Details: 100 mins, Egypt,
Synopsis: Three young women in Cairo fight back against pervasive sexual harassment. Meanwhile, a detective is tasked with tracking down the female suspect responsible for a series of stabbings on a city bus.
An Egyptian call for change.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Writer/director Mohamed Diab leaves no room for ambiguity in his depiction of modern Cairo. As deconstructed in his flawed but fiery drama Cairo 678, it is a truly awful place for women to live.
Sexually harassed, physically abused and socially downtrodden, modern Egyptian women must put up with the male-centric traditions that surround them or be cast aside. A 2008 CNN report quoted studies that indicated 83% of women in the region had experienced sexual harassment and that, quite astonishingly, 62% of men admit to committing an act of gender abuse. Fearlessly (perhaps strategically) tackling a headline-grabbing topic with his debut feature, Diab structures a three-tiered character study that exposes the extent of Egyptian society’s shameful scourge, framed within a vigilante-theme narrative that diminishes the importance of the issues it addresses.
His central character is the fearful, shrinking Fayza (Bushra), whom we meet as she goes about her daily chores of mothering, keeping house for husband Adel (Bassem Samra), and working a lowly government job. The only true constant in Fayza’s day is the abuse she tolerates from the men of Cairo; from the pop tunes of the day (her taxi ride rattles to the lyrics “You ask about women/they are simply mad/they are all the same”) to the sexual harassment she endures on the crowded bus of the title, to the nightly sexual demands from her boorish, brutal spouse. (To discourage his advances, she force-feeds herself onions every evening.)
Bushra, a pop sensation and primetime actress in her homeland, is a coiled spring as Fayza. Diab peaks too early with the expository sequence that introduces her and her world – it’s the most compelling 20 minutes in the film, due to the actress’ deeply empathetic performance and the jittery hand-held camerawork and precise editing.
Fayza reacts against the gropers on the 678 with her own violent solution: stabbing the offender’s penis before fleeing into the crowds. Her plight brings her into contact with Seba (Nelly Karim), a well-to-do businesswoman who was assaulted in a soccer crowd (in a sequence that foreshadowed the real-life sexual assault on US reporter Lorna Logan), and Nelly (Nahed el Sebai), an ambitious stand-up comic who was attacked by a passing motorist and who initiated Egypt’s first sexual harassment case. They scheme to enact revenge upon Cairo’s men, though fail to notice they are being tracked by Esam (Maged El Kedwany), a detective assigned to solve the bus attacks.
The vigilante plotting is largely ineffectual and Diab does his film a disservice by allowing too much of the mid-section to get bogged down in police procedural clichés. Though played with charisma by El Kedwany, Esam is a B-movie construct, always cracking-wise with his young offsider and stumbling upon clues in the manner Columbo or Kojak might have done in their television heyday in the ‘70s. The first act also utilises some unconvincing parallel plotting, as each character’s life-altering moment of abuse overlaps unknowingly with each others; the device is showy and unnecessary.
Cairo 678 is first and foremost an ‘issue movie’. The film’s strengths lie in its intimate examination of just how deeply entrenched the culture’s gender imbalance has become: Esam veers from taking his stressed pregnant wife to the hospital so that he can do some police work; Nelly is berated at a family dinner for pursuing the harassment case, her father and brothers taunting her, and her mother fearful for her soiled reputation; and Seba’s loving husband is so shamed by her attack, he fails to see how it impacts her.
Diab offers acute insight into the psychological and social trauma that Egyptian women have suffered for generations. One can only hope that Cairo 678 is at the forefront of an era of social change in an Egypt clinging to an outdated definition of masculine dominance.
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