Intense Practice to Improve Performance is a short film addressing the near-career-death of a bureaucrat, and how a seemingly ordinary day becomes a significant turning point for an unremarkable man, thanks to a minimal shift of fate.
Intense Practice to Improve Performance is written and directed in 2017 by Yasser Shafiey and will compete in the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival from 20 to 29 November.
Red tape, on a worldwide basis, can strangle a society more efficiently than even the wiliest revolutionaries, and reminds us that there are times when a lost rubber stamp is mightier than the sword. This is the underlying theme of Yasser Shafiey’s quirky, high-spirited social satire.
Shafiey opens his story with a deliberate, low-key pacing, in an unknown governmental employee’s office closed to the public, which strictly deals with paperwork shuffled between the four civil servants sitting on torn leather chairs, who occupy old metal rusty desks, stockpiled with worn-out bits of paper about to fall out. Three of the four civil servants are veteran bureaucrats who have sharp, pinched, unsmiling faces with impassive appearances due to the obvious hardship of their lives, and perhaps also by the challenges of eternal piety and complacency of family life.
They all work an uninviting environment, where the joy of life does seem to be receding. The three civil servants are occupied in anything but their bureaucratic work, and they are all dressed in pale neutral colours in contrast to the fourth civil servant, who is the youngest of them all and who just recently joined them. He is dressed in fresh bright colours and is swiftly finishing all the stockpiled files. The bureaucratic paperwork is then handed to another employee who proceeds to deliver the documents to other relevant offices. This employee, an office boy cum informant, is given more than usual importance and clout in the film, informs the higher authorities of any irregularities in the office with the four civil servants, such as eating outside the break time, 1 pm sharp. In other words, he is a messenger of doom, and someone whose authority in the group causes tensions in the group dynamic.
And here we see the real heart of the movie, in the way one man’s effort to do the right thing can inspire, or confuse, or anger, or frustrate, those who see it only from the outside, through the lens of their own unexamined lives. ” It’s actually bigger than a government issue, it’s more about entering a corrupt community which you cannot correct, so, unfortunately, you are forced, to ride the wave and join them if you want to continue in it or you will withdraw from it,” stressed director Shafiey.
Whereas Fiona, one of the actresses portraying a civil servant in the film, highlighted the office boy’s in the film role by stating, “the balance of them being employees and he’s the office boy and the imbalance of them being afraid of him instead of the other way around.”
Mentally, we urge the employees to think differently, to arrive at our conclusions after the twist of fate that takes place in the story. This is perhaps one of the few movies that might be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.
Mervat, Zakaria, and Mona are the veteran plainly-clad bureaucratic employees in the film, whilst Farid is the fresh, new brightly-dressed employee in his 30s, and is somewhere between arch naivety and inspired sophistication, who gets the work done and follows all the rules, as opposed to the others. The three civil servants are amused and yet worried about Farid becoming so infatuated by a world that can only end for him in the heartbreak and failure they see in their own lives.
The story revolves around Farid helping the other three civil servants to improve their knitting, potato peeling, vegetable chopping and crossword puzzle solving faster, so that when the office boy comes to collect the files they can quickly appear to be busy working instead of doing something else, which will simplify their home life or entertain them.
Together, they inhale the new thinking in the air, yet, there is something in this, although in life as in art, these are the characters for whom a moral journey is necessary.
“I wanted to express our daily lives, our daily routine which we are living in, in Egypt, and I wanted to convey this in a fantasy kind of way in producing the film, in the events that take place in the film itself in an exaggerated way, in an extreme expression. Typically, we see employees on office desks who enter government institutions, and you do find an employee shredding potatoes or chatting or listening to the radio, and it hinders your interests. I wanted to portray that in an extreme manner with an over exaggeration in the minutest details in a way that conveys my own personality as a director,” explained Shafiey regarding the screenplay he wrote.
Meanwhile, Farid desperately struggles to stick to the rule of not eating before 1 pm, yet keeps sneaking glances at the box of petit fours he got for a social occasion after work, so he does not want to ruin the box despite his rumbling stomach and the mouth-watering allure of the petit fours.
The film’s climactic moment is when the informant tells the civil servants that there will be a visit from the company’s Director General that day, and Farid eventually gives in to temptation and takes a bite of one of the petit fours before the dreaded 1 pm rule—just as the Director General opens the door to inspect their office. And that is how Shafiey achieves his final effect: as Farid, swimming in a mental soup of his own regret, tries to explain his administrative predicament to a legion of unfeeling government employees, due to an illogical and brutish bureaucratic decision that slowly begins to eat away at his life, Shafiey managed to present real humanity alongside their politics.
There is a strangeness to this film, a hallucinatory farcical quality which periodically surfaces, enough to make you suspect that some rug-pull is in the offing, a trick reveal. But this isn’t the point. It is a film which offers no clear reassurance on tone or narrative direction or who you must laugh with and at.
“Actually, the film does not portray if it’s a public or private sector company. I wanted the concept to be vague, so that the Egyptian population will be able to identify which sector we’re discussing ambiguously. It’s experienced daily. I was shooting it in the National Cinema Centre, which supported the film’s location and gave it to us for free. However, ironically, I submitted a film there three years ago, which has yet to be approved, due to bureaucracy. So, this is daily life, and I think people will relate by themselves.”
