Egypt in Tribeca: ‘Cairo Exit’ and revolution at the Tribeca Film Festival

The tenth Tribeca Film Festival in New York, which ended yesterday, brought around 80 international films from more than 30 countries. The festival was co-created by American actor Robert De Niro in order to revitalize Manhattan’s downtown Tribeca area after 9/11, and was franchised to reach the Arab World two years ago as the Doha Tribeca Festival.  

Egyptian long and short narratives have long been a feature of the festival. In 2006, “The Yacoubian Building” premiered, and stars Adel Imam and Youssra attended the festival. In 2008, Yousry Nasrallah’s “Aquarium” was screened at Tribeca, following its premiere in the Panorama section of Berlinale. This year, the new independently produced drama “Cairo Exit” was selected for the international competition; director Hesham Issawi and producer Sherif Mandour attended the festival to promote their film, which was banned in Egypt.

The contemporary drama takes place in a poor Cairo neighborhood, where marginalized people inhabit red brick homes in front of a backdrop of luxurious monuments. Amal, played by Maryhan, is an 18-year-old Coptic woman, working in a fast food restaurant. Her secret lover Tarek, played by Mohamed Ramadan, a Muslim young man, decides to flee the country illegally to Europe, taking Amal with him. Amal, though, is pregnant with Tarek’s child and must decide to either abort the child and go with Tarek or keep the child and lose Tarek forever.

Issawi’s use of a shaky hand-held camera reflects the chaotic daily life in Cairo and the stressful relationship between Tarek, Amal, and their disapproving families. In addition to strong performances from Maryhan and Ramadan (who also play lovers in Khaled al-Haggar’s “Lust”), Cairo-based Moroccan actress Sanaa Mouzian shines as Amal’s best friend, a veiled Muslim woman married to a wealthy man.

Even beyond censorship, “Cairo Exit” has seen many hurdles leading up to this glamorous premiere. Production challenges and a tight budget prevented Issawi from shooting certain scenes and forced him to cut the role of veteran actor Ahmed Bedeir, who plays the role of Amal’s villainous stepfather. Indeed, Issawi and Mandour started to shoot the film last year before getting location permits or censorship certificates, a move which put them on thin ice with the Egyptian authorities, who then demanded that changes to be made to the script regarding the religious differences between the two protagonists. Sectarian issues and other taboos addressed in the film led to its censorship.

The festival addressed recent events in the Arab world via an interesting panel, hosted by Sherif Mandour and other filmmakers such as Cherien Dabis (writer-director of the award-winning “Amreeka”) and Lebanese Mahmoud Kaabour, who also screened his documentary “Grandma, a Thousand Times” at Tribeca. Hosted by Doha Film Institute, the panel discussed the potential impacts of revolution on storytelling, production and distribution of Arab films around the world. According to Mandour, the recent events in the Arab world have promoted increased freedom of speech, and filmmakers should now be able to present real stories for the world to see.

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