When it is estimated that there are more than 37 new Egyptian TV series released, one has to be picky when deciding which of them to give their time to. Usually, people decide which series they should watch based on the cast (an actor who they know always chooses the right scripts to play, a director who they have not forgotten their previous work, or, rarely, a writer who always gives them something original).
This strategy of attaching acclaimed names to a series and increasing its overall “star power” is one that producers consistently use to attract audiences to pick their show. This only guarantees an audience attachment for a couple of episodes, where they test whether the series deserves dedicating their time to it or whether there are better ones that could satisfy their entertainment and artistic needs.
In the case of 30 Youm (the 2017 Ramadan psychological thriller), to watch the first episode was sufficient to hook the most undedicated viewer to watching it until the finale.
The first episode starts with a conversation between a psychiatrist (Asser Yassin) and a patient he meets for the first time (Bassel Khayyat), where the latter explains that he will use the doctor as a lab rat for an experiment titled “How to kill a person, and then leave them staying alive”. The experiment’s duration is 30 days, where the victim will experience his life falling apart piece-by-piece on a daily basis, until the 30th day comes and the reason behind the experiment is revealed.
With such a very well written dialogue in the first episode, the audience is promised with a mysterious and thrilling ride that is accompanied with many question marks. Why is this patient doing this to the psychiatrist? What will the conclusion of the experiment be? And, most importantly, how will the writers find enough material to convince the audience that a person could find ways—and succeed—for 30 consecutive days in destroying another person’s life without being caught?
Unfortunately, the answer to the last question is that they utterly fail in providing enough content for the premise to stay as solid as it started. It only takes 4-5 episodes before the plot purposelessly detours and accumulates a great amount of unnecessary details. This also gives the way for plot holes to pile up episode after episode. The events in Mostafa Gamal Hashem’s script often depend on a great amount of luck and a numerous number of coincidences to help his story stay alive, which is a sign of weakness in a screenplay.
Hashem’s screenplay heavily relies on the amount of mystery it creates at the beginning, and he knows that no matter how tired the audience might get from the repetitiveness and the slacking in the middle, they will still be attached to the series until they get the answers to the questions that linger in their heads since the first episode.
On a different note, the characterisation in Hashem’s screenplay is mostly successful. Almost every major character in the series has many different sides to their personalities. There are no angels and demons in 30 Youm. Even the most villainous characters are written with such depth that makes it a very easy task for the audience to connect with them.
And even though the grand revelation at the finale might prove to be very predictable, it is the sense of redemption that some of these characters reach at the end that still gives a satisfactory end result to the story—a huge accomplishment for the very bumpy journey that is the screenplay of 30 Youm.
Director Hossam Aly creates a unique atmosphere, with a dark enough tone to give a certain style to the episodes, yet one that never falls victim to over-dramatisation. His confidence in the screenplay and in his actors’ abilities allowed him to stay focused on what to show the audience in each episode and what not to waste time on.
It is easy to understand how a director could have that much confidence in the actors when the cast is led by the tour de force: Bassel Khayyat. As the role of Tawfik, the lunatic who plays with others’ lives like a game, Khayyat has the most crucial role that could either make or break 30 Youm. The role needed a highly accomplished actor to carry such a responsibility.
If there is one right decision the director has made for the series, it is selecting Khayyat for this role. The actor’s presence and command on screen are second to none. One might confidently say that he creates one of the most memorable villains in the history of Egyptian drama. From his body language and tone of voice to the wide range of emotions he shows through the episodes, Khayyat’s meticulous portrayal grabs the audience’s attention from the minute he appears on screen and never gives a boring moment. It seldom happens that a viewer could effortlessly relate to a villain they know almost nothing about, and it happens in 30 Youm, solely as a result of Khayyat’s groundbreaking performance.
One must also commend Asser Yassin’s role as Tarek for being able to shine and showcase his talent around the presence of Khayyat. With a character that is hard to portray, Yassin plays the role of a psychiatrist whose emotional stability is nearly impossible to crack, which needs a certain level of character understanding to be able to transcend every fine change of emotional state to the viewer—and Yassin definitely succeeds at delivering that in one of the best roles of his career. The two lead actors only meet in a few scenes on screen, and it always feels like a duel between two acting powerhouses, and the only winner is the viewer.
With the exception of Waleed Fawaz (who gives a strong performance as Abdel Wahab, Tarek’s closest friend and a cop who investigates the case), the rest of the cast members are subpar. Naglaas Badr, Ingy El Mokaddem, Hend Abdel Halim, Doaa Teima, Ismail Sharaf, and Hamada Barakat struggle to deliver suitable performances to what their characters are going through, ranging from over-acting to totally indifferent portrayals.
There is a saying that the best cinematographer is the one who you never feel their presence—meaning that if the scenery feels natural and comfortable to the eye, the cinematographer has done a successful job. This is not the case with Karim Ashraf’s cinematography in 30 Youm. With the unnecessary usage of the shaky camera technique in many scenes and the sometimes forced sources of light that do not match the feeling of the place they come from, the cinematography feels distracting to the eye on many different occasions.
Ahmed El Tarabily’s editing helps in delivering a suitable pace for each episode, allowing even the most unnecessary episodes to not feel as dull as they should be. Editing is also a critical tool El Tarabily used in heightening the tension of many conversations, especially in the last episode, hitting a high note when it was significantly needed. Mohamed Medhat’s original score is a key element in creating the series’ one-of-a-kind atmosphere. His use of jazz instruments gives a unique quality to the music and to every location in which the events take place.
Although it suffers from many problems, specifically on the screenplay side, 30 Youm offers one of the more entertaining watching experiences this year and some of the most memorable characters that come to mind.
Ahmed El Goarany is an Egyptian movie blogger, aspiring filmmaker, and pharmacist