"The Nile Hilton Incident" is a dark detective story by Swedish director Tarek Saleh set at the beginning of the Arab Spring in Cairo. It is a film that honors the word "noir," consisting mostly of scenes at night, when, as we all know, Cairo comes to life. Among other things, it is this Cairene life that seems to ooze from the very frames of the film that makes it so watchable and mesmerizing.
Following a murder story through the streets of Cairo, Saleh takes the audience with his camera to the nooks and crannies of the city, as our anti-hero Noredin gets in and out of buildings, stops his car at small shops and cafes and holds his metaphorical spyglass over the town to the extent that the audience gets a hyperreal, high definition version of Cairo that will stick with you for days.
The joke here is that the film was not even shot in Cairo: The credits say that the "Cairo" scenes were shot in Casablanca, Morocco. I find this hard to believe because I can almost swear that one of the streets that Noredin drives through, full of shops with high ceilinged shop windows full of uncanny looking mannequins, is Talaat Harb Street that opens up to Tahrir Square.
The detective film has scenes of public uprisings in Egypt, even though it was shot in Morocco.
After watching the film I raved about it to my Egyptian colleague, and she told me that it was banned in Egypt. It is not difficult to see why. As the story of the corrupt cop and corrupter system unfolds in the film, in the background there are always television screens that show Mubarak preaching to the people, and Sisi makes an appearance as a general. We don't really hear them speak, as the screens they appear on all seem to be malfunctioning in some way, and they remain spectral presences, disfigured and discolored, cut with stripes due to bad reception. Since we are patrolling the streets with Noredin trying to solve a murder, we naturally get glimpses of the beginnings of the street protests, and they gradually get bigger and louder, providing a pivotal moment in the film towards the end.
Noredin is investigating the murder of a singer in her hotel room in the Nile Hilton, the beautifully located hotel that has become one of the symbols of Cairo, a signal that the crimes committed there can be read as symbolic for the city at large. Apart from the Arab Spring setting, this particular murder is another element that makes the film problematic for the Egyptian authorities: The story is based on the murder of the Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim in her luxurious apartment in Dubai in 2008.
News items come and go very fast these days, but even I seem to have retained a slight memory of this incident precisely because of the vortex of "exotic" locations, fame, money and politics. (If you go online to read up on it, you can see that the story of the murder and the trial is even more byzantine than what is represented in Saleh's film.) The Tamim murder's noir qualities seem to have lodged in Saleh's memory as well, to very creative effect. We all know that women murdered by male partners are one of the main themes explored in noir films.
"The Nile Hilton Incident" opens with the incident itself, and we witness the crime through the eyes of the Sudanese maid Salwa working in the hotel. She sees a man enter a room, and then hears cries and a shot. With her survival instincts - because from the very first moment we see her we know Salwa is a survivor, this black woman in North Africa where racism is as rife as anywhere - Salwa understands something terrible has happened. When she hears the murderer coming out of the room, she fears being implicated, and we see her pushing her back to the wall in the corridor, almost trying to blend into the wall so that the murderer won't see her. One vulnerable woman has just witnessed the murder of another vulnerable woman, and all she can do is try to be invisible so that she may not lose her life, her job, or possibly her work permit (assuming she has one).
Saleh's insistent camera and Mari Malek's superb acting hook you from this very first moment, and you want, whatever corruption we may be set to watch, Salwa to pull through it all. When Salwa's "contractor" finds out later in the film that she has information about a murder that people may want to pay for, we see Salwa's survival instincts come into action again as she tells him that he should ask for more money for her to describe the murderer for the highest bidder.
Salwa's story that is woven into the supposedly "central" story of the murdered glamorous singer whose life we get to know about through Noredin's somewhat halfhearted but at the end persistent investigation. Noredin is both tricked and helped by the murdered singer's friend during this investigation. Both the dead woman and her doppelganger friend (in keeping with noir doubling) are Tunisian. The murdered singer too, like Salwa, has come to Cairo for "better prospects," and as we shall find out, she has followed her survival instincts for even further gains and thus got involved with "the wrong sort of people" that eventually got her killed.
Cairo, the film reminds us, like many cities of the eastern Mediterranean, remains, through its political and cultural upheavals, a city of hope and possibility for the vast hinterland it is connected to. Noredin takes us through these streets of possibilities, and Casablanca performs its role as Cairo with strange effectiveness. The men in jalabbiyas spilling out from their shops into the streets, fruit carts jostling with taxis, the sound of Quran cassettes being played on public transport... Saleh seems not to have missed a single detail about Cairo's texture in a way to make you nostalgic for the city even if you haven't been there, or indeed, even if you might not have enjoyed your time there much.
There are, naturally, several scenes that would ring true in a Turkish context not least because everyone at the police station seems to be calling one another "effendi" (a word of Greek origin). When towards the end of the film Noredin is riding in a taxi towards the heart of the protests against Mubarak, the driver first starts off chattering about how he supports the protestors and when he learns that his customer is a police officer, he turns his discourse around completely, cursing the "disturbers of the peace."
Saleh's atmospheric film is a feast for the eye and the ears, as the audience gets to listen to whatever the characters have put on in their car tapes, and indeed, when Noredin takes us to fancy "music halls" where young women from different parts of the Arab world "entertain" the "padrones" who have come to Cairo to spend their money. It is great to have Noredin on your side on these outings. He is only just on the right side of the law, and played by the charismatic Fares Fares, he is set to become your new favorite disturbed police officer.