(Coming Forth By Day) represents an example of a collaborative and organic film that departs from the conventions of contemporary Egyptian cinema. It reflects the passion of an emerging generation of filmmakers and actors unafraid to experiment and make mistakes, even at the risk of losing appeal to a large audience.
Egyptian director Hala Lotfy presents a harrowing portrait of overpowering family ties in the film, her directorial debut. Coming Forth By Day is an intense study of a day in the life of an Egyptian family grappling with poverty and disease as a mother and her daughter care for an ill, immobile father. His care leaves them tense and exhausted.
The film is split into two halves: the first is a microscopic look into the family’s morning routine, which consists of the mother (Salma El-Naggar) and daughter (Donia Maher) feeding and nursing the father with difficulty and outbursts of frustration. The tension in the decaying apartment is palpable at times, heightened because the film has no musical soundtrack. All we hear besides the slow, laboured conversation between Soad and her mother Hayat is the creak of the refrigerator door, the water running in a filthy kitchen sink, and the distant quarrels of a rundown neighbourhood. The most compelling sound in the house, however, is silence.
The camera gets uncomfortably close to Hayat’s face at one point, leaving the audience to observe the strings of hair falling on her cheeks. She exudes a dreary sense of fatigue in the way she shuffles around the house, stares almost begrudgingly at her daughter and repeatedly says she needs to rest before her shift at the hospital. Soad, with a crown of unruly, jet-black curls on her head, is more energetic by comparison as she goes about her chores at a faster pace. It is clear that she is restless though, and contemplates leaving the house.
“This film may show blatant ugliness, but it reflects a reality that we all live, one that we should meditate on from a distance, so that we can figure out what to do about it,” director Hala Lotfy told Ahram Online.
The second half of the film kicks off with Soad straightening her curls at the hairdresser. One conversation with a slightly unhinged girl (played by Doaa Ereikat) on a bumpy microbus ride to Tahrir Square is a source of comic relief, and sets up a promising journey to the end of the film. Sound Editor Abdel Rahman Mahmoud also presents a wider palette as the film progresses. He masterfully and subtly weaves together different sounds of the city.
Coming Forth By Day screened on 6 December as part of the 6th Panorama of the European Film. It has been well received at international festivals. Most recently, it was named Best African Film at the Festival de Cinema Africano di Milano. In 2012, it received the Bronze Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival, the Golden Lion at the Orange County Film Festival, and the Fripesci Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. But in Egypt, it is could be dismissed by commercial theatres and the general audience as a “festival movie,” a label for experimental or artistic movies that lack mass appeal.
There is no question that Lotfy’s film is experimental, and aggressive in displaying pain and suffering. But to her, that came from both personal conviction and creative direction. “We are responsible for dismantling this classification of festival movies versus commercial movies through daring to produce more films that are serious about tackling reality,” Lotfy said.
She said she abandoned the first lesson she learned at the High Cinema Institute from which she graduated in 1999: “They would always tell us that filmmaking is a trade, an industry, and lastly, an art. And I always rejected that definition.”
The director wanted to be treated as an artist first and foremost, driven by a need to express herself, not by the need to generate profit from ticket sales. Lotfy believes that young filmmakers need to tackle difficult issues relevant to people's lives, and to avoid making films for purely entertainment value as many Egyptian films have in recent years.
“[The crew of the film was] very radical in the way we work, and honestly, we do not seek to please anyone,” the director said gleefully.
Coming Forth By Day was made in four years with minimal equipment and frills. No buffets on set, no hair and make-up. Director of Photography Mahmoud Lotfy had to rely mostly on natural light, but he did so with commendable flair.
In addition to personal funds injected by members of the team, the film received two grants, one from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and another from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Their independence from a producer allowed the team to take chances and toy around with the film. “It meant that, since we did not owe anyone returns on investment, it would be okay to produce something that no one likes, as long as we enjoy the process itself,” Lotfy said.
That is not to say Lotfy would not have done anything differently. She filmed the second half of the film in 2010, and filmed the first half a year later. She said this created a split in the mood and thus performance of the actors. Still, the director embraces her mistakes.
“We will not grow, develop, or change or move forward until we make all the mistakes there are to make,” she said. “If we have no freedom to make mistakes, we will never do anything different from way it was done by those before us.”
Despite the difference between both halves of the film, there is a unified force that runs through them. It is an emotionally draining tale of suffering, looming mortality, and solitude with an eerie familiarity to the story that makes it relatable, and thus all the more unsettling.
Lotfy wrote the script between 2007 and 2008, a time when frustration and a sense of helpless prevailed in Egypt. But the plot was particularly autobiographical for Lotfy, since she experienced a similar situation with her father, who was also ill and needed special care. She had initially wanted to make Coming Forth By Day a documentary, but was unable to film her father. But that has possibly made the film stronger—it became a collage reflecting snippets of personal stories from the entire team.
“Everyone who has either passed in front of or behind the camera has contributed a piece of their heart to this film,” Lotfy said.
Art director Shahera Nassef brought objects that belonged to her grandfather, who also suffered like the father of the film. Other cast and crew members pitched in with nuances of their own, however small, to give the story more depth. When the father, played by Ahmed Lutfi, read the script, he told Lotfy that he would do this role as a tribute to his late mother, who he had taken care of during the last two years of her life.
Screenings take place at 3.30pm, 6.30pm and 9.30pm at Odeon Cinema
4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, downtown, Cairo
This review was previously published during the 6th edition of Panorama of the European Film.