'Free Trip to Egypt': Film Review
Ingrid Serban chronicles a DIY exercise in cross-cultural acceptance.
It should be eye-rollingly obvious to point out that, wherever one goes in the world, there are friendly, welcoming people to meet. Obvious, anyway, to people whose knowledge of the outside world doesn't come mostly from xenophobes. Gently observing how many of our fellow Americans are full of fear while trying, in its tiny way, to do something about that, Ingrid Serban's Free Trip to Egypt offers just that to a handful of travelers. Focusing on the warm connections these nervous Americans made while touching gingerly on moments of mild conflict, the doc is best suited to viewers like the people onscreen: men and women of goodwill who just need to meet some Arabs in person. How many such people will seek the film out is an open question, but a collection of celebrities including filmmakers, politicians and an ex-wife of Donald Trump have rallied behind a June 12 nationwide Fathom event to spread the word.
Tarek Mounib, who says he grew up as the only Muslim kid in Halifax, recalls having the idea for this project while working in Switzerland. That's nearly all we learn about a man described vaguely in press releases as an entrepreneur; judging from his early efforts to make the scheme a reality, consciousness-raising tourism is not his field of expertise.
We wince a bit as this smiling, deferential man goes to a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky, wearing a MAGA hat. He speaks to lots of people who have cartoonish notions about Muslims, and it takes a long time to get anyone interested in a free vacation to one of the most tourist-friendly places in the Arab world. But Brian, a Marine who approves of Trump's travel ban, is curious enough about the world to take him up on it. Soon, two of his friends ask to join him — one of whom, Jason, seems to view it as a free missionary outing.
Tarek's second recruiting effort is equally clumsy: He sends an exotically dressed man to stand in Manhattan's Union Square holding a piece of cardboard with "Free Trip to Egypt" scrawled on it — not the best way to get a New Yorker to take you seriously, or even to make eye contact.
But after a nationwide radio program interviews him about his offer, Tarek gets serious inquiries. The most poignant comes from Ellen Decker, a Jewish senior citizen: In her youth, she says, she marched in protests against all forms of intolerance. But 9/11 changed her: "I'm so racist now," she confesses, "I can't stand myself." Knowing they need to confront their prejudices, Ellen and her husband Terry sign up.
Along with a policeman named Mark and Katie, an introverted veteran, the group leaves on their expenses-paid trip — making a sun-and-fun stop at the Red Sea before the main event in Cairo. Tarek's team appears to have put a good deal of thought into pairing each American with a local whose sensibility or life experience will resonate somehow with his or her own: Several immediate connections form, especially with Ellen, who is clearly hungry to regain her faith in the brotherhood of man.
Those of us who do our traveling the old-fashioned way may envy this matchmaking service. Though they of course visit the usual tourist sites, the travelers get to spend lots of time in people's homes, having dinners together, going to parties. Politics and religion cause slight friction now and then, but not necessarily in predictable ways. In one instance, it's the Egyptian who argues for the greatness of America's current president, and when a visit to a local cultural center involves music from Zar spiritual-healing rituals, both the Christian evangelists and their Muslim host family are disturbed.
To a person, Tarek's beneficiaries come home feeling changed by the experience. Unfortunately, he and Serban aren't so gauche as to ask if they've reevaluated any political stances as a result; the film is content with the unspoken assumption that this expanded awareness of shared humanity will make the world better. If only someone had the budget to send tens of millions of other frightened Westerners on similar trips.
Production company: Kindness Films
Director: Ingrid Serban
Producers: Tarek Mounib, Forest Sun, Yasmin Kamal
Directors of photography: Karim El Hakim, Frazer Bradshaw
Editors: Kurt Engfehr, Pierre Haberer
Composer: Forest Sun