200 Junayh: Egyptian film portrays social panorama of Egyptian society through the prism of 8 multiverses
In countless blockbuster films, film directors use celebrities as their main catch to draw in audiences and it is less common for inanimate objects to catch the spotlight. Yet, in the recently released Egyptian film 200 Junayh, it is a 200-pound Egyptian banknote that has viewers on tenterhooks.
The Egyptian banknote is used as the main conduit to explore eight different worlds which examine various social realities within Egypt: their ordeals, their triumphs, and their tragedies. The film sheds light on the surreal if dark humour that underlines the average Egyptian's life while its appeal is subsequently bolstered by a cast of 12 Egyptian celebrities, adding to the bizarre nature of the film.
Scriptwriter Ahmed Abdullah and director Mohamed Amin take the viewers from one scene to another and from one shot to another slickly, maintaining the thread that connects the dramatic events together, the banknote. Settings, décor, and costumes have also been set and selected carefully to fit every shot and scene inside all the short stories in the movie.
200 Junayh opens with the state-run printing press where the 200-pound bills are printed to be later distributed by security forces in an armoured vehicle.
Amin and Abdullah smoothly move to another scene from the rich social panorama to a poor neighbourhood in the Egyptian capital Cairo where simple Egyptian pensioners pile at dawn to begin the hours-long wait at a post office for their small monthly payments.
The film sheds light on the surreal if dark humour that underlines the average Egyptian's life
Aziza El-Sayed – remarkably portrayed by renowned actress Esaad Younes, who has made her come back to Egyptian cinema after almost a 15-year-hiatus – is a simple woman who gets paid 1,200 Egyptian pounds (about $76). “Those who see us gathering here may think we [get a huge amount of money], but the pension doesn’t sustain me for half a month,” Aziza tells a fellow pensioner as they sit on the pavement at dawn outside the post office awaiting it to open its doors hours later.
As Aziza is illiterate, she has a stamp made especially for her to use as a signature so she accidentally stamps the only 200-pound-bill she gets instead of stamping her name on the list of beneficiaries. And this is where the actual plot begins – the moment Aziza gets a 200-pound-bill with her name printed on it.
From the very beginning, Aziza feels dissatisfied with the 200-pound bill, believing it is usually spent faster than the smaller ones.
“I don’t like this 200-pound banknote. It’s as if it’s possessed, vanishing into thin air,” she tells the post office worker.
It seems Aziza has been right as her tempestuous son, Antar – played by famed actor Ahmed El-Saadany – is cast as the role of a rickshaw driver and con artist, who steals the bill. It leaves Aziza thinking she dropped it by mistake.
The theme of poverty is highlighted in the setting of the alley where Aziza lives in her simple ground floor flat. It is thematically reflected within the décor and the costumes of the actors and actresses. Other themes such as crime and deception are clearly depicted in the scene when Anter vigorously combs the street looking for the note he has stolen, with his mother and her neighbours.
Once Antar leaves the alley, with the banknote in his pocket, the real action begins with several tales, further depicting social realism.
One tale shows a mediocre, misfortunate belly dancer Sabah, well-played by famous actress Ghada Adel, a divorced woman who fights hard to provide a life for her mother and only child, as she attempts to maintain the remaining dignity left in her. Sabah gets the 200-pound note as a tip while dancing at a nightclub to use later for medicine for her sick mother.
The Egyptian banknote is used as the main conduit to explore eight differing worlds which examine different social realities within Egypt: their ordeals, their triumphs, and their tragedies"
The theme of greed appears in the film more than once, particularly when a greedy private tutor flaunts his excessive wealth among the community.
The setting then moves to the tutor's rich house where you see her wife complaining that her husband has become distant, while not knowing much about his family. The banknote is then used as an Uber fare.
Another tale depicts the nobility of a middle-class man, the Uber driver who takes the 200-pounds from the tutor’s wife, played by superstar Ahmed El-Sakka. He gives away the monthly instalment of his car for urgent surgery to a total stranger.
It's as if the scriptwriter tells the viewers not to judge the book by its cover.
Here comes a seemingly wealthy family where the husband sells his wife’s expensive diamond ring to pay his son’s college tuition fees. And of course, the 200 bill is part of the money he receives from the jeweller.
The narration follows the inner thoughts of the, seemingly, prosperous man and the maid cleaning his villa. While the maid thinks, unlike her, he has nothing to worry about, he is preoccupied with how to financially survive in the future.
Greed is spotlighted again along with hypocrisy when a high-profile sociology professor appears on a TV show to lecture the younger generation about contentment, at the time when he angrily demands double his fees after the show is over.
Among the last themes are death and betrayal when Anter engages in an affair with his best friend’s wife and is, eventually, exposed by the husband also through the 200-pound banknote.
"I wrote the film in a single day, but it took me over a decade to prepare for the project"
Perhaps there has been no Egyptian movie in recent years that combined all these high-profile actors and actresses in one work.
The performance of almost all actors and actresses in the film is quite realistic, even though each one appears in a few scenes.
“The characters, managed by Amin, creatively excelled in their roles, even though some were new to the parts they portrayed in the film,” prominent critic Walid Seif told The New Arab.
“Abdullah was keen on highlighting the moral factor in his script without delving deeper into social criticism, depending on fateful coincidences,” noted Seif, also a professor of artistic criticism at Cairo-based Academy of Arts.
The scriptwriter admits that the idea of the film is not new, “yet it has been tackled differently.”
In the Hollywood production Twenty Bucks, a 20-dollar bill is a common denominator among several actors.
“I wrote the film in a single day, but it took me over a decade to prepare for the project,” Abdullah told The New Arab.
The banknote, ultimately, returns to its original owner, Aziza, but accompanied by a catastrophic loss that money can never compensate for.
First premiered on August 25, the film is still successfully screening at most cinemas in several Arab countries.
Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital.