Credit: Quinzaine des Cinéastes
by Öykü Sofuoğlu Featured Film

East of Noon — Hala Elkoussy [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 27, 2024

Once upon a time, there were frightened people. They were so frightened that their imagination escaped,” says a soothing, soft, and elderly feminine voice. The words belong to Jalala, the storyteller (or should we say seller?) of the barren and hostile enclave in which Hala Elkoussy sets her sophomore feature, East of Noon. Amidst poverty, corruption, and abuse of power, only the mind is allowed to wander in this land through stories that have been told — a luring sensation of freedom indeed, which actually serves as a means to keep and control everyone in their place. Premiered at this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Egyptian visual artist and filmmaker Hala Elkoussy’s allegorical tale, rich in local folkloric elements, questions the paradoxical roles that storytelling plays as an agent of social and political authority and control, as well as of artistic expression.

Our protagonist is a young man named Abdo, who spends his time doing dirty jobs for the town’s despotic showman boss, “Master Shawky.” When free, he dreams of leaving everything behind to become an internationally acclaimed musician. Abdo is clearly way too clever and witty for his own good, but luckily for him, he is also Jalala’s grandson, which grants him some protection from Shawky. Meanwhile, Abdo also has romantic feelings for Nunna, a charming young woman who sleeps with Chief Borai, one of Shawky’s goons, and other men in exchange for money, and has to deal with an unexpected pregnancy.

East of Noon relies less on a tight plot and more on an overbearing sentiment of oppression and revolt that escalates a tad hastily into a climactic resolution in the final act. Yet overall, it feels as if the inhabitants of the enclave are imprisoned in a timeless, lethargic present — visually underlined by the repetitive appearance of clocks. To a community that is living in “once upon a time,” dispossessed of past and future, fables, stories, and spectacles provide the only source of meaning for their existence, which is nothing but a simulacrum of the real world. Losing yourself to the white sheets blowing on the stage is indeed safer than risking one’s life on the wild waves of the sea — and that’s what Jalala hopes for her grandson. But the Real inevitably ensues, as in the shocking moment when one of Shawky’s performers shoots another to death, shaking the audience out of their self-induced torpor.

As a work that also stems from and depends on similar apparatuses, East of Noon doesn’t shy away from bashing the inner workings of the entertainment industry and its storytelling as means of control. Jalala’s portrayal, in particular, offers an interesting deviation from the wise elder we’re accustomed to in traditional tales. “I’m no angel. There are no angels in hell,” we hear her say, thus acknowledging the compromising role she plays in maintaining the status quo and the persistence of oppression and violence. To what extent Elkoussy sees herself in Jalala is debatable, yet it’s clear that she draws similarities regarding her work as an artist and filmmaker who has to play the game according to the rules of funding mechanisms and the priorities of the art industry in order to secure her position. Yet there’s something unsettling in the way Jalala is portrayed as lacking agency, having no other choice than to bow down to the system, so to speak. Even more so is Nunna’s situation, whose involvement in sex work — whether forced or by her own will — is never addressed. The fact that Jalala sees Nunna as her successor in the storytelling “business” is also significant, revealing how women are the ones who are assigned — or even forced to — a certain fate.

Hellish indeed, but calling Elkoussy’s vision in East of Noon dystopian would be too reductive and oversimplifying, for she never loses sight of the humor and surreal absurdity within her makeshift set pieces. From sugar cubes being sought after as an addictive substance in the community to Abdo’s lo-fi studio, where he creates percussion sounds by hitting flip-flops on tubes, East of Noon is full of quirky trinkets that emanate magical realism. Shot on 16mm film with soft-toned black and white, the film sports a satiny, creamy texture that enhances the oneiric state in which the inhabitants of Sharq 12 are bound to live. Only in three instances does the image leave its monochrome tones behind, to be tinted with equally soft, dimmed colors, where the sea, whose tales the townsfolk have heard countless times, materializes before our very eyes. We get a glimpse of a beauty so brief and furtive that we join Sharq 12’s inhabitants in their longing, desperately hoping to be swept away by the soothing vision of waves.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3.