Gunshot is loud, but says little beyond an otherwise strong premise.
“The earth is round. The sun rises from the east. The truth has only one face. The truth is what the masses agree on. There are no points of view. Do you still believe in the same truths?”
For a film that is seamed by the concept of truth, Gunshot is a shout in a darkness made-up by its own director, Karim El-Shenawy, for characters dwelling through the memory created by its writer, Haitham Dabbour, who, while not a flat-earther, settled for a faux narrative of a presumptuously ‘novel’ truth. The crime-mystery film sets you up for a philosophical interrogation of the meaning of truth but settles for a see-through statement on where the writer’s vision lies. Moving forward, and accounting for Shenawy’s demands to handle his work as an apolitical piece of art, rather than a political statement, his softly-lit debut was visually strong at its highs but morally dim at its lows.
The story takes place around the death of a young man, Alaa (Ahmed Malek), during the time protesters clashed with security forces in Lazoughly: clashes that are visually obscured yet narratively set to be microcosmic of the events of the revolution; a theme that is both superimposed on and left out of the movie. The word ‘revolution’ was not mentioned once, yet the visuals closely mimicked unforgettable visuals from the clashes I know from the time: red flares, teargas, molotov cocktails and the broken belle-epoque buildings of Downtown, Cairo.
The alcoholic coroner, Yassin (Ahmed Al-Fishawy), receives Alaa's body at the morgue, and in a true Sherlockian fashion, transitions to a stunning, yet cliche, flashback to the green-laser-red flare-lit moment Alaa is shot on the street as he tries to light a molotov cocktail. The shooter is distant and, as the politics, obscured.
Maha (Ruby), comes in as a journalist at an independent newspaper who buys Yassin’s reports from the morgue’s janitor and builds a first-page news piece on Alaa’s death: fighting for our first answer - and the truth designated by the writer - that he was shot by a gun from a close distance.
The public, including Alaa’s family and neighbors, seemingly demands another truth: Alaa was killed by snipers from the roofs. Maha’s editor tells her she cannot handle writing an investigative piece on the death, had she not been physically inside the events. The editor wanted a piece that is not to please the public or the stare, a motif expressed in words by Shenawy in his interview with us. And Maha and Yassin come together to question what the presumed public wants to hear.
Set as the protagonists villainized by said public, both Maha and Yassin are redeemable in their conciseness, sticking to the particular arcs demanded by the story in their realistic performances of who they are. In that sense, Fishawy and Ruby were simply typecast for their roles. The former fit for a misfit 'genius' with an imaginative personality, and the latter for a bint balad, and a strong woman type.
Mohamed Mamdouh, however, was able to perform a masterfully deceptive role, making his character, Khaled (Alaa’s brother), easy to villainize by the audience until the big reveal (SPOILER ALERT): he was the one who killed Alaa in defense of their mother, Sayidat (Arfa Abdel Rasoul). He did it after Alaa attacked her to lease-off her apartment to him in order to kick out Khaled, having been in a sinful relationship with the latter's fiancé. Arfa’s subtle performance, as well, successfully obscured her role in Alaa’s murder until the final exposition.
Around this murder is a fuming public demanding the specified non-truth that Alaa was in fact killed by the police. This public is designated as unilateral: the opportunist media, the hyperbolic revolutionaries, and the depoliticized poor who turn out to have been covering up the fiasco. And the designated plot-hole, if Alaa were killed in Zeinhom, the neighbours must’ve heard the gunshot, from the beginning.
The film stylistically sets-up Maha and Yassin under constant authority and observation from everyone around them. Maha’s editor almost fired her twice over the story as her colleagues watched. Yassin’s regular visits to the Zeinhom coffee-shop near where Alaa's mother lives blocks him under surveillance of the watchful eyes of the neighborhood’s men, who also show up at the door in the last confrontation. They’re a silent public, complicit in an obscure lie for no clear reason whatsoever. The mise-en-scène remained, as everything, concise.
The loud Gunshot doesn’t take any risks when it comes to exposition, and wraps the plot quite tightly for a presumed think-piece: with b-rolls and voice over literally explaining the multiple versions of the events of the murder as they unfold throughout. It was un-challengingly literal and irredeemably underwhelming in that regard.
On the bright-side, or at least the softly-lit one, the cinematography and lighting set the mood for something that was grim and stark, which was let-down by the story. Yassin’s time at the morgue was consistently enveloped in darkness, only broken by the arrival of the sanctified body of the presumed martyr, to which the editing took to a concise, sharp, insert in which the coroner violates it for a solid truth: the bullet that killed him (which was clearly not a sniper’s bullet).
The most remarkable use of inserts, however, was the opening scene, in which the mother cooks-up the lie, metaphorized as a molokheya that reeks of garlic-y ta2leya: again, nothing too tongue-in-cheek.
Overall, the experience, as visually enjoyable as it was, felt restricted. And while that is justifiable as it stands, imposing a layer of political drama over the clear crime-story only shallowed the former and diverted from the latter.
The philosophical crux of the narrative: the choice between humanizing the public, and giving it an objective truth it won’t like felt like it came in with its own pre-packaged answer through the moralizations of the different characters throughout. Many critics had accused Gunshot of tainting the memory of the revolution: what it did successfully do, however, was sideline it.