Ahmad Abdalla’s sequel to ‘Microphone’ — a film deemed prophetic of the January 25 Revolution — follows a fugitive who escapes during the series of prison breaks that took place in the early days of the 2011 uprising. Amid uncomfortably sparse conversation, the fugitive limps his way through Cairo’s struggling neighbourhoods, adamant on delivering to the family of a friend — now dead — and then to a news agency a video that documents the truth about the clashes unfolding.
In its contemplative silence, Rags and Tatters echoes the post-revolutionary sense of disillusionment pervading Egypt. Scattered across the film, television screens and newspaper pages faintly show Tahrir Square, placing the revolutionary "centre" in the background, forcing it to take a backseat to the fugitive's story. Refreshingly, this inverts the scene we are accustomed to witnessing in the media. And in the protagonist, many Egyptians will spot a familiar sense of stunted freedom.
To call this film experimental would probably be accurate. The filmmaker explains that he sought to find a new cinematic language through which to tell this story. “I wanted to deviate, find a different style of storytelling,” director Ahmad Abdalla told Ahram Online.
Unable to detach from his identity as an Egyptian citizen at a time of turmoil and change, Abdalla’s film poses questions that have been roaming his mind for the past few years. “My mind was full of questions, and I didn’t have a specific answer or message to convey, I just wanted to shed light on some issues,” he says.
Stories of the voiceless
The film borrows elements from documentary film: individuals living in dire conditions in the mostly Christian Zabaleen (Garbage Collectors) district, or the cemetery known as City of the Dead, talk to the fugitive as if he was collecting their stories. This is a common feature in Abdalla's oeuvre, but this time it wasn't premeditated.
"I initially wanted to create a tight script, but when we were filming in the cemetery or in Mansheyet Nasser, people would approach us and volunteer their stories," Abdalla recalls. "So I decided to stop and develop the script organically.”
The film's protagonist, played by Asser Yassin, is almost completely silent; yet his dark dilated eyes and hunched posture hauntingly reflect his trepidation throughout.
"I didn't want to place any particular statement on his lips," says Abdalla. "I used this silence to reflect a state of meditation."
At times, however, the silence seems forced, and the lack of conversation thwarts the story. The director admits that working without dialogue was initially challenging, and that its know-how was acquired along the way.
Even though the film's storyline takes place against the backdrop of the 25 January uprising, Abdalla maintains that this is "not a film about the January revolution; it's about revolution in its philosophical sense."
"Revolution means change, movement," says Abdalla. Breaking down the notion of revolution to its most basic idea, namely change, the filmmaker sought to produce a film that questions whether or not people's conditions change in the aftermath of revolution.
In Zabaleen, or the City of the Dead, we realise that there are places where the calls for freedom and justice that resounded in Tahrir Square have not echoed. "The issue is that there are people who are perpetually oppressed," says Abdalla, explaining that his film wanted to give a voice (albeit mute) to the voiceless.
Space of imagination
But the reality of these people’s lives is presented in a surreal manner. Almost no one in the film has a name, which renders the characters slightly distant, though not forgettable. While Abdalla's choice to leave his cast nameless was intended to make them more relatable, it contributes to the decontextualised phantasmagorical feel of the film. Moreover, combined with the earthly colours that pervade the picture, and the sparse conversations, the film possesses a potent dreamlike quality. It is only fully appreciated in retrospect, perhaps, as scenes come back to memory.
With Rags and Tatters, there is plenty of room for imagination. It is particularly evident in the unspoken desire between the fugitive and a girl he meets in the City of the Dead (played by Mariam El-Quessny). It was the director's intention to leave spaces unfilled, and to merely create an experience or a mood for the audience and to allow them to carry it further.
In a way, Abdalla has therefore created an interactive work that invites viewers to not only catch a glimpse of their own stories reflected in the narrative, but to also add their own interpretations.
Scenes in the film alternate between being captivating at times and somewhat monotonous at others. One strong scene is when the fugitive takes us into a mosque in which he takes refuge; the floor is a tapestry of multi-coloured prayer rugs, and a Sufi chanter rings out a poignant song about love. When the fugitive kneels in the mosque it is not to pray but to hide.
At times the camera dwells on unlikely details, as if the director was lost in thought and forgot to say "Cut." A leaky faucet or Yassin's mother's face are imposed on the audience for what seems too long, drawing the mind into a surreal, meditative state.
From violence and flames to hopeful smiles to Sufi music, the film emerges like a collage of atmospheres. It is perhaps because of that unlikely blend of moods that reactions to it have been mixed. A melancholic mood pervades as this work about change and a time that was supposedly optimistic is filled to the brim with sorrow, struggle and is largely devoid of the euphoric hopefulness that was associated with Tahrir Square at the onset of the uprising.
If not meant to be enjoyed, the film is definitely meant to be experienced. For many, it will reflect the desolate feel of post-revolutionary blues.
While hailed abroad for being an honest and insightful film, Rags and Tatters has been attacked at home, mostly for being overly experimental and inaccessible to the average viewer. But Abdalla attributes such apprehension to the "strange relationship between Egypt's audience and its cinema."
The director believes that the general appetite in the market is for films that remove people from their own reality, not shine a spotlight on it. "There are a lot of things that people just don't want to know about," he says.
But Abdalla believes there is a movement of filmmakers who — despite the financial struggle they face, and hostility from local critics — are defying the contemporary trend of pure entertainment.
"I am one of the few people throwing rocks in the stagnant river of Egyptian cinema in an effort to create any sort of ripple."