'Amal': Film Review | IDFA 2017

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
A well-edited chronicle of a teenager's politically engaged path to womanhood.

Mohammed Siam's debut documentary opened the world's biggest nonfiction film-festival.

An intensely personal coming-of-age tale is told against a background of turbulent national politics in Egyptian multihyphenate Mohammed Siam's absorbing feature-length debut Amal. Granted a high-profile launchpad as opening film of the world's biggest documentary festival, IDFA, this nicely observed if stylistically familiar profile of a convention-bucking protagonist will have no problem scoring berths at similar events over the coming months.

Indeed, it's pretty much guaranteed a slew of festival invites as the film — officially a co-production between Egypt, Lebanon, Germany, France, Norway, Denmark and Qatar — has truly done the rounds of labs and development forums on its way to the screen. More than a minute of the closing credits is devoted to namechecking such bodies, including no fewer than 41 logos for various funders and programs from all over the planet.

The picture itself provides further evidence that such processes tend to dilute whatever individual stamp directors might otherwise impart. Amal adheres slavishly to prevailing trends, even to the hackneyed extent of deploying slow, echoing piano notes for one particularly sad sequence involving the eponymous heroine mourning her deceased father.

The sudden death of only child Amal's beloved dad when she was 11 was evidently the most formative trauma of her young life. Three years later as a young teenager she was swept up in the revolution which unseated long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, sparking a time of tumult and hope (the meaning of "Amal") whose complicated aftermath is traced over the course of the film's five sections.

Of varying lengths ranging from 11 to 32 minutes, these proceed on a year-by-year chronology. The feisty but insecure Amal (whose arms bear the scars from her self-harming past) haltingly blossoms from rebellious teen to ambitious 20-year-old before our eyes. While the real drama of her life has occurred before the action proper begins, her journey is nevertheless truly transformative: It begins with the hoodie-sporting tomboy openly insulting and taunting the police — seen as brutish enforcers for Mubarak's corrupt regime — and ends with her deciding to join their ranks.

This is just one of several final-reel (and mid-credits) surprises served up by Siam and his editor Veronique Lagoarde-Segot who, with Guy Davidi, worked such wonders on Davidi and Emad Burnat's Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras (2011). Lagoarde-Segot excels at interpolating home-movie footage of Amal shot by her doting papa from her earliest days through what looks to have been a decidedly pampered childhood. This life-thru-a-lens upbringing probably helps explain why Amal is such an engaging and unaffected screen presence in her later years.

Quixotic, mercurial, articulate and usually very angry, she makes for an engaging, stimulating and idiosyncratic prism through which the recent history of her country ("Nobody gets what they want in Egypt") can be viewed. An empathetic record of post-revolution disillusionment, Amal is of obvious value as snapshot and historical document. In terms of cinematic artistry, it's decidedly less remarkable.

Siam nevertheless displays a promising eye for environment and background detail, and takes full pictorial advantage of the fact that Amal's neighborhood is right next to one of the world's great landmarks, the Pyramids: a visual reminder than while regimes come and regimes go, some things last forever.

Production companies: Abbout Productions, Artkhana
Director / Screenwriter / Cinematographer: Mohammed Siam
Producers: Myriam Sassine, Mohammed Siam
Executive producers: Talal Al-Muhanna, Bruni Burres
Editor: Veronique Lagoarde-Segot
Composer: Matthieu Deniau
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Doc & Film International, Paris
In Egyptian

No Rating, 83 minutes