CAIRO: There is an enduring irony in the relationship between art and politics. Regardless how much they disparage monochrome television coverage of contemporary events, some critically minded people will be impatient for artists to make something of the turmoil that surrounds them.
Take the Arab Spring. It’s inevitable, perhaps, that artists of various disciplines will be moved to make work inspired by the ferment of political change. Yet even proven artists can be defeated by the challenge.
Though it premiered in the competition at Cannes, “After the Battle,” the even-handed feature-length fiction by Egyptian indie pioneer Yousry Nasrallah, provoked little critical engagement – perhaps because of the auteur’s experiments with melodrama.
The brief list of homegrown fictions inspired by Egypt’s January revolution is one film stronger thanks to Ibrahim Batout’s “Winter of Discontent.” The film had its world premiere at Venice and came home Wednesday to open the Cairo International Film Festival, where it is screening in the Arab Feature Film competition.
“Winter of Discontent” relates the stories of three characters set within the context of revolution.
Amr (Amr Waked) is an activist blogger who posts videos about matters like Israel’s 2009 war on Gaza, media corruption, police brutality and the like. He lives alone in a Cairo flat and seems a likeable and kind-hearted soul. When he asks the bawwab (concierge) to go fetch him some groceries, he gives him extra money so that he can deliver an identical order to the lady upstairs.
Farah (Farah Youssef) is the pretty co-moderator of “Heart of the Nation,” an evening call-in chat show on state-run television. Vestiges of a journalist’s instincts remain behind the heavy makeup and straightened hair, yet she’s compliant to her boss’ insistence that – when it comes to the demonstrations in Tahrir Square – their job is to calm matters rather than stir things up. Discussing what’s actually happening on the street is out of the question.
At the top of the food chain is Adel (an excellently cast Salah Hanafy). The very likeness of a greasy security state thug, he’s in charge of keeping popular political expression in line with state interests. He’s no hesitant functionary but takes an obsessive-compulsive interest in his work, having cctv cameras installed in the rooms where detainees of state security are held. That way he can watch them being tortured and humiliated while himself enjoying sushi.
Adel is imaginative too. When the imam of a mosque is hauled in for using his Friday sermons to rail against Israel’s 2009 attacks on Gaza, Adel personally has the sheikh drink a glass of diuretic and a glass of water, then locks him in a sitting room.
When the imam tells his guard he needs to go to the toilet, Adel’s underling refuses and makes him drink two more glasses.
Batout finds the forward momentum for his plot in the January protests themselves. This narrative line is punctuated by the last three speeches of then-President Hosni Mubarak – each of which is assigned a subhead, to orient audiences to which speech is being heard.
So much so documentary, yet “Winter of Discontent” isn’t simply a professionally acted documentary re-enactment of January 2011. Juxtaposed with the 2011 narrative is another, told in episodic flashbacks, from two years before the revolution.
Masked members of state security detain Amr in January 2009, throw him into an abandoned factory space and tell him that if he tries to leave he’ll have one of his “parts” removed.
After simmering for a while, he’s collected and brought to one of the agency’s interrogation centers, where he’s blindfolded, hanged by his knees for a spell, then stripped and tortured with electric shocks.
It’s not about interrogation. At no point does anyone ask him any questions. At no point is he (or the audience) told why he’s being detained and tortured. Then, in March, he’s re-dressed and brought, still blindfolded, for an appointment with Adel.
The state security official lights Amr a cigarette and gently upbraids him for any hard feelings he may harbor because of his three months of miserable treatment.
“We love Egypt as much as you, maybe more,” Adel says. “What’s Gaza to us? Israel isn’t our enemy.” Finally he encourages Amr to come to him if he needs anything. “How do you think Farah got her promotion?”
It’s tempting to foreground the documentary elements in “Winter of Discontent.” The filmmaker did spend some years shooting docs in war zones around the world, and his previous three fiction films have been tales of common folks that employ on-set improvisation and a grimy cinematography.
It’s an approach that in the past several years has propelled Batout (who co-wrote and -produced here as well as directing) to the forefront of Egyptian independent cinema. His previous feature, “Hawi,” whose story revolves around a released political prisoner, took the top prize in the Arab feature competition of last year’s Doha Tribeca festival.
Several aspects of “Winter of Discontent” make it of a piece with the earlier fictions – principally the narrative and emotional reserve that mark the storytelling and acting.
Even Waked’s depictions of his character’s torture are convincing without going over-the-top. More still set it apart, and these will invariably provoke comparisons to Nasrallah’s film.
For one thing the fine cinematography of Victor Credi make “Winter” much more audience-friendly than Batout’s previous work. The same is true of the decision to employ Waked and Youssef – the one a well-known and well-liked professional, the other a performer whose face is easy for a camera to love.
Where Nasrallah sought an even-handed narrative, Batout is sympathetic to characters who are victims of official corruption and state torture. Where Nasrallah’s male lead was manipulated by the former regime, Amr’s other is a dead-eyed ghoul of the ancient regime.
Yet there is a measure of nuance here too. Adel looks as though he might enjoy eating babies, but his expansive villa is tastefully appointed and it houses the pair of attractive kids he’s fathered with his English-speaking wife.
It’s no surprise that they emerge from all this without a scratch.
The Cairo International Film Festival continues until Dec. 6.