CAIRO: As Egyptian director Ibrahim al-Batout stood among the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the eve of Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow last year, his first instinct was to start filming.
A quick call to actor Amr Waked, an early supporter of last year’s uprising, and actress Farah Youssef, and within a few hours the trio were shooting a scene in Tahrir in which a man searches for his girlfriend amid the throng.
The result is “Winter of Discontent,” a film with a message of hope that marks a more upbeat departure for a director who spent almost two decades portraying the despair of war.
“In all I’ve witnessed, I’ve only seen broken human beings, I’ve only seen broken souls,” Batout said. “On that day in Tahrir I saw people coming to life again and that’s incredible.
“I looked into their eyes and thought ‘you were dead 18 days ago. Now you are back again.’ This I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
The film trails an activist, a journalist and a state security officer in 2009 and the way they converge two years later during Egypt’s 18-day Arab Spring uprising against Mubarak and his widely hated state security apparatus.
In an interview with Reuters, Batout and Waked said the film was not about Egypt’s political developments but an attempt to convey how something positive can emerge from human agony.
“It’s a message of human resilience,” says Waked.
The realism of the earliest scene reflects Batout’s background – he has documented more than 12 wars around the world including the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda.
He won awards for previous film, the feature-length fiction “Hawi,” and was a finalist for the 2003 Sony International Impact Award for the documentary “Mass Graves in Iraq.”
The new film will have its world premiere on Aug. 29 at the 69th Venice International Film Festival, competing in the Orizzonti Section set aside for new trends in world cinema.
A UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa, Waked played a fundamentalist cleric alongside George Clooney in “Syriana” in 2005, and a wealthy Yemeni sheikh alongside Emily Blunt in 2011’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”
The ad for “Winter of Discontent” shows a blindfolded Waked, who plays the lead role as the activist, lying on a concrete floor, his hands tied behind his back and chest scarred with wounds. The floor and the wall behind him are stained with blood.
The reference to arrests and torture of political dissidents by Mubarak’s police is clear.
Asked where the film was set, Batout replied, “Cairo.”
“Well we don’t know where they put kidnapped people,” interjects Waked, who was among the earliest Egyptian celebrities to lend support to the revolt against Mubarak.
The dialogue of “Winter of Discontent” was improvised, said Waked.
The film draws inspiration from Batout’s brother’s arrest without charge by state security in 1996 after his return from Bosnia.
“He was put in jail, tortured and electrocuted for 15 days because we were covering Bosnia together,” Batout recalled. “They took him from the airport. My brother suffered tremendously afterwards.”
Batout’s fascination with war began when his family fled their home city of Port Said to Cairo in the summer of 1967, at the outbreak of war with Israel.
“I was a refugee at the age of 3,” Batout said. “I came back again to my hometown when I was 10. The image of war has always been alive to me and has always been a mystery.”
He said he spent many years afterwards on a “quest” to understand war. “Winter of Discontent.” seems to hint at a personal rebirth of hope for him.
“Torture and oppression is no longer a tool of control,” he said, “and human beings can rise after being broken.”