Fiona on the other hand, saw a parallel between Intense Practice to Improve Performance and El Irhab Wel Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab) a movie starring Adel Imam and Yousra taking place in the Tahrir government building.
The movie humorously also shows that career-suicide-by-petit four is an open-ended possibility, and in its simplicity and punch, as this is a film that feels as if it could have been made decades ago, since nothing much has changed on the bureaucratic front.
Intense Practice to Improve Performance allows you to ponder at a strange thought: might it be possible to live life entirely safely and even normally in this situation, if you could somehow mentally train yourself, to do without breaking a few minor rules? Might this be a workable, natural mode of existence?
“Look this always happens, even in daily life. If you are walking the straight and narrow you will find that the minute you start breaking the rules, you will get caught, so if you’re told you’re not allowed to eat this sandwich, and you do, you’ll get caught. This used to happen to me a lot, and I always wondered why me? Why do I always get caught? So maybe that’s why I made the connection between what used to happen to me and what happened to the employee in the film,” elaborated Shafiey, whereas Fiona fittingly pointed out, ” Also, the fact that he started breaking the rules was the start of him getting pulled into the corrupt society and environment he works in,” regarding Farid.
This short film has a strong message that will really resonate with its audience. The beauty of the film comes from the strength of the starting dilemma, working versus breaking the rules.
It also makes one question if talking fixes what’s wrong in a relationship or a society? Or is the neurotic need to talk merely a tragicomic symptom of its irreparable wrongness? Is the unexamined relationship worth having?
In Egyptian film history, cinema’s power was utilised to activate change in society, to transition it from passive to active, when for example the film Uridu Halan, (I want a Solution) staring Fattenn Hamama, addressed the country’s divorce laws, which were later amended towards women’s favour, as Shafiey pointed out.
“This depends on the society you live in, does it want to or not, is it willing to or not? Of course, if there is no receptivity, then nothing will change. Media can alter peoples’ behaviour if they have the receptivity needed. Through receptivity, peoples’ opinions via cinemas’ opinion in changing peoples’ behaviour can be accomplished, but if not then nothing will change, and the issue will pass as if nothing took place, according to the political environment and social milieu we are living in. Changing behaviours is not an easy task,” declared Shafiey regarding the media’s role, when asked if it was merely entertainment or an agent of social change.
Fiona, however, strongly asserted “The media has a fundamental responsibility in addressing issues that are affecting the society, without a doubt. I also want to say that without the media’s role during Morsi’s humorous rule, or to put it in other words, the media played a considerable role in helping us get rid of him, so the media is very important. And this is a problem that society is facing, as well as the angle the media takes, in addition to the fact that media can manipulate, and in our society, there are so many issues that need to be addressed, and this is one of them which affects everybody. Case in point, today you [addressing me] went to renew your licence, and you faced the bureaucratic system there. So, it affects everybody’s lives because nobody can live without the bureaucratic systems that we need.”
What is most fascinating about Intense Practice to Improve Performance is the strong storytelling in a short amount of time. In addition, the ambiguous ending ironically loops back to the beginning without a strong resolution and is quite a head-scratcher.
Fiona thinks, “The new employee has to go with the flow if he has to survive because if he doesn’t go with the flow, then it’s over. So, I don’t see the ending as an ambiguous one, but rather one that is typical of human nature,” whereas Shafiey believes “the ending is a little open-ended because we don’t know if in three months’ time the employee will stay or leave.”
Intense Practice to Improve Performance is subtitled in English for non-Arabic speakers.
Yasser Shafiey is an Egyptian director who completed his studies in the Faculty of Applied Arts and worked in the field of jewellery design. He then went on to study cinema in the Free Studies Department at the Institute of Cinema and graduated from the Giza School of Cinema in which the film industry works independently and in all disciplines. His first directed piece was done through the short film ‘The Dream of a Scene’ produced in 2014 which and participated in 16 festivals and won several prizes including the CINIT CEM – Mondialità prize and award at “The 25th edition of the Festival of African, Asian and Latin America,” Italy, in 2015.
It was the first time for most of the actors as Shafiey prefers to work with first-time actors in general, in most of his films, as they have great energy and he see them through a different lens. He also wanted to say, apart from the stars, “No there are other talents who can act, and act well too. Except for perhaps Ali, or Farid in the film, the others were all fresh young talents and it was an honour for me to work with them.” Shafiey expressed.
Fiona always loved acting ever since she was a little girl. The first time she went on stage she was 5-years-old at a school performance, and she continued from then on. When she attended AUC, she minored in drama and played many leading parts in university theatre productions, among them Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw’s comedy Caesar and Cleopatra as well as Sabina in The Skin of our Teeth by Thornton Wilder.
She also got a small part in one of last Ramadan’s series, Layali Eugenie. It was just one appearance in one scene in episode four, but it was a great experience, she said, adding that she hopes to continue as it has always been her dream to act.
Fiona’s career experience is with the UN especially with refugee rehabilitation and her work took her to several countries among them Jordan; Bahrain; Gaza; Pakistan; Yemen; Lebanon; Syria; Egypt; France; the West Bank; New Zealand; the US and the UAE.