of land outside the city and build the set, allowing her production designer Asem Ali to work with Kahn's idea of the film as social fantasy— pushing the reality of the characters, dialogue and even the set itself to an exaggerated version of the everyday.
Hence, while the film takes place in a neighborhood presumably located on the outskirts of Cairo, this is never made clear and no direct reference to the political situation in Egypt is made. This should not necessarily surprise a viewer familiar with Arab cinema. Like their fellow writers, directors and performers across the Arab world, Egyptian filmmakers are accustomed to employing allegory as a means of smuggling socio-political commentary into their work under the noses of unsuspecting censors, both moral and political.
Yet as Kahn herself noted in a Q&A following a September 2014 screening at the Arab British Centre in London, Chaos, Disorder takes place in a narrative space that is simultaneously 'closed and universal.' As already noted, the inspiration for the narrative actually came from Kahn's observations of life in a refugee camp in Lebanon— and can be seen as a study of an isolated community which existis in a kind of bubble, with its own rules, morals and logic as to how society is ordered and functions.
Similarly, the cinematic influences found in the film are a mix of Egyptian, Arab and world cinema. The imposing presence of the loudspeaker in the film evokes Algerian director Merzak Allouache's Bab-el-oued City (1995); yet the humorous, practical and sometimes philosophical announcements that ring out over the neighborhood alongside popular Egyptian music are in fact, according Nadine Kahn, inspired by the use of the loudspeaker in the satirical, American anti-war film M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970). Indeed, the way that the announcer— voiced by the popular stage and screen actor Said Ragab— offers a commentary on daily events as well as a form of counseling to the community of Chaos, Disorder, also suggests parallels with Mister Señor Love Daddy, the character of the DJ/community commentator played by Samuel L. Jackson in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989).
Elsewhere, the scenes in which Zaki and Mounir, the young male rivals for Manal's affection, exchange hostile glances echoes the editing style made famous by Sergio Leone in his spaghetti westerns, while the coach of the local football team trains in the gym wearing the shirt of the London-based soccer team Arsenal. Finally, the intentionally repetitive and pared-down piano score of Chaos, Disorder is far more influenced by western melodies, scales, rhythm and structure than it is by Egyptian or Arabic musical traditions. Through this mixture of cultural and cinematic references, Chaos, Disorder reminds us that even in a seemingly isolated community, caught between the desert and a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Cairo, local and global cultural influences coalesce in unexpected ways that cannot be controlled by those in power.
Essay by Dr. Will Higbee Professor of Film Studies University of Exeter