A feel-good film from Egypt’s margins

EL-GOUNA, Egypt: One of those grand old literary genres that’s drifted into cinema is the picaresque. Often set on the road, these stories retail the adventures of a roguish but likeable hero.

Abu Bakr Shawky’s 2018 debut “Yomeddine” is a sort of inverted picaresque, an episodic road movie about two innocents from the margins of society, traveling across a landscape of poverty and jeering hostility.

The story opens upon a rubble-strewn landscape, where a man with severe deformities of the face, hands and feet is sifting through rubbish, loading the salvage on his donkey cart. Beshay (Rady Gamal) once suffered from leprosy.

Now cured, he scrapes a living from the so-called Trash Mountain, whose refuse has long sustained a (largely Christian) community, sometimes called the Zabalin.

Much of the early narrative is devoted to sketching the daily prejudice and abuse Beshay faces.

When he hurts his leg in the first quarter of the film, he’s informed that the medic needs to apply for a permit to have Beshay X-rayed.

He devotes his meager earnings to trying to support his wife, who’s been taken in, reluctantly it seems, by a care facility.

Though she is not communicative, apparently suffering advanced dementia, Beshay remains hopeful, telling her, “When you’re feeling better, we’ll leave this place.”

He seems the butt of incessant harassment. As he walks through the streets, a neighbor shouts, “Beshay! How’s your crazy wife?” provoking hilarity among his pals.

When his wife passes away, Beshay is gutted and feels compelled to leave Cairo. He later announces that he needs to return to Upper Egypt to find his family. He hasn’t seen either since he was a child, when his father left him to a leper colony north of Cairo.

His memories of life before the colony are dark and Shawky illustrates these flashback sequences as dreams and nightmares. The one thing Beshay recalls distinctly is his father’s promise to come and bring him home once he was well again.

The film’s other protagonist is a boy called Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), a name he’s acquired because of his Nubian features. Formerly concentrated in Upper Egypt, the Nubian community was displaced by the flooding caused by Aswan’s High Dam and were resettled around the country. Actually the boy has little sense of his own heritage, who his parents were or why he ended up in an orphanage.

Labeled by his appearance and want of a family, Obama identifies with Beshay who, being a kindly sort, takes the boy under his wing.

When Obama notices Beshay has loaded his donkey cart for a journey, he wants to join him. The man forbids him from coming but, as invariably happens in stories like this, the boy stows away in the wagon.

The stage is set for a road trip that brings both the outsiders closer to their origins the further south they go. In the tradition of Egyptian cinema set among the poor, it’s a journey festooned with humor and pathos.

Shawky’s feature film debut, “Yomeddine” (literally “Judgment Day”) just had its Arab world debut at El-Gouna Film Festival, where it’s screening in the narrative feature competition. Given the swooning, joyous, teary-eyed response it provoked from the audience during its gala projection, it seems likely to leave GFF with some prize or other.

The movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring.

While not entering the official winners circle, “Yomeddine” was awarded the prestigious Francois Chalais Prize, which lauds life-affirming films dedicated to the values of journalism.

At Cannes, “Yomeddine” competed alongside Nadine Labaki’s “Capharnaum” and addresses some of the same issues as Labaki’s picture -- principally the difficult economic challenges and discrimination confronting outsiders among the Arab world’s urban poor.

The films are also similar in that, though they’ve emerged at a time of particular social dislocation in their respective countries, both filmmakers have chosen to foreground characters whose situations aren’t explicitly linked to contemporary crises -- inoculating them from the curse of issue-driven documentaries. Both are feel-good movies.

“Yomeddine” will not be to everyone’s taste, of course, but the movie’s success is testimony to what may still be accomplished with a small-budget film. DP Federico Cesca who lensed last year’s indie hit “Patti Cake$” brings a restrained, at times luminous, sensibility to the film.

Though the casual discrimination the characters face is unremitting -- Beshay and Obama become more and more bereft the further south they travel -- that aspect of Shawky’s script seldom seems hyperbolic.

Given that cruelty and prejudice is the abiding feature of the principal characters’ lives -- and those of some of a memorable group of physically disabled panhandlers they meet in a town on the way south -- sentimentality is a necessary ingredient in this story.

That said, the script and the nonprofessional actors who play these characters depict them with respect, imbuing them with intelligence (if not education), willfulness and a sense of humor.

El-Gouna Film Festival ends Sept. 28.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 27, 2018, on page 16.




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