‘Cairo Exit’: The movie that outlasted Hosni Mubarak

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Still image from Cairo Exit. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and over the next couple of weeks, Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see in a two-week period. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Considering the fact that Egyptians are freshly off toppling their long-entrenched government, Egyptian-American director Hesham Issawi's Cairo Exit may be the most timely film in the entire Tribeca Film Festival.

The movie, which was shut down by Egypt's Ministry of the Interior during filming, shows the lives on the ground of regular Egyptians as they deal with such taboo issues as sex outside of marriage, interfaith romance, prostitution, domestic abuse, and bias against women. 

Broken out like that, Cairo Exit may sound like a very special Lifetime Television Event, Egyptian-style. But Issawi takes a realistic gritty approach (they filmed much of it without permits), making real for Western audiences the issues affecting so many people over there.

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While he has said that there are "no politics" in Cairo Exit, any film this personal becomes a political statement, especially in the context of the repressive regime that was still in place during filming.

Amal Iskander (played by the wonderful actress Maryhan) is an 18-year-old Coptic Christian girl, in love with a Muslim boy named Tarek (Mohammed Ramadan). Tensions between the Coptic Christians and the Muslims have always run high in Egypt, and last year the world was shocked by the slaying of six Coptic Christians by Muslim gunmen as they left mass. Violence erupted, with reprisals.

Cairo Exit, with its Romeo and Juliet story of an interfaith romance, was seen as approaching an issue too hot to touch at the time of filming, part of the reason the government attempted to shut the production down. Amal and Tarek, both struggling poor teenagers, could never marry in their world—their families would never allow it. Tarek's older brother looks at Amal, standing in his hallway, with something more than contempt on his face. It is disgust. She is not human, to him.

Tarek has no prospects in Egypt, and has gotten involved with some smugglers as a part-time job. Amal works at a fast-food restaurant, where she makes deliveries to the wealthy and privileged. The two teenagers meet up in secret. They have slept together. She tells him she is pregnant, although it is not clear at first whether it is true, or if she is just saying so to keep him in her life. Tarek, desperate, asks her to leave Egypt with him illegally on a smuggling boat, so they can try to make a life for themselves in Italy.

Both of them have chaotic, impovrished lives on the edge of disintegration. He is constantly on the run from the law, and she makes a bad decision with a delivery bike at her job, causing her to be fired. She also has her mother, who is an abusive second marriage, to worry about. These kids are old before their time.

While somewhat well-worn, the commentary on class and status in Egypt in Cairo Exit is brutal, and Issawi's eye is very good at picking up on the small details that make up the characters' world. He resists overarching commentary or symbolism. He keeps the film grounded.

Tarek finds out, after a terrible job interview, that without family connections there is no opportunity for advancement. As in many Middle Eastern countries, the lack of jobs for talented young people in Egypt results in a giant brain drain, leaving the mainly youthful population at home with no prospects. Many of those idle young people succumb to a life of crime.

On his bedroom wall is the famous poster for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, with Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle ("I'm God's lonely man") walking through the gritty streets of New York. It's a subtle detail, not dwelled upon. But here, it means so much: the dream of getting out of Egypt, even to a place as horrible as New York in Taxi Driver; the isolation of Travis Bickle, and the lack of connection Bickle has to his fellow man and the world around him.

Tarek, while not a psychopath like Bickle, suffers from the same isolation. The world is closed to him. He approaches engagement through his relationship with Amal, but even that is threatened and fragile. The guy can't get a break.

This is seen in Amal's sister-in-law, Hanan (Safaa Galal), who prostitutes herself in order to take care of her sick son. This is also seen in Amal's friend, Rania (in a tragic beautiful performance by Sana Mouziane), who is about to marry a rich man, and is so afraid that he will find out she is not a virgin that she scrounges up the money to get hymen-reconstruction surgery, a big business in the Middle East. The attitude towards sex is barbaric, and it infiltrates every aspect of life (imprisoning the men as well as women). Rania, when telling the doctor that she wants her hymen restored, manages to convey shame, grief, fear, and urgency all in the same moment.

After painting a room together, Amal and Tarek dance on an apartment rooftop, splattered with paint, and their movements are sexy and free and spontaneously playful, echoing Issawi's repeated shots of flights of birds filling the air over Cairo. It provides a tragic counterpoint to the reality of their lives, in which joy is short-lived, and connection impossible.

All of the acting is superb and realistic. No one pulls punches. Art, when it tells the truth, transcends specific circumstances and makes statements that are universal. Cairo Exit tells the truth.

Read more reviews of Tribeca Film Festival selections by Sheila O'Malley.