This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
Considering the fact that Egyptians have just toppled their own long-entrenched government, it may be that Egyptian American director Hesham Issawi’s Cairo Exit is the most timely film in the entire Tribeca Film Festival. Already notorious for being shut down during production by Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior during filming, the movie shows the lives of Egyptians dealing with such taboo issues as sex outside of marriage, interfaith romance, prostitution, domestic abuse, and the ramifications of the vicious double standard suffered by women. Listed out like this, Cairo Exit may sound like a Lifetime Television Event, Egyptian-style, but Issawi takes a gritty approach (they filmed much of it without permits), making real for Western audiences the issues affecting so many people’s lives in Egypt. While he has said there are “no politics” in Cairo Exit, any film this personal becomes a political statement, especially in light of the repressive anti-progress regime, still in place at this time last year during filming. Egypt’s government may have been angered by an Egyptian American (an outsider) coming to their country and making a movie critical of Egypt, and they may have done their damndest to silence him, but they did not succeed.
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, but in 2010 the world was shocked by the slaying of six Coptic Christians by Muslim gunmen as they came out of mass. Violence erupted with back and forth reprisals. Cairo Exit, with its Romeo and Juliet story of an interfaith romance, was viewed as approaching an issue too hot to touch at the time of filming, part of the reason why the production got into trouble.
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. It is as though she even smells differently. 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, breaking another taboo. She tells him she is pregnant, although it is not clear at first if it is true, or if she is just saying it to keep him in her life. Tarek, desperate, asks her to leave Egypt with him on a smuggling boat, where they can try to make a life for themselves in Italy. Both of them live chaotic lives in poverty, 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. Her mother is in an abusive second marriage, yet another thing to worry about. These kids are old before their time. There is no leisure, no respite, they can’t go on dates, they can’t do anything in such a rigid bigoted environment.
The commentary on class and status in Egypt is brutal in Cairo Exit, and Issawi’s eye is keen on picking up on the small details making up the characters’ world, resisting commentary or symbolism. Tarek finds out, after a terrible job interview, that without family connections there is no opportunity for advancement. Like many Middle Eastern countries, the lack of jobs for talented young people in Egype results in a giant brain drain, leaving the mainly youthful population at home with no prospects. There is nothing to do but succumb to a life of crime. On his bedroom wall is the famous poster for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Robert DeNiro as Travel Bickle (“I’m God’s lonely man”) walking through the gritty streets of New York. It’s a subtle detail, but it evokes so much: the dream of getting out of Egypt, even to a place as horrible as New York in Taxi Driver, but also the isolation of Travis Bickle, the lack of connection Bickle feels 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.
This is seen in Amal’s sister-in-law, Hanan (Safaa Galal), a prostitute on the side, to make money to take care of her sick son. This is seen in Amal’s friend, Rania (in a tragic beautiful performance by Sana Mouziane), about to marry a rich man, and so afraid 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. It’s barbaric. The attitude towards sex is barbaric, and it infiltrates every aspect of life (men are imprisoned by it too, but not as much, due to biological realities). Rania, when telling the doctor tat she wants her hymen restored, conveys 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, spontaneous and playful, echoing Issawi’s repeated shots of flights of birds filling the air over Cairo. This provides a tragic counterpoint to the reality of their lives. Joy is short-lived, connection impossible.
Art, when it tells the truth, transcends the specific and enters the universal. Cairo Exit tells the truth.