Details: 100 mins, Egypt,
Synopsis: Amal Iskander (Maryhan) is an 18-year-old Coptic girl, living in Bashtel, in the slums of Cairo. Her Muslim boyfriend Tarek (Mohamed Ramadan) is planning to leave Egypt on an illegal boat-crossing to Italy. Amal tells Tarek she is pregnant but he gives her an ultimatum – abandon the country with him, or have an abortion. Despite her love for Tarek, Amal rejects both choices.
An effective portrait of pre-protest resentment.
In depicting the everyday struggles of an educated young Egyptian couple, one a Coptic Christian and the other from the majority Muslim population, this gutsy film gives outsiders a vivid insight into the kind of everyday frustrations that led to the recent national uprising.
If we take its two protagonists, Amal (Maryhan) and Tarek (Mohamed Ramadan), as emblematic of a generation, it’s little wonder social dissent erupted so devastatingly earlier this year. A key factor behind the movement to overthrow the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was the deep frustration of a younger generation of Egyptians who, despite being educated and computer-literate, were frequently unable to find any work beyond menial manual labour. That is the story told here.
The Cairo depicted is a bustling metropolis that should by rights be a fast-rising world city. Apart from one scene where Amal and Tarek are harassed by police for making out in a car wash (a sign of the lack of privacy in the over-crowded city), Cairo Exit does not concern itself with political or state oppression, instead painting a picture of life where slights and insults arise from scores of sources.
Bullying, small-minded small business owners who find excuses not to pay their workers; hostile family members sharing cramped living conditions; and in this couple’s case, anti-Christian prejudice: all add up to a mosaic of annoyance in which respect is in short supply. Living becomes insufferable because there is no hope that anything will change for the better. (What a difference a few months would make to young Egyptians like these.)
Tarek’s answer is to escape. Trained in accountancy, he finds it impossible to gain professional employment. In one scene we watch him fuming at a job interview as he watches a rival candidate get the job via family connections. In the meantime, Tarek works as a supermarket checkout clerk and pizza delivery driver while he saves enough to pay a drug-smuggling gang to give him a berth in one of their boats heading overseas.
His girlfriend is the fly in the ointment. When Amal tells him she’s pregnant, he tells her she must have an abortion if she wants to come with him, but she’s not convinced. Meanwhile in a sub-plot, her best friend Rania (Sana Mouziane) seeks money to have her hymen stitched up temporarily so she can pass herself off as a virgin to a wealthy businessman she has paid a marriage arranger to find for her. Rania’s secret is that she is already married. Her husband fled overseas a while ago but nothing more has been heard from him since.
The challenge with this material is to create involvement without sinking the audience into depression. Egyptian-American director Hesham Issawi and his co-writers Alexandra Kinias and Amal Afify rise to the occasion with the aid of brisk storytelling that’s strong on detail and nuance, and two determined protagonists. Maryhan (no surname) is particularly compelling as Amal, the film’s emotional centre; her huge eyes give her a frequent look of resignation but she’s just as convincing displaying her character’s other dominant trait: a fieriness of temper and sense of determination.
The film does take a few missteps – the use of Chekhov’s gun principle (a gun introduced in act one must be fired in acts two or three) might have been fresh in the Russian author’s time but has long become cliché. And the climax, which should by rights be gripping, is misjudged, its editing rhythms failing to serve the intensity that has built in the story. For all that, it is a compelling and instructive film.
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