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During the beginning of Cairo Exit we get the sense that we might be in for a rich love story layered with the social and religious context of life in Egypt. Yet, by the end of the film all of that has been lost in what turns into an Egyptian soap-opera where everyone has something to hide, manipulation is the only answer and extremes are met.
Amal (Maryhan) comes from a Coptic Orthodox Christian family living in the slums on the outskirts of Cairo. She is committed to her family, helping her mother, sister and nephew financially and otherwise, and is also committed to her Muslim lover Tarek (Mohamed Ramadan). She soon becomes desperate and torn between looking out for her family and realizing her dream of getting out of Cairo to make a life with Tarek when he decides he will seek a better life overseas.
Cairo Exit, an official selection for the World Narrative Competition at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival and directed by Egyptian-American Hesham Issawi, does present a very vivid portrait of life in Egypt— the economic discrepancies, the absence of civil rights and opportunity, the religious differences and the communal scrutiny. This is the meaty, interesting material that engages us and could potentially set the stage for a profound love story.
For instance, there is a scene where Tarek is saying goodbye to his mother before leaving home to sail to Italy. Deeply spiritual renditions of surahs from the Qu’ran are illuminating the moment when the young man kisses his mother’s hand, watching tears fall down her face, listening for words she cannot speak. Its the emotional honesty of a scared boy leaving the only home he has ever known and a mother realizing she will forever be in a state of longing and worry for her son that highlights the strongest meanings throughout this particular story.
But, those moments are few and far between and the love story contains very little romance. In fact its cluttered with arguments, fights, immaturity and a lack of communication. At times it is even hard to sympathize with them.
Lies and secrets and pretending are common side-effects of living in a world where standards and customs are set in stone and any variance from them are met with such strong judgment and even harsh consequences. Cairo Exit exposes that harsh reality, but it almost seeps into the very core of the characters and their relationships. What we get are twists and turns and secrets exposed and unbelievable romanticism. It feels like two completely different and competing directions meeting in a series of melodramatics.
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx
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