Good cinema is invariably rooted in realism, and if it talks about society’s ills, it accelerates into a higher plane. Much like it is now in India with the currency crisis hitting the poor hard, Egypt -- whose historic civilisation may be compared with India’s -- has also been plagued by problems aplenty. As the noted Egyptian movie journalist and critic, Salah Hashem, told this writer the other day, “The hoarding and resultant shortage of essentials like rice and sugar have messed up life in my country. What can a poor man do if he cannot have these basic food items... Rice is a staple diet here in Egypt.”
And, many of the eight titles in the section called New Egyptian Cinema -- which is part of the ongoing Cairo International Film Festival -- talk about the community’s trying times that began with the first revolution in Egypt in 2011, and which probably worsened after the second in 2013. The movies knock you out with powerful punches aimed at the administration. Told through everyday incidents, these films stay with you long after the curtains have come down.
Director Hala Khalil’s Nawara sets the story after the 2011 uprising, focussing on an almost angelic maid who works for a rich, politically connected family in one of Cairo’s gated communities. The maid, Nawara (played by Menna Shalabi), has a very tough life. Though married for five years to Aly (Ameer Salah Eldin), they have not been able to consummate their relationship, because they have no place to live together. One is told that this is a common situation in Egypt -- a theme which has for long been discussed in Egyptian novels and movies.
A typical day in Nawara’s life begins early. She has to fill water from a community tap and visit her father-in-law suffering from cancer (and sprawled in a hospital corridor waiting for a bed), before heading off to work. She has to change several public buses before she can finally enter her workplace -- where fresh misery awaits her in the form of an unfriendly dog. It barks the life out of a frightened Nawara.
Khalil draws a disturbing comparison between the rich family -- whose connections with Hosni Mubarak’s inner circle entitle it to an opulent lifestyle which includes a swanky mansion, complete with a swimming pool and fresh food -- a part of which goes to the dog, Buch. In contrast, Nawara’s life is one long road of grinding poverty.
The film tells us through posters and graffiti and small talk how the rich are fleeing the country after the revolution, and how the new rulers have promised to credit a substantial amount in each bank account once they get hold of the money stashed away in overseas banks (Seems to ring a bell, does it not?).
Finally, Nawara’s life takes a dramatic turn when the rich family escapes, leaving behind their mansion in the care of the maid. Days later, a phone call from the mistress gives Nawara an unbelievably good news which she hopes will solve all her problems. But then destiny has other things in store for her, and in a scene that is awfully distressing, Khalil shows us how the poor have to pay for the crimes of the wealthy.
In his latest outing, Clash, Egyptian helmer Mohamed Diab lets us witness his country’s turbulent history from the inside of a van! Clash opened A Certain Regard at Cannes last May.
But unlike Nawara, Clash unfolds after the 2013 riots -- when the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by the Egyptian military after he had been in power for a year, a year that saw so much of bloodshed and upheaval.
At Cannes, Diab told the media that “I wanted to make a movie on the revolution since the very first day of the uprising. But things were going so fast that by the time I would put down an idea on paper, the scene changed. In 2013, my brother came up with a brilliant theme: place different kinds of people in a van and let them spend a whole day together inside it.”
We see in Clash a police van moving through the streets of Cairo. A number of people are arrested and thrown inside the van, and as it keeps travelling through demonstrations, the “prisoners” are thoroughly perplexed. Initially, these men want to escape, but when they see the tension outside mounting, they decide that it is, after all, safer to be inside the van.
Clash conveys all too clearly how euphoric joy -- which one saw at the start of the Arab Spring when people hoped that things would change dramatically for the better -- has now given way to fear and uncertainty. But Clash ultimately is a poignant reminder of how humanism transcends political evil and greed.
We see this in Clash, and we see this in Nawara. As Hashem remarked, “People in Egypt are very patient, and have a strong feeling of kinship.” True to this, this writer remembers a scene from Nawara where the community chips in to help her father-in-law when he needs money for an operation.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cairo International Film Festival.)