« | Home | »

At the Movies

Tags: |

Asser Yassin in Ahmed Abdalla's Rags and Tatters.

Asser Yassin in Ahmed Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters.

Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Square still hasn’t been screened in Cairo. It was scheduled to play at a local film festival but pulled at the last minute; the Censor’s Office has not approved the movie’s general release. It’s not hard to see why. The scenes of revolutionary fervour and army and police brutality are at odds with the prevailing version of events here, in which generals are saviours and all protesters suspects.

The first hour of Noujaim’s film is full of familiar faces and jolting violence. The courage of the film-makers, who time and again barely dodged police onslaughts, results in some extraordinary footage. It is hard to watch this reminder of the yearning and suffering that followed Mubarak’s ouster. But it’s important to have this record. I imagined it being played on a continuous loop on all of Egypt’s TV channels, instead of the screeds against ‘terrorism’ and pop music video clips featuring military deployments.

Noujaim tells her story by following three people who became friends in Tahrir. Magdy Ashour is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who doesn’t always follow the leadership’s orders; Khalid Abdalla is an actor and activist from a family of dissidents; and Ahmed Hassan is a young man from a poor background who embraces the uprising like a birthright. ‘We’re not looking for a leader,’ he says, ‘as much as we’re looking for a conscience.’

The three men come to realise that their revolution is slipping between their fingers. We see army officers blithely dismissing the kids in the square, and then the killings begin. Bleeding protesters are treated in field hospitals. The mother of a young Christian killed by the army leans against a wall, saying: ‘I’m not upset for the martyr in you, my love. But losing you hurts me.’

The political opportunism and ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood strains the men’s friendship. Magdy in the end chooses ‘the side I grew up with’ and joins the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in calling for President Morsi’s reinstatement. But by this point the film – which was updated four times – has lost focus, as it struggles to keep up with events and clings to a vaguely uplifting conclusion. It aligns itself so closely with the point of view of would-be revolutionaries that it succumbs to the confusion, the understandable exhaustion and the fog of wilful optimism that descended on many of them last summer. It closes with a concert in Tahrir rather than the massacre in a different square across town.

But how do you make a movie about a story that never ends, and that keeps getting darker? Ahmed Abdalla takes a different tack from Noujaim: Rags and Tatters is bleak from the beginning. It showed in Egyptian cinemas for only two weeks and was almost unanimously loathed by critics, who disliked the way Abdalla refuses to take sides or make pronouncements (the film has almost no dialogue) and silently rebukes both official propaganda and sentimental views of the revolution.

The film is set during the uprising but the protagonist, played by Asser Yassin, never spends time in Tahrir. A convict who gets out when the authorities open the prisons to foment chaos, he wanders through poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of town. Abdalla does something radical simply by focusing closely on these environments of extreme and enduring deprivation, on crumbling staircases and bare rooms, broken windows and peeling paint. A man’s whole life here fits in a duffle bag: a few old ID cards, some tools, a windbreaker.

Abdalla, who has been deeply involved in the protests of the last three years, told me he remembers worrying, in Tahrir, that ‘this is something that is just holding together, but is going to collapse; we all don’t want Mubarak but we don’t want to work together, to be part of each other’s lives.’

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement