It’s been an interesting few years for Middle Eastern cinema at the Oscars, with several films from Lebanon (THE INSULT), Syria (LAST MEN IN ALEPPO – doc), Jordan (THEEB), Egypt (THE SQUARE – doc), Yemen (KARAMA HAS NO WALLS – short doc) all making the cut. But with the exception of THEEB, all these films present a portrait of the current political climate in their respective countries and showcase incidents that are of high interest to the Western world.
Films like WHAT COMES AROUND, a documentary by Lebanese director Reem Saleh, are rare and hard to come by. Premiering tonight as the only Middle Eastern film playing in the Panorama section, the film presents an essential, urgent and non-politicized look at Egyptian society in what is perhaps the most raw and honest depiction of life in one the country’s poorest residential areas: Rod El Farag.
Aside from all the politics, revolutions and elections, and shot over the course of 7 years, the film tells the story of several Rod El Farag inhabitants and how they resort to an innovative ‘credit union’ system which allows them to defy financial burdens and raise money with dignity. In a place where food and bread are hard to obtain, begging for money is not an option. The inhabitants are proud and view their dignity as their sole – and most prized possession. The way the credit union works is that a number of neighbors contribute a weekly sum of money that is then multiplied by the credit union participants to then form a large sum that is collected in full by turns. A 15-participant credit union may yield as much as 170 USD, a large sum by Egyptian currency standards.
Reem Saleh delivers a smart, unconventional and raw film that succeeds for four main reasons. Staying away from politics is one – there is almost no trace of the Egyptian revolution that rocked lives in Egypt. This decision to purify the film from politics creates a focuses story that is as realistic as much as it is not exploitative. Presidents come and go but the poor stay poor – and life doesn’t become any easier for those marginalized and left to live and suffer in Egypt’s slums. The film also never politicizes its scenes, messages or incidents. There are no loud calls for change or forced narrative devices attempting to give the film some sort of political gravitas beyond what the real heart of the story is.
Realizing that the idea of a credit union will not create a full length documentary feature that engages throughout, Saleh smartly chooses to tell fully fleshed stories of several inhabitants. Allowing viewers to actually know – and not merely look at – the inhabitants, the film is able to connect viewers with gutsy, fully-realized and relatable characters whose lives extend far beyond the innovative credit system they are resorting to. We get to enter their homes, experience their pain and joy and understand their outlook on life.
One of the most common pitfalls of similar docs, especially those depicting hard life in slums or disadvantaged areas, is to coerce the viewer to feel pity for those in need. From the first frame to the haunting closing shot, the film stays focused on preserving the dignity of its characters just as the credit union allows them to raise money without losing an ounce of pride. Full of harrowing, funny, eye-opening and shocking scenes (notably of a young girl experiencing female genital mutilation), the film remains an audience pleaser that connects and engages rather than taking tired routes of depicting hardship.
The music is precisely used and the cinematography is quietly stunning. In an area that is densely populated and almost impossible to film in, Saleh manages the difficult task of capturing beauty within a decaying city, and capturing the most raw of moments in the corners of the streets and in the hopeful eyes of those who live it.
Verdict: Egypt finally has its Slumdog Millionaire of sorts – but this is no happy-go-lucky, pity-for-the-poor tale. There are no happy endings or opportunities that take the inhabitants to quick wealth. But everyday is a new one, and as long as the sun shines and these people remain united and compassionate, the fight for survival goes on. An urgent, raw, fresh and unique depiction of Middle Eastern life in ways no news channels can cover.