Neighbors: Garden City unveiled

Director Tahani Rached returns to the screen in top form with Giran (Neighbors), a feature-length documentary about the neighborhood of Garden City. Rached worked as a full-time filmmaker with the National Film Board of Canada from 1981 to 2004, producing over 10 documentaries at the time, before returning to Egypt and making el-Banat Dol (Those Girls) in 2005. The documentary, about the day-to-day tribulations of six street girls, was chosen as an official out-of-competition selection at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Giran, her follow-up feature film, is a spirited and dynamic exploration of the changing face of a neighborhood once associated with opulence and political power.
The project began with an invitation. In 2007, Rached tells Al-Masry Al-Youm, then Ambassador Francis Ricciardone invited her to screen el-Banat Dol at the US embassy. Following the screening, Ricciardone informed Rached of a party he planned to host, a “neighbors” party, in which he intended to assure local residents that despite the encroachment of the embassy’s cranked-up security measures upon the community and its businesses, plans were also underway to “beautify” the neighborhood.
Rached, herself a Garden City resident, immediately inquired if she could film the party, and gained unrestricted access. She was able to capture the simmering tension surrounding the diplomatic handshakes, the ambassador’s position straight from the horse’s mouth, and the skeptical responses of the attendees. Gradually, over the course of two years, Rached voraciously interviewed neighborhood residents from all walks of life, from nostalgic descendants of gentry to homeless porters, and peeled away the layers of the neighborhood’s rich history. The result is a gripping story of a once glorious neighborhood’s transmogrification, told through its antiquated architecture and diverse residents.  
The ceaseless procession of colorful characters is what makes the film an unforgettable tour de force. Swiss diplomats complaining about the new Four Seasons hotel obstructing sunlight to their villa’s garden are contrasted sharply with street vendors and valets braving smiles through daily hustles tinged with desperation. An erudite retired police general guides us through the debasement of the authorities’ relationship with locals, and bazaar owners seize the opportunity to vent about how much business the British and American security barricades have cost them.  
Rached’s experience and sound instincts allow her to distill her selection of speakers down to only the most charismatic, and, with the aid of the assured immediacy of Nancy Abdel Fattah’s masterful handheld camerawork, she excels at sketching compelling and accessible portraits of each of them with brevity. Even after staring at them for months on end in the editing suite, Rached is still not immune to some of her characters’ personal charm. She speaks of her love of the work ethic of Saad Aly Shlo, a farmer who moved to the city and turned the abandoned plot of land he guards into a flourishing bed of arugula and parsley, and the rooftop-dwelling Baraka family whose unwavering generosity of spirit reminds her why she loves her homeland.
Comprehensive in the treatment of her distinctive subject, Rached invites a considerable group of intellectuals, including journalists, political writers and novelists, to offer their commentary on Garden City’s transformation. Discussing socialism and the crude urbanization that followed the qualified success of the1952 revolution, and the 1974 Infitah (Open Door policy) that opened the floodgates for a swarm of invasive foreign banks, the representation of the neighborhood as a microcosm of Egypt quickly becomes apparent–its streets, buildings and inhabitants delineate the country’s modern history, all the way down to present-day security paranoia.
Punctuated with a deft use of archive footage and clips from Egyptian film classics, which keep its pace sprightly, Rached has created an engaging, entertaining and informative documentary. Already slated to screen in several international film festivals this year, including Toronto’s Hotdocs and Madrid’s Panorama of Contemporary Arab Documentaries, the film struggles to find a local home. The filmmakers are currently in talks with affiliates of producers Studio Masr to see if a limited theatrical release is financially viable. It would be unprecedented for a locally produced documentary film. Yet, as anyone who has seen the film is likely to attest, one would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy contender.
Giran (Neighbors) will be showing at Al-Gomhurriya Theatre as part of Egypt’s 16th National Film Festival on Sunday 25 April at 11 AM.

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