Living Skin -- Film Review

A grim but unforgettable description of boys working in Cairo’s tanneries.

ABU DHABI — Just behind an ancient wall in downtown Cairo lies a hellish world of misery and exploited children, poignantly unveiled in Fawzi Saleh’s hard-hitting directing bow, “Living Skin.” More than a simple horror story, the documentary places its child protagonists, aged 11 to 14, in a carefully described social context that is overwhelming and inescapable. This powerful doc should be sought-after festival item, while the fact that Egyptian star Mahmoud Hemeda is one of the producers will give it a well-deserved leg up locally.

The heart of old Cairo is an area full of slaughterhouses, and the animal skins are processed in nearby tanneries where droves of poor children work to help feed their families. With touching dignity and self-sacrifice, they do a man’s job around dangerous, cancerogenous chemicals like sodium sulfate, sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide that burn their unprotected skins and shorten their lives.

Dividing the film into days, which tend to resemble each other a lot, Saleh builds up a progressively stomach-churning picture of the work in the tanneries and the social constraints that keep the kids there. Their fleeting moments of relaxation come during a gaudy street fair; all the rest is first-person narrative about how and why they work under such conditions. Their fathers, more desperate than the boys, show what lies ahead for them.  It’s a grim picture shot with humility and restraint,  which Yousef Baroud’s camerawork explores as a matrix of light filtering into darkness. The boys are articulate and very appealing.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons, Competition)
Production company: Al Batrik Art Production
Director/screenwriter: Fawzi Saleh
Producer: Eman Hamedda, Mahmoud Hemeda
Director of photography: Yousef Baroud
Editor: Mohamed Samir
56 minutes