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The temptation to capture the excitement of current events in a fiction film has one serious drawback: news ages very quickly. This is particularly true of the Egyptian Winter of Discontent, which attempts to convey the spirit behind the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in the story of an activist computer programmer. Though sensitively directed by award-winning Ibrahim El Batout (Ein Shams), this tale of police torture ends on the high note of president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, without reflecting the recent wave of repression that has dampened the hopes of many Arab Spring supporters. After its Venice Film Festival premiere in Horizons, it will probably struggle to find playdates outside the Mideast.
The Tahrir Square protests and the fall of Mubarak marked a turning point in Egyptian cinema, and El Batout is one of the country’s major socially-committed directors checking in on the momentous events dating to Jan. 25, 2011. Caught up in a moment of euphoria, Yousry Nasrallah’s Cannes entry After the Battle set the barrier high; arriving in Venice just four months later, Winter of Discontent covers much the same period yet already seems out of date.
But the film should remain in the annals as a brave protest against the brutal police torture that was being carried out against protestors and an apt document of its logline, “the pain that caused the fury.” Its soberly filmed, uncompromising scenes of naked men being doused with water and electrified unfortunately recall many other dictatorships on film. Memorable here is the strange unflinching face of state security officer Adel (Salah Al Hanafy) as he finds ways to terrify his victims. His humiliation of a religious leader by forcing him to keep drinking water without access to a toilet sums up his diabolical intelligence.
Amr (Amr Waked, Syriana) lives in a spacious old Cairo apartment with his elderly mother. When he’s first arrested, two years before the Tahrir Square events, he is ferociously tortured by Adel and his henchmen within an inch of his life, then suddenly released. From that moment on he has become a solitary soul living in fear. His mother died while he was locked up, and his girlfriend Farah (Farah Youssef) has drifted away, becoming a well-heeled news announcer for state TV.
The film’s early scenes are so atmospheric they are hard to decipher, and it takes a while before the enigmatic characters fall into their proper place. Why, for example, is Amr being tortured when his computer monitors show dolphins gambolling? Western audiences have to scramble for narrative clues that are probably obvious to locals.
Youssef’s scenes at the top Egyptian television station, on the other hand, are over-simplified. Her bosses are nervous about their jobs and testy about white-washing Tahrir Square and down-playing its significance to their viewers. Meanwhile they, like everybody else is Egypt, watch the BBC and CNN to find out what’s going on. Farah quits in a flurry of disgust and makes moral amends by putting on jeans and filming her own mea culpa for having lied to the country as a journalist. When she asks Amr to upload her confession to Internet using his satellite phone, which is well known to the police, it’s clear trouble is on the way.
El Batout’s strong feeling for place and time once again translates as a poetic undercurrent that runs through the film, lending graphic visual expressiveness even to the scenes hardest to watch. Amr’s house, where he lives like a prisoner within earshot of Tahrir Square, is even more claustrophobic given the notable lack of visuals of the demonstrations. It feels frustrating not to see what’s going on outside, but all that Amr and the audience can see through the window is a brick wall.
Waked and Al Hanafy, who are both listed as co-producers, are fine dramatic actors who make the story plausible. It would be be interesting to see them reprise their roles in a sequel that expands on the end titles, which suggest the arrests, torture, virginity tests and murders are still going on. But at the moment, history is still being written.
As this review was being posted, Egyptian state television put its first veiled anchorwoman on the air.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 30, 2012.
Production companies: Zad Communication and Production in association with aroma, Ein Shams, Material House Production
Cast: Amr Waked, Salah Al Hanafy, Farah Youssef
Director: Ibrahim El Batout
Screenwriters: Ibrahim El Batout, Ahmed Amer, Yasser Naeem, Habi Seoud
Producers: Amr Waked, Salah Al Hanafy, Ibrahim El Batout
Associate producers: Tamer Mortada, Ahmed El Zoghby
Director of photography: Victor Credi
Production designer: Mostafa Emam
Editor: Hisham Saqr
Music: Ahmed Mostafa Saleh
Sales Agent: Swipe Films
No rating, 96 minutes.
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