I’ve seen two good Egyptian films over the past couple of weeks. One was Yousry Nasrallah’s ‘After the Battle’, which is the first feature-length film to come out of that country on the revolutionary upheaval of 2011 and its immediate aftermath. Though the film is fiction it necessarily mixes in some documentary in view of its topicality. Nasrallah directed the excellent 2009 ‘Scheherazade Tell Me a Story’ (‘Femmes du Caire’), which was a devastating portrayal and critique of the status of women in contemporary Egypt, and in all social classes. Nasrallah, who co-wrote the screenplay for this one, really pulled it off, which was no sure thing for a mass appeal film on a contemporary and ongoing event. The film is engaging, absorbing, nuanced in its politics and depiction of gender and social class dynamics, and with great acting, notably by Bassem Samra—who plays the Mahmoud character; I’ve seen him in several films in recent years—and Nahed El Sebaï, who plays Mahmoud’s wife, Fatma. Mahmoud lives in Nazlet, the quarter next to the Giza pyramids, earns his living taking tourists around on his horse, and was one of the cavaliers who charged into Tahrir Square on February 2nd—nine days before Hosni Mubarak’s fall—, beating and whipping demonstrators. He’s a simple guy and claims he was put up to it, though that’s not totally clear. The movie is about his and wife’s relationship with an idealistic, headstrong do-gooder from the upper class named Reem—played by Meena Chalaby—, who is a reporter and member of the association for the protection of animals—and an activist in the Tahrir Square movement—, who takes in interest in Mahmoud while distributing feed to the horses as part of her animal protection work (the cavaliers now dependent on handouts with the drying up of tourism). Mahmoud—with whom Reem commits a minor transgression, but that seriously transgresses the social class chasm—has become an outcast: for those outside his neighborhood, because he participated in the notorious Tahrir Square assault; for his fellow horse riders, because he was caught on YouTube being pulled off his horse and beaten by demonstrators. So Reem tries to help him and his family. I won’t call the pic a chef d’œuvre, as one may detect an implausibility here, a contrivance there, and a few small doses of bons sentiments, but none of these are major or detract from the film’s quality. The film works. And the sleazy political kingpin in Nazlet, Haj Abdallah (or Hag, as Egyptians pronounce it), is brilliantly depicted by comic actor Salah Abdallah. Critics in Variety and Hollywood Reporter gave the pic the thumbs way up (here and here; also here). French reviews range from tops to middling (the latter may be ignored). If one is at all interested in Egypt, don’t miss it.
The other film is a documentary, ‘The Virgin, the Copts and Me’, by filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh, raised in France to Egyptian parents. Jay Weissberg’s review of the film in Variety last November describes well what it’s about. As it’s behind the wall, here’s the whole thing
Despite having gone through various incarnations, or perhaps because of it, “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” is a disarmingly honest, thoroughly winning personal portrait of family and heritage, grounded in religion but not dependent on belief. Tyro helmer Namir Abdel Messeh struggled long and hard to get this personal project made after being dumped by his French producers for not adhering to their vision; the last laugh’s on them, since the docu bagged $100,000 at Doha Tribeca and should easily find auds at fests and in Gallic theaters, as well as on TV.
It’s fair to say Abdel Messeh was unfocused when he went into the project with the partial support of French TV. The initial idea was to look into various apparitions of the Virgin Mary claimed by Coptic communities in Egypt over the last few decades. Though completely Frenchified, the helmer comes from Egypt, and his mother Siham’s family from Asyut, in Upper Egypt, where devotees claim the Virgin appeared in 2000.
In Egypt, his skepticism rubs the faithful the wrong way, and following the New Year’s Day attack on Copts in Alexandria this year, the producers pressure him to focus on Egypt’s religious tensions. Instead, Abdel Messeh heads south to his maternal family, despite Mom’s implacable opposition to her son filming her nearest and dearest. The reason is clear: The family members are dirt-poor peasants, and despite her love for them, Siham also feels some shame in her roots.
Reconnecting with his family inspires Abdel Messeh, but his producers aren’t pleased, and when he fails to incorporate the Egyptian Revolution into the mix, they ankle the project; the phone conversations, heard onscreen, straddle the line between painful and hilarious. Mom, an accountant, saves the day by flying to Egypt and agreeing to be the docu’s treasurer. She’s dropped her threats to sue her son, and quickly gets into the swing of things, despite not understanding how this is going to come together as a movie.
At the beginning, she’s not wrong, yet somewhere along the way, Abdel Messeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people who can’t be reduced to a stereotype. He decides to re-enact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and while this reps the culmination of the docu, the real meat lies in the process.
For Siham, too, there’s a transformation as she reconnects with her family and realizes her son’s interest is respectful rather than exploitative. Viewers are left to contemplate parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and being an Egyptian in France; he’s an outsider in his two worlds, yet very much a part of them both.
Visuals are strong in the off-the-cuff way auds expect from this kind of personal docu. Given constant changes during the production, the excellent editing warrants special commendation, finding a rhythm and keeping pace with it all.
The film is engaging, funny in parts—many parts, in fact—, and whose depiction of Coptic village life in Upper Egypt will be of interest to anthropologically minded spectators who don’t know much about the country. The Muslim-Coptic divide in the country is manifest in the film. No dancing around it. I saw the film a month after it opened and the theater—in the center of Paris—was packed, and with applause at the end. Word-of-mouth on the pic has been strong (and now I’m spreading the word too). For another review, go here. French reviews are here.
Egypt is such a contradictory place. On the one hand it’s a disaster and on so many levels; on the other, people are so nice and friendly in one’s personal dealings. A friend who travels there periodically—and who knows the Arab world—sent me this email not too long ago. The way he describes Egyptians is precisely reflected in the above films.
Heading out to hike around Cairo all day. While this place is so broken-down and dysfunctional, and its intellectual life so poisonous, I love Egyptians. Watching them…reminds me of those old black sit-coms like “Sanford and Son.” Egyptians are always hyperventilating, sweating, wheezing, gesticulating, belly-laughing, working themselves up into a lather over nothin, all overweight and unhealthy looking, you can always get a rise out of them, get them to kid around. Love it.
And then this follow-up a few days later, somewhat more equivocal
Wherever I travel, my days are filled with small encounters with strangers. Some are disagreeable, most are neutral, some are pleasant because the person en face exhibits an unexpected dollop of kindness, humor, or just positive liveliness.
France is the country where the largest proportion of such encounters are neutral. Once you play by their rules of civility they are almost never rude; but then again almost never fun or warm. The US is the country with the wildest variation. One guy is warm and familiar, the next is rude and vulgar. Egypt is the MENA country where these small encounters most often leave you with a smile or a glow.
But that good humor is about all Egypt has going for it. Otherwise it’s just a giant kitty litter box. Cairo is filthy, broken-down, dirt poor traffic-choked. Most expats who say they love living here wall themselves off from the other 99 percent. As I would too if I ever had to live here. Which is why I would never want to live here.
I lived in Cairo for part of a year in the mid ’80s. I loved the place and could have stayed longer. Don’t know if I would feel that way now.