From August 24 to 29, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) will be running a film screening series called ORIENTATION: A NEW ARAB CINEMA – a new partnership between the FSLC and the Dubai International Film Festival, presenting a series of recent feature films and shorts that have recently been supported by the Dubai Film Market.
We’ll be taking a look at some of those films, as they relate to this site, like this one… Egyptian filmmaker Hesham Issawi’s Cairo Exit.
Amal, a Coptic Christian woman, is torn between staying home and caring for her mother or eloping with her Muslim boyfriend. Her sister Rania has been romancing a successful businessman, but desperately tries to find money for an operation that will “restore” her virginity. Abandoned by her husband, the other sister, Hanan, is reduced to prostitution in order support their child. Through these and other stories, director and co-screenwriter Hesham Issawi sketches a portrait of a country pushed to its limit, where the desperation that defines daily life threatens to explode.
Cairo Exit presents a familiar tale of the lives of a poor, oppressed people desperate for an escape out of the misery and nightmares they call the present. And at the core of their unhappiness is a lack of the necessary financial resources that would enable flight, or, at the very least, respite from the burdens that make their current lives seemingly unlivable.
The desperation I speak of was easy enough to understand and empathize with; I think we all know, or at least can fathom what poverty looks, sounds and feels like. No one ever strives to live in that state; quite the opposite, especially in this primarily capitalistic world we live in, stinking with extreme socioeconomic class inequalities, as the rich, as portrayed in this film, shield themselves in opulent mansions, behind tall gates. And the poor, in this case, the focus of Cairo Exit, an extended family, overcome with a series of disruptive occurrences that only up the desperation ante, as some of them opt for extremes, all in the name of escaping, and making better lives for themselves by taking advantage of opportunities presented before them.
Will each of them realize their individual ambitions? It is partly due to our investment in each of these characters and thus our interest in whether or not they succeed that will keep the audience engaged for its brisk 100 or so minute running time.
And for the most part, I was invested and interested.
A single mother looks to prostitution, saving up money earned, hoping to one day raise enough to exit Cairo; another, a sexually active young woman is willing to go through “hymen repair” surgery, so as to “restore her virginity,” making her more desirable to potential suitors (she essentially plans to marry her way out of her predicament); and still another, a young man, is determined to act on a potentially fatal move that involves traveling illegally by sea to Europe, abandoning his believed to be pregnant girlfriend and their unborn child.
The film is a drama, but there’s the thrill of the suspense in anticipating what may or may not come to pass.
Director Hesham Issawi shoots the film, using a hand-held camera, naturalistic lighting and available sound, creating a realistic kind of visual chaos, a visceral, immediate experience for audiences, almost as if placing us within the streets and homes of this small town on the outskirts of Cairo, Dar El Salaam, a city that inhabits mostly working class Egyptians, with an upper class neighborhood, a stones throw away, which the locals call “the American Neighborhood.”
The audience is just as bewildered and thus frustrated as the film’s core cast of daydreamers, looks for a fast exit, with secrets in tow.
And speaking of realism, in maybe a nod to Vittorio De Sica’s seminal 1948 film, The Bicycle Thief, a prized scooter absolutely necessary for use in employment by one of our lead characters, is stolen, leading to a termination, even fewer options, uncertainties, and inevitably increased desperation.
It’s clear that director Hesham Issawi is familiar with the terrain, both the physical and psychological, presenting us with this energetic, heartfelt, raw, slice-of-life portrait of the city in which the film takes place – his city as well – and its working class inhabitants.