Egypt's first found-footage horror film makes its international bow after becoming a box-office hit when released at home and in several other Middle Eastern territories in November.
A popular hit when released at home and in a handful of Arabic-speaking territories last November, Warda is Egypt's first-ever stab at Paranormal Activity-style horror. Revolving around mysterious happenings inside a house in the Egyptian rural hinterlands, young helmer Hadi El Bagoury's second film is technically competent but shorn of a localizing tweak that could cast it apart from the many found-footage, surveillance-camera thrillers floating around in the market.
Abiding by the less-is-more ethos and allowing an eerie ambience to play mind games with the viewer, Bagoury and producer-screenwriter Mohamed Hefzy have proved their worth as canny operators of genre cinema — perhaps surprising considering Bagoury's directorial debut, the bombastically melodramatic 2011 relationship drama The Whole One. Making its first bow outside the Arabic-speaking world last week at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea, Warda is less a film destined for a long shelf life on the international circuit and more a solid calling card for Bagoury and his team as they fish for bigger things.
While The Whole One touches on Egypt's specific socio-cultural contexts — namely the religious orthodoxy and oppression of women — Warda is remarkably void of even the faintest connection with the country beyond its immediate setting. Aside from a plot point brought about by Islamic prohibition of alcohol, Bagoury's film could easily have happened anywhere. Its basic premise — a documentary filmmaker runs afoul of malevolent supernatural forces — for example, has been the foundation for everything from the seminal Blair Witch Project to the recent Ukraine-set filmmakers-in-peril flick Ghoul.
Here, the unwitting protagonist (or prey) is Wahid (Farouk Hasem), who returns to his small ancestral town with his Holland-raised girlfriend Amna (Samira Maqroun) in hopes of chronicling tales of possession in the region. Following the initial embraces Wahid recieves upon his return, Bagoury slowly introduces the still-raw schisms within the family. Mother (Abeer Mansour) is still quietly seething about Wahid's departure to the big city and his refusal to return home for his father's funeral; there's the menacing presence of an estranged uncle, at odds with Wahid's family about the future of the family land; and finally, the death of Wahid's middle sister, Fateh, from which his other sibling, Warda (Nada Al Alfi), has yet to recover.
As suggested by the title, Warda is at the center of things here. Following the arrival of Wahid and Amna — who is housed in Fateh's old room — the young woman's physical and mental condition begins to deteriorate, just as strange things begin to happen around the family. Wahid's concerns are mixed with the sense of an opportunity of a big break, as he flexes his creative muscles and installs small cameras around the house to capture whatever it is that's haunting the house. Cue a lot of grainy surveillance-style footage as the mayhem kicks off, and the self-styled sophisticate sucked into a situation he couldn't make sense of.
Granted, the apparently small-budget Warda doesn't thrive on big, bad visceral stunts. Rather, it's built on intrigue and atmosphere. On this count, DP Tarek Hefny's shooting strategies and Ahmed Hafez's editing are spot-on, as they deftly scheme and splice footage shot from the angle of the characters/actors and the detached, static cameras playing the all-seeing-eye from above. There's even some humor in there as well, such as how an exorcist defies the family's (and the viewer's) expectations of an exotic ritual by asking clinical questions about Warda's psychological disorders, and saying how "science and faith complete each other."
Knowing the territory well, Bagoury paces his film adequately until the final reel, when the story begins to unravel as Hefzy's plot runs out of nasty surprises to spring on the audience. The thrashing denouement doesn't offer a rationale for what came before, but more an ambiguous end which invites a sequel. Unsatisfactory, maybe, but perhaps that's the ultimate gesture from Bagoury and Hefzy in telling future financiers about they are very much in tune with genre and industry conventions of the day.