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Cannes Review: 'After The Battle' A Well-Intentioned, But Manipulative Drama About The Egyptian Revolution

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by Kevin Jagernauth
May 17, 2012 8:59 AM
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Gil Scott-Heron famously said "The revolution will not be televised," but as the Occupy movement and the events in Syria and Egypt have shown, not only are these actions on TV, they're on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well. Social media and the ever-quickening 24 hours cycle have seen protestors and governments alike shift and adapt strategies, tactics and rhetoric faster than ever before. And it's against this backdrop that director Yousry Nasrallah has delivered "After The Battle," a well-intentioned if clunky and uneven drama set among the boiling tension and emotion of the uprisings in Egypt in 2011.

The film uses "The Battle Of The Camels" to kick off the story. Occuring on February 2, 2011, one week after Egyptians first took to the street, the incident saw pro-Mubarak forces attack protestors in Tahrir square, with reports of camel and horse riders from Nazlet El-Samman being paid to start riots. This is notable because the residents of Nazlet, a small historic village adjacent to the Pyramids, had long supported themselves on the tourist trade. However, once it was discovered that Nazlet was a possibly an archaeological site, efforts were made to evict them off the land that was given to them by Anwar Sadat. When that failed, a 16-kilometer wall was built between the village and the Pyramids, effectively cutting them off from direct access to the tourists that provided their livelihood, in the hopes they would be forced to move.

And so it is with this knowledge that we meet Mahmoud (Bassem Samra), a simple horseman who has found himself at the center of some unwanted attention. A resident of Nazlet, he was captured on video riding into Tahrir square on one his horses, only to be pulled down and severely beaten by protestors, making him a symbol of the forces trying to crush the revolutionary spirit. He has become somewhat of a pariah as a result, unable to get rations for his horse without a fight, with many distancing themselves from him. But things change when he crosses paths with the lovely Rim (Menna Chalaby).

Bright-eyed and feeling the tides of the revolution coursing through her veins, Rim's first encounter with Mahmoud is romantic -- they share a brief makeout session outside of a horse-dancing exhibition where he's been prevented from performing -- but it soon becomes much, much more complex. Taking pity on him, Rim personally delivers the rations for his horse...only to discover that he's married to another equally strong-willed woman Fatma (Nahed El Sabai). Oops. Yet, Rim (somewhat inexplicably) presses on, getting deeply involved in Mahmoud and his family's life, from helping after his sons get expelled from school to later trying to get the horsemen of Nazlet to unionize. Now, it should be said at this point that Rim works for some kind of non-profit/legitimate activist organization (though it's never actually made clear what she does), but regardless, her involvement with Mahmoud and the family is beyond the scope of her job, and rumors begin circulating about her relationship with being more than platonic.

What Nasrallah attemps to do with "After The Battle" is tell a personal story through the broader scope of the revolution, and the tactic doesn't quite work. For starters, and it's easy to understand why, the co-writer/director wants to address as many issues as possible. The movie kicks off with a great examination of the hypocrisy of more fundamentalist Islamic men who claim it's out of respect that they believe women should essentially remain in the home, but at the same time, are accused of groping female protestors who are hoping a new constitution brings more freedoms for their gender. But that's pretty much the last we'll hear of it. There is a class issue -- Rim is a successful, modern, metropolitan woman and Mahmoud is a poor laborer -- that is also touched on ever so briefly before fading into the background. And these are just a couple of the narrative and thematic strands that are picked up and left dangling through the movie (oh yeah, we forgot to mention that Rim is also in the midst of getting a divorce...so there's that too....and we're not even going to get into the gangster-type guy who controls Nazlet).

In the press notes for the film, Nasrallah reveals the shoot lasted 46 days over eight months, with the cast being told to remain on call. The approach was to make a film without a script, that would be constructed as events unfolded from March 2011 to the planned elections in September. And while on paper that sounds great, in execution it doesn't quite work. Nasrallah notes he had to junk a lot of footage he had shot in order to create some kind of narrative (additional scenes were lensed in January to tie it together) and frankly, it shows. "After The Battle" wants us to buy into some kind of romantic tension between Rim and Mahmoud, but we're not given much to go by except for one moment early in the film. Later a scene involving Mahmoud's sons showing up at home with bloody clothes after a fight is cut so badly that it almost seems like Nasrallah took two separate story and editing options and left them both in for the audience to figure out. But worst of all, the director doesn't realize that the nature of the setting is dramatic enough, and opts to raise the stakes with a misguided cheap shot late in the picture that plays more as an act of desperation than a true document of the emotions Egypt is experiencing throughout the country.

"After The Battle" aims ambitiously high, hoping to present a nuanced portrait of just how complex the storm of a revolt is, and what it means to people at all socio-economic levels. It's almost more than Nasrallah can handle, and a more focused narrative would have made a world of difference. That said, his blending of actual footage with well-staged scenes is seamless, which adds a palpable level of authenticity to the proceedings, but it isn't enough to save the messy and manipulative film. [C-]

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