African and Middle Eastern cinema tends to receive precious little attention in the United States, with Iran among the better represented in terms of State-side theatrical distribution (such as Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, shamefully the only 2022 Middle Eastern release I’ve seen so far). Streaming and the DVD market have done a great deal to increase access and visibility, but even then, boutique labels like the Criterion Collection remain slow to usher films outside the west and parts of Asia (mostly Japan) into the canon. ArtMattan Productions has proven a useful resource in my feeble efforts to fill in blind spots, and its release of 2009’s Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is of particular note.
Directed by Yousry Nasrallah, Scheherazade follows Hebba (Mona Zakki), the host of an evening talk show called “Dawn to Dusk.” Hebba is openly critical of the government (early in the film we watch her grill a nameless suit over tepid responses to refugees at sea), which doesn’t sit well with the right-wing newspaper that employs her feckless husband Karim (Hassan El Raddad). The film doesn’t name drop then president/dictator Hosni Mubarak, but is very much a product of the mounting unrest against his regime that would boil over in 2011. With a promotion hanging in the balance, Karim urges Hebba to pivot the show’s focus to lower-stakes human interest stories. Pivot Hebba does, inviting local women to share their life experiences, inadvertently broadening the program’s critique to the patriarchal systems governing their lives.
In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade is the learned storyteller whose cliffhangers perpetually delay her execution. In Scheherazade, Hebba’s program similarly functions as a framing device for three vignettes: a doctor who’s chosen a lifetime of celibacy over an absurdly one-sided marriage proposal; the co-owner of a hardware store who served time for murder; and a dentist-turned-protester conned by a sleazy economist. That latter narrative makes explicit Scheherazade’s political throughline—apolitical professionals whose lives are, if not outright upended, severely constrained and complicated by social norms. It takes a multitude of forms of varying subtlety, among the more notable a quiet moment in which Hebba awkwardly rides the subway amidst headdress wearing passengers.
Scheherazade predates the 2011 Egyptian revolution by roughly a year and a half, placing it alongside Pablo Larraín’s Chilean masterpiece Ema as underseen cinematic Cassandras at the eve of social upheaval. Like Larraín, Nasrallah is a deft stylist, using playful camerawork and editing to keep the heavy subject matter from becoming a dirge. In a cute bit of foreshadowing, a slow zoom in on a dentist preparing to whiten a patient’s teeth abruptly cuts to a horse nipping at the dentist’s outstretched hand. The film’s best moment, however, arrives during the second interviewee’s tale; a carefree youth rides in the back of a pickup truck through the Cairo streets. The man is having an affair with three sisters, and seemingly glides through the cityscape like Guido dreamily escaping a traffic jam in 8 ½. The man is doomed, but doesn’t yet realize it.
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (2009)
Runtime: 135 minutes
MPA Rating: No rating
Streaming: Available to rent