In a packed room in Downtown Cairo's Café Riche, Tuesday, crowds gathered to watch the screening of Egyptian Christian filmmaker Namir Abdel-Messeh's documentary "The Virgin, The Copts and Me" , a light and humorous account of an attempt to recreate an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Although the film began by trying to throw light on the real-life religious phenomenon that reportedly occurred in 1968 on the roof a Cairo church, the story gradually centres around the filmmaker's family in Upper Egypt, as it is Abdel-Meseeh's own mother who claims to have had the original divine vision.
Many maintained they had also seen the apparition. However, others said the sightings were an emotional by-product of the hopeless despair that followed the Egyptian army's disastrous defeat during the1967 Six Day War with Israel. The only proof proffered was a light spot in an old black and white picture.
At first the narrative, much like the filmmakers' frustrating quest to find a story, appears to go around in circles but it starts getting interesting when the events move to Upper Egypt.
The focus shifts to life in the village, its people, their religious beliefs and the director's exploration of his Egyptian family.
At the start the family is skeptical about the subject matter of the film but soon enough they are enthused and get involved in its making.
His mother, Siham Abdel-Meseeh, who was initially against making a film about their family, eventually produced the film herself and ended up driving through the village shouting through a microphone that those involved in the film should turn up on time.
Abdel-Meseeh does not manage to prove the occurrence of the apparition, however, his experiment recreating a false vision illustrates how collective illusion is possible.
Although the village inhabitants, who participated in the elaborate reconstruction, knew that the apparition was make-believe, they are visibly surprised when they watch the footage of the "documented vision."
Even his mother, a religious woman, was convinced that she saw the Virgin Mary. “Some people see her and some people don't,” Siham tells her son, as they leave the village at the end of the film.
The documentary offers a brilliant and honest insight into a rural Coptic community in Egypt with its togetherness, traditions and myths.
Intimate and humorous moments like village members chanting and cheering as they hold their beloved statue of the Virgin Mary contrast to scenes of disturbing frankness, like the shot of a young girl screaming whilst having the traditional cross tattooed on her wrist.
It is also interesting to see Abdel-Meseeh, who is skeptical about religion and was born and raised in France, react to his family's beliefs.
At the beginning his mother recounts a moment when she prayed for help as she was going through a tough time, the next day she says she found a picture of the Virgin Mary in the mail. This was met with an unconvinced look on her son's face.
The film's merit lies in these intimate moments as well as the personal exploration of the subject and the characters of the filmmaker's family in Upper Egypt.
After the screening the director himself and his mother, Siham, gave a talk. During the ensuing discussion, the audience at Café Riche bought up the contentious issue of the struggle between Muslims and Christians. This is despite the fact that sectarian issues are not relevant to the film. There is no highly political message to this personal and intimate story of a Christian community and family.
The film's light approach, and its well-matched sound track, got lost in the audience's dogged attempt to find the “important” political debate.
The documentary came in third place at the Berlinale’s Panorama Audience Awards. It was screened at several festivals, including the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.