After the Battle: Cannes Review
Egypt's premiere director Yousry Nasrallah and scriptwriter Omar Schama tackle the aftermath of the Arab Spring in this in Competition film.
It may be too soon to come to terms with the confused aftermath of the Arab Spring, a major undertaking that Egypt’s premiere director Yousry Nasrallah and scriptwriter Omar Schama tackle with intelligence and passionate boldness in After the Battle.
Set in the highly charged political atmosphere of today’s Cairo, the tale of a young middle-class woman activist and her reckless entanglement with a lower-class anti-revolutionary bursts at the seams with ideas and impressions lifted directly from Tahrir Square, breathlessly thrusting the viewer into the midst of current events. Though too excited and involved to balance history and fiction, the film has enough atmosphere and topical fascination to ride the wave of international curiosity in the region. It should translate into wide art house release, especially in Europe and Arab territories.
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The film’s great merit is Nasrallah’s consummate story-telling, which allows non-Egyptian audiences an easy entry point into the familiar sight of thousands of demonstrators who, in February of 2011, were violently charged by horsemen in what has come to be known as “the Battle of the Camel.” The impetuous Rim (Meena Chalaby) goes with her friend Dina (Jordanian actress Phaedra) to distribute fodder to hungry horses in the ancient village of Nazlet, in the shadow of the Pyramids. Now that the tourists who once hired them have disappeared, the horsemen are so poor they can no longer afford to feed their mounts. Here she meets the strapping, guileless rider Mahmoud (Bassem Samra) and they exchange a forbidden kiss in the night.
Their promised affair fizzles, without completely dying out, when Rim discovers he has a family and tries to educate the lot to participate in the revolution. Tahrir Square has forever changed their lives, though not for the better, because Mahmoud was pulled off his horse while attacking the demonstrators and beaten. A video of his humiliation is on You Tube, for which his sons are mocked and beaten in school. His spirited young wife Fatma (Nahed El Sebai) just wants things to return to normal.
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The characters are all complexly drawn to illustrate their vast social divide, and the scenes set in Nazlet go deep into the fabric of Egypt’s materially poor but humanly vibrant under-class, associated with the enduring sands and stones of Giza. Nasrallah manages to use the Pyramids as a natural backdrop to the action, and the inhabitants (jeered at as thugs and tomb-raiders by Rim’s middle-class friends) have an elemental relationship to the ancient world that recalls Shadi Abdel-Salam’s recently restored classic The Mummy, another film about Egyptians attempting to reclaim their history. Specifically, the locals want the government to knock down a concrete wall separating their village from the Pyramids and the tourists who are their livelihood – a wall that looks a lot like the one in Israel, sheltering tourists who no longer arrive.
While Chalaby’s Rim gives women’s issues a central role in the film, her brassy self-consciousness doesn’t earn sympathy points and borders on over-acting. Far more effective is Samra, who draws the emotional Mahmoud as a strong but tragic character in the neorealist mold. Riding his horse at a fancy dressage, he is shamefully banned as a jinx by the powerful local boss Haj Abdallah (stage actor Salah Abdallah), to whom he grovels and later begs for a job in a chillingly realistic scene. El Sebai’s Fatma has the same charming smile of subservience – their poverty is real and there is no room for noble attitudes with two kids and a horse to feed.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (In Competition), May 16, 2012.
Production companies: New Century Production, Dollar Films, Siecle Productions, Studio 37, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Meena Chalaby, Bassem Samra, Nahed El Sebai, Salah Abdallah, Phaedra.
Director: Yousry Nasrallah
Screenwriters: Yousry Nasrallah, Omar Schama
Producers: Walid El-Kordy, Georges-Marc Benamou
Associate producer: Jerome Clement
Director of photography: Samir Bahsan
Production designer: Mohamed Atteya
Costumes: Nahed Nasrallah
Editor: Mona Rabi
Music. Tamer Karawan
Sales Agent: MK2 – Studio 37
No rating, 122 minutes.