Rags and Tatters (Farsh Wa Ghata): Toronto Review

Rags and Tatters TIFF Still - H 2013

Rags and Tatters TIFF Still - H 2013

A weak, sometimes unclear narrative is off-set by issues laid out with the immediacy of newsreel footage in this must-see for Middle East followers.

The exhilaration of victory gives way to violence, chaos and uncertainty in Ahmad Abdalla’s semi-documentary story set in today’s Cairo.

One of just two Egyptians films playing in Toronto (the other is Jehane Noujaim’s The Square), Rags and Tatters is primarily of interest because of its enormous topicality, and secondarily for its bold, not always convincing experiment in mixing fiction and documentary, a staple of writer-director Ahmad Abdalla’s work. Though the powerful impact the film strives for eludes it until the final sequence, which is a whopper, it successfully strings together bits and pieces of the reigning chaos to give viewers a sense of the violent revolution now in progress in Egypt. The weakness of the narrative is compounded by the lack of clear roadsigns to help Western viewers navigate what is going on. Yet for those already following the Egyptian situation, this is a must-see update.  

The film is practically wordless, almost a silent movie, yet we feel little need for chatter because the images tell so much of the story. The photography is dark and bleak, the characters uncertain about their role in the great historical events going on around them. Gone is the initial flush of excitement and victory following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 revolution. The Army is in control now, though it’s not clear how firm its grip is. Just before Mubarak stepped down, security forces disappeared and a number of prisons were opened; by whom no one knows. This is all background the viewer had better bring to the film, because it's all backstory here.

The film begins with a nameless fugitive (Asser Yassin, Messages from the Sea) on the run with another man, dodging gunfire as they try to disappear into the desert. His friend is shot in the stomach, and he has a foot injury. They reach the shelter of an abandoned shack and the protagonist reluctantly leaves the seriously injured man behind. But he takes the fellow’s address and his cell phone, on which he has filmed, like tens of thousands of other Egyptians, what he has seen, so no one will forget “what really happened.”

The key to Rags and Tatters lies in this will to document historical events that risk escaping in the chaos, or being doctored and instrumentalized by the people in power. And if there is any hope in the film, which ends in shocking violence, it is that everybody is armed with cell phones and filming what they see. There are poor ghetto kids who upload videos on public Internet computers, and free, uncensored news agencies broadcasting these shaky homemade videos full of beatings, killing and death.

With the Army still spraying bullets at random, the convict (whose crime is never mentioned, and might range from no more than getting on the wrong side of a policeman to murder; we are never told) limps towards Cairo and home. He briefly sees his family, including a wife and child, but he’s a wanted man and has to keep moving. He finds uneasy refuge in a mosque, and then a cemetery, Cairo’s infamous City of the Dead, where the poor live without running water or electricity. But it is a haven of peace from the frightening events taking place in downtown Cairo, the massacres in Tahrir Square and the inter-ethnic violence, the burning of churches and persecution of Christian Copts and Sufis. In one shot of strange beauty, across a peaceful river, behind the calm Cairo skyline, two plumes of smoke rise up to the heavens.

The director’s documentary instincts blend uneasily into this story, taking it off on tangents that are certainly of interest, but always pull the viewer away from involvement with the main character, played mysteriously but intensely by Yassin. In the cemetery, for instance, the action stops so the camera can follow the haunting songs and lyrics of some Sufi musicians. And in the all-important scene when the former prisoner delivers his friend’s cellphone to his family, the emotion gets short-circuited as Abdalla explores the warren of dirty streets of the quarter called Ezbet El Zabbaleen, where the city’s garbage pickers -- almost exclusively Christians and outcasts of society -- live amid mounds of dangerous garbage.

The film takes its title from a cassette of Sufi music being sold on the street, sounds of peaceful beauty longing for another world.

Venue:  Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 11, 2013
Production companies: Film Clinic, Independent Filmmakers Initiative
Cast: Asser Yassin, Amr Abed, Yara Gobran, Mohamed Mamdouh, Atef Yousef, Maryam El-Quesny, Latifa Fahmy
Director: Ahmad Abdalla
Screenwriter: Ahmad Abdalla
Producer: Mohamed Hefzy
Co-producer: Omar Shama
Executive producer: Hani Saqr
Director of photography: Tarek Hefny
Production designer: Nihal Farouk
Music: Mahmoud Hamdy
Editor: Hisham Saqr
Sales: Film Clinic
No rating, 87 minutes