Winter of Discontent, Egypt's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet. International Sales Agent: Double Dutch International
Merely two years after the Arab Spring brought down several North African and Middle Eastern regimes, including that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, it is astonishing to see films about these events already being made. After decades of violent oppression their existence is a miraculous triumph and powerful use of its citizens’ newly found freedom of speech. Highlighting the prominent role technology and the media played for both sides, Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter of Discontent, is a tribute to the brave youth of the country and also serves as an artistic vehicle to expose the atrocities committed by those in power and at least symbolically hold them accountable.
Alternating between 2009 and 2011, the year the defining events took place, the film focuses on two characters who experience a transformation through their personal suffering, but who also get inspired by the courage of their compatriots protesting on the streets. Seemingly comfortable working from his apartment in Cairo, Amr (Amr Waked) is an educated man who doesn’t leave his house much anymore. Despite keeping a low profile and appearing disconnected to what surrounds him, he intuitively knows something big is happening in Egypt. The state-run media outlets won’t talk about it, but the turmoil in the historic Tahrir Square is undeniable. Working as a news anchor for one of those outlets is Farah (Farah Youssef), who is forced to misinform on the regime’s behalf in order to keep her status. However, the façade of normality she is supposed to sustain soon starts to crumble as the moral implications of her actions weight on her.
Unjustifiably imprisoned like thousands of others by Mubarak’s secret police two years before the uproar began, Amr was subjected to their horrific interrogation tactics with no other aim than to break him into submission. After finally being freed by his impunity-protected captors he returns home as a fractured man to find out that his mother has died during his absence, an event that strips him of his will to keep fighting. It is only in January 2011, that he once again is able to believe the country’s circumstances can change. Unable to continue with the despicable cover-ups that prevent people from knowing the truth, Farah quits her job and also joins the ranks of those seeking justice.
Meditative and economical in its depiction of the chaos, Winter of Discontent evokes with great solemnity the uncertainty and fear that defined the last days of the regime. El Batout is not fixated with showcasing explicit violence, but rather seeks to exalt the spirit of his people by showing their relentless devotion to create a better future for their youth. He proves that through unity fear vanishes. Amr is imprisoned once again for uploading a heroic video of Farah denouncing the tyrannical government. This time around however, he is no longer afraid as the fury of millions can no longer be contained. There is a certain melancholic poetry in El Batout’s narrative that assertively addresses the loss of hope and sad acceptance that people underwent, and which is the same emotions that pushes them into action. In her heartbreaking speech, which is the most riveting scene of Youssef's great performance, Farah mourns for her unborn children, regrets being complacent, and accepts that dying for her convictions is more valuable than a life in chains.
It is hard to tell how these events will shape the future of the Egyptian nation, but they surely are an example that when united, people are truly unstoppable. The film includes statistics of the casualties, the crimes, and the aftermath, but despite those alarming numbers it offers hope. Winter of Discontent will not only become the defining film for a generation of Egyptians born in the technology age, but it also symbolizes the rebirth of the country’s cinema now fully free to say, and film, what they feel without fear. Talk about cinema as a tool for change, this film embodies that.