While I’m still on my Mediterranean buzz, with the words of Durrell still ringing in my ears, I thought I’d focus on my next pick from Thessaloniki, Heliopolis (Masr El Gedida), an Egyptian film written and directed by Ahmad Abdalla. I think it would be fair to assume that most reading this won’t be too clued up on Egyptian cinema. I certainly know I’m not. I do know Egypt boasts a sizeable commercial industry that makes films primarily for local consumption, with little if any pitched at the Western art house market. I know also that it’s been going for some decades, probably longer than anywhere else on the African continent. I also know, because I learnt this at the Q&A with the director and lead actor Khaled Abol Naga after the screening, that currently it is almost entirely entertainment-driven, and that Heliopolis is very rare example of independent production in Egypt. That’s not to say that its a cheap, low-budget offering. In fact it’s an incredibly polished looking piece that actually came about through a voluntary collaboration between a number of major stars and accomplished technical figures in the industry (the director’s background is in editing) all united with the desire to make the type of film that the mainstream couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, support.
I liked Heliopolis a lot. It presented a portrait of the city of Cairo and its inhabitants that I’d never imagined, modern, sophisticated, yet facing an uncertain future while gazing wistfully back at the past. It was moving, insightful, and more than a little melancholic. The multi-threaded narrative charts a day in the life of a number of different characters: a hotel receptionist who dreams futilely of living in Paris, a young couple about to set up home together as they joylessly shop for domestic appliances, a security guard who secretly befriends a stray dog for company while he stands alone in his sentry box, a doctor frustrated by red tape in his attempts to get a visa to move to Canada, and a university student, Ibrahim, researching the personal histories of the city’s ethnic minorities.
It is this latter strand that is the main theme of Heliopolis, which takes its title from a suburb of Cairo built by the Belgians in 1905. Once a thriving melting pot where Europeans, Egyptians, Jews and Armenians mingled freely, it stands as a microcosm for the whole country in which only traces of this cosmopolitan past remain. I should say that I’ve never visited Cairo, and that the impression I always got about the city from other people is that it is a dusty, sweltering, chaotic and exhausting place. My experience of Egypt is limited to a cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, both places that look like they’ve enjoyed considerably better days, and, returning to Lawrence Durrell, reading the four books in The Alexandria Quartet.
The image of modern Cairo presented in Heliopolis really drew my attention to this discrepancy between how I’d imagined the country through Durrell’s prose than through the reality I encountered in the more arid regions of my last trip. The film nostalgically harks back to this time when Egypt was a far more multi-cultural country than it is today, before the Europeans left en masse following Nasser’s assumption of the presidency of the country in 1954 (the events of Mountolive, the third book in The Alexandria Quartet, serve as a fictionalized allegory for the 1956 Suez crisis and touch upon the rise of pan-Arab nationalism during this period). Nasser was seen as bringing about a new era of modernization and social reform, but fifty years on, there are many in the country who seem to be questioning where it has all led.
This is not just some colonialist reading of the film on my part. This was a point that was emphasized during the Q&A, when Ahmad Abdalla and Khaled Abol Naga were joined on stage by a respected Egyptian film critic (whose name, unfortunately, I didn’t catch), who directly posed the question just what exactly was the revolution that brought Nasser to the world stage for, stating that modern Egypt, however you define the term ‘modern’, is more insular and less progressive-looking than it was back in the 1950s. There’s a scene in which Naga’s character Ibrahim is stopped while capturing the disappearing older parts of the city on video camera to form a visual archive, and ordered to cease filming by the police due to ‘anti-terrorist laws’. The consumerist paradises where the young couple shop for a new fridge are austere and near-desolate compared with these older, more vibrant areas, as the melting pot of the original Belgian district succumbs to modernity to be replaced with anonymous, gated enclaves for the city’s wealthier citizens. And the overall tone of the film is that each of the characters is stuck in the endless purgatory of their daily lives with little hope for the future.
I was a little surprised that the rather scathing view of contemporary Egyptian society presented in the film, not to mention sub-stories in which several of the characters try to hook up with a local drug dealer, hasn’t fallen foul of the censors, but apparently it screened fairly widely on its home turf and has also played the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi – it also showed at Toronto and Vancouver festivals just before Thessaloniki. It’s undoubtedly a political work, though the exact nature of its politics might be lost on audiences coming to it without the historical context provided by the Q&A. On another level though, I found the characters compelling, and their lifestyles, predicaments and general frustrations with their lots not a million miles away from those of any other major city-dweller. It was certainly intriguing enough to pique my curiosity and inspire me to learn a little more about Egypt, and also to keep my eye out for other films of its ilk, as it seems that there is a genuine desire among filmmakers there to make films outside of the commercial industry which have more to communicate than just mere entertainment. I hope the film will travel beyond the festival circuit, and advise interested parties to check out this interview with Abdalla on indieWIRE.