On Thursday evening, I went to the (very crowded) premiere of the new film Heliopolis--the Egyptian entry in the Arab film competition at the Cairo International Film Festival. The film is the first feature by Ahmad Abdalla, who was the editor on Ibrahim Al Battout's Ain Shems. Like Battout's film, Heliopolis is independent, in the sense that it was made on a shoestring, with actors and crew volunteering their time (unlike Ain Shems, it did get the Censor's approval before starting to shoot).
My impressions after the jump...
The film stars some well-known actors like Khaled Abul Naga and some relative unknowns. It follows five parallel stories in contemporary Heliopolis. There is a university student doing research on the neighborhood; an engaged couple looking for appliances and an apartment; a Christian man thinking about emigrating to join his mother and brother; a hotel receptionist whose family thinks she's working abroad; and a conscript sitting all day in his guard box.
When I spoke to him last week, Abdalla told me the film was about people "whose lives don't change." None of the characters advance towards their goals, and several of them describe their day as "wasted." The conscript--whose name we never learn, who never says a line, and who managers nonetheless to elicit our interest and our sympathy--is a particularly affecting example of this. (How many times have you walked past these poor kids scattered around official buildings like so much human baggage, dropped off from police trucks in the morning, and picked up late at night?) The theme of emigration, of wanting to be somewhere else, is linked to this sense of waste and present throughout--particularly in a surprising but effective dream sequence.
I was pleasantly surprised by Heliopolis. It's a slow film, and it doesn't try to do anything ground-breaking. But I appreciated the naturalistic dialogue, the smooth editing and plotting, the slow accumulation of details, and the mostly subtle treatment of its points. (There were a few good jokes, too).
Heliopolis is a cautious but polished effort by a first-time director. Some of the friends I saw the film with disagreed with me, but I thought it struck a convincing balance between its larger point about the stasis of Egyptian society and the need, nonetheless, for a narrative framework. I'd like to see Abdalla keep his understated style but tell a story where things do happen next time.