Tahrir Square comes to Cannes
The Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah's "After the Battle" is set in the heart of Cairo, his home ground.
The story is about a clash between men on horseback and camels and young demonstrators in Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011, during Egypt's rebellion. The Battle of the Camels was a set-up by President Hosni Mubarak's regime, a paid provocation to quell the revolution.
Nasrallah has brought his film, "Baad el Mawkeaa" in Egyptian, to Cannes, where he will be competing for the Palme d'Or, the festival's top honour.
"The tourists had fled Cairo," Nasrallah said of the incident, "and the horses, camels and their drivers who lived near the Pyramids were starving. Camels were being sold to butchers.
"They paid these horsemen to attack the protesters and the crowds turned on them and beat them. I remember that we beat them badly, and confiscated their horses."
Nasrallah, a director of renown who looks like he wouldn't harm a fly, said he was convinced that the mounted men in Tahrir Square had weapons. But later, watching the scene shown over and over on television, he could see that they were armed only with their whips. "They had been manipulated," he said.
His movie tells the story of clashing classes and clans, of individuals looking for change, of an encounter between two different people from very different worlds. The filmmaker is a Coptic Christian in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. "Many Copts are very conservative," he said. "They would rather have a military regime than take risks. But the military failed and we should choose democracy."
He has made a bold film, a personal and political film, with characters from different cultures crossing boundaries. And he chose actors he has worked with before, asking them to bear with him while he created the story. The Egyptian-French co-production got under way a year ago in May, without a script. "What a nightmare! Yet the actors agreed to make this film without knowing where they were going. They asked, 'What's going to happen to my character? How can I prepare?' And I said, 'I don't know, we don't know what's going to happen in life either."'
Mahmoud, a horse trainer played by Bassem Samra, looks like a brooding Marlon Brando. He meets Reem, played by Mena Shalaby, a divorce and ecologist who works in advertising. "She's something of a smarty-pants, with charm and self-doubt," Nasrallah said.
When they meet in the square, Reem, a protester who can't stand to see Mahmoud humiliated, goes up to him and kisses him on the mouth. But she can't bear her own inconsistencies and has to figure out where she stands. She has put Mahmoud in an even more perilous spot, in danger of being evicted and losing everything.
"Mahmoud lives with his wife and boys in Nazlet el-Samman," Nasrallah said, "the neighbourhood right near the Pyramids, on the other side of the wall that developers put up to keep the horse trainers out. It's prime real estate and they want them out."
His lead actor, too, is a horseman who lives in that neighbourhood. He and Samra met in 1991 on the set of "Cairo as Told by Youssef Chahine," a short film directed by one of Egypt's premier filmmakers. "I've since cast him in many of my films."
"Most of Egypt functions through clans," Nasrallah said. "This is how Mubarak ruled all these years. He put them in his party, he played with them."
Preparing for the film, he visited an animal shelter where he met poor people like Mahmoud, who had no money to feed their animals.
"I had never seen anything like this," he said, "and that was why I made the film. Why were these horse-trainers shown again and again as enemies of the people? We discovered that it was to cover up what was really going on in the square. During demonstrations, anonymous snipers were shooting, killing and blinding people in the crowd. But we never found out who they were."
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