For three more days Mubi.com is streaming Yousry Nasrallah’s After the Battle for free as part of their Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival. I posted an overview of the program over the weekend, but I feel that After the Battle merits special attention. The movie addresses recent social upheaval in Egypt, and more often in personal, rather than political, terms. As an outsider who’s learned about Egypt’s ongoing crisis solely through reading news reports, I found the film’s human-interest approach eye-opening. Some European critics have complained about the film’s melodramatic nature, which can make this topical work feel strangely old-fashioned. Yet Nasrallah employs melodramatic tropes knowingly, using them to bring a sense of urgency to the film’s feminist politics and cultural interrogation, neither of which registers as straightforward or self-righteous.
As in Nasrallah’s Scheherazade Tell Me a Story (which Facets Multimedia screened a few years back), the heroine of Battle is a proud, independent woman who defies the status quo. Reem works for a PR firm in Cairo that’s creating political ads for Egypt’s reformist party at the start of the movie. She’s invested in her work, but feels she isn’t taking an active enough role in promoting political change. When she spots a man on horseback beating demonstrators at Tahir Square (the film starts around the time of the protests of February 2011), she captures it on her phone and uploads the video to the web in an effort to draw international attention to Egypt’s dire situation. As an unforeseen consequence, a mob of protestors tracks down the aggressor and beats him within an inch of his life. Reem feels guilty as soon as she learns of this, and sets out to atone for the violent act she inspired.
She discovers that Mahmoud, the man in the video, is an underemployed horse trainer struggling to support his wife and sons. He went to Tahir Square at the request of a wealthy politician who had given him work in the past. If he helped “restore order,” he’d been promised that Egypt would get back to normal, his sons’ school would reopen, and the men in his neighborhood might start finding jobs again. In Reem’s eyes, Mahmoud has been manipulated by elites to support a political system that marginalizes him. But how to explain this to him and his family without appearing like a contemptuous elite herself?
Reem decides the best course of action is to befriend Mahmoud’s family so that she might help them out of solidarity rather than charity. Of course, this is easier said than done, given the cultural differences separating this bourgeoise from this working-poor family. Neither Reem’s nor Mahmoud’s peers can understand what the two might have in common. Her coworkers accuse her of disingenuousness; his wife (a traditional, submissive type lacking in feminist consciousness) thinks Reem is spending time with Mahmoud just to have an affair with him. The heroine manages to dispel some of these doubts, but new challenges arise daily in converting this family to the reformist cause. The most frightening of these challenges comes in the form of Mahmoud’s wealthy patron, who rules over his district like a mob boss and uses the threat of violence to keep his constituents in line.
Nasrallah and his cowriter, Omar Shama, hint throughout the film at a crowd-pleasing finale, only to disrupt the fantasy of cultural reconciliation with the messiness of real life. The movie reminds us that to create lasting progress, a society must change its outlook as well as its laws. That’s essential work, but it’s not as easy to dramatize as, say, a mass protest. Ideological shifts occur gradually and within individuals. To illustrate them, a filmmaker all but has to work in melodrama, a genre traditionally concerned with the impact of external circumstances on individuals’ emotional lives. Nasrallah recognizes this—so, too, do his actors. The performances here are fiery, expressive, and direct. Even on my laptop, these characters seemed bigger than life.