Coming Forth By Day (Al-Khoroug Lel-Nahar): Abu Dhabi Review
Egyptian writer-director Hala Lotfy's film -- a prize-winner at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival -- follows 24 hours in the life of a frustrated Cairo woman.
Cinema is more than ready for an exciting new female auteur from the Arab world, and, on the basis of her long-gestating debut Coming Forth By Day (Al-Khoroug Lel-Nahar), Egyptian 39-year-old writer-director Hala Lotfy might well be it. But while this ambitious chronicle of 24 hours in the life of a frustrated Cairo woman displays unmistakeable talent, Lotfy's audacious screenplay structure, so reliant on a deliberately molasses-slow first half, makes it tough going all but the most patient of audiences.
Ranking among the more notable world premieres at Abu Dhabi this year, the Egypt/UAE co-production's two prizes at the event - including the FIPRESCI award for best narrative feature - are harbingers of what's likely to be an notable festival career buoyed by considerable critical support, albeit one unlikely to translate to significant theatrical distribution or small-screen sales.
Coming Forth By Day, in the sense of emerging into light, is the literal title of the ancient funerary text better known in English as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And Lotfy's picture is intimately concerned, from first to last, both with issues of mortality and with movements between light and dark. These themes find their locus and focus in the stuffy, frowzy Cairo apartment in which thirtyish Suad (Donia Maher) and her mother Hayat (Salma Al-Najjar) live and look after Suad's father (Ahmad Lutfi), who's been left helplessly incapacitated by a stroke.
In collaboration with editor Heba Othman and production designer: Chahira Mouchir, Lotfy suffocatingly evokes the oppressive, dusty atmosphere of this dwelling, a place where time seems to have stood still for years or even decades. Long, seemingly real-time takes emphasize the grinding drugery of Suad and Hayat's routines, Abdul Rahman Mahmoud's multi-layered sound design of traffic noises and twittering birds the only real indication that there's a world beyond these dilapidated confines.
It comes as a major relief when Suad finally makes it out into the open air just before the hour mark, though many viewers may well have tuned out or given up by this point. Her peregrinations across a city seemingly untouched by recent revolutionary upheavals are observed with detached precision by Mahmoud Lotfy's restless camera, most effectively in a intense, extended, dialogue-heavy scene on a 'microbus' when Suad hears the discontents of a young, mentally unbalanced Muslim girl (Doaa Oreyqat).
There are further sequences which showcase Lotfy's original approach to framing and her eye for background detail as Suad experiences the dangers and delights of Cairo after dark, with Rahman Mahmoud's subtle contributions continuing to enhance the overall impact. But Lotfy's inexperience shows in the final stretches, as she comes up with several strong potential endings but allows the film to trundle on through them all, instead wrapping up with an anti-climactic and abruptly truncated exchange between Suad and her mother which further underlines death's inescapable presence in these women's lives.
In some ways more 'Romanian' than middle-eastern in its style, as well as in its understated indictment of institutional dysfunctions, Coming Forth By Day adheres a bit too closely to what have become default international modes of glum, downbeat art-film expression. Lotfy, however, does give indications that she already has a distinctive voice of her own, and will hopefully have the confidence to explore it even further in her next outings.
Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons)
Production company: Hassala
Cast: Donia Maher, Salma Al-Najjar, Ahmed Lutfi, Doaa Oreyqat
Director / Screenwriter: Hala Lotfy
Producers: Hala Lotfy, Manal Khalil
Director of photography: Mahmoud Lotfy
Production designer: Chahira Mouchir
Costume designer: Naira Dahshoury
Editor: Heba Othman
Sales agent: Hassala, Cairo
No MPAA rating, 100 minutes.