Cannes Check: Yousry Nasrallah’s ‘After the Battle’

The director: Yousry Nasrallah (Egyptian, 59 years old) 

The talent: I admit defeat. After scouring the internet for details of the cast and crew of this one, all I can tell you is that it stars Nahed El Sebaï (one of the lead actresses from Egyptian feminist drama “678,” which netted a number of prizes on the smaller festival circuit last year), Bassem Samra (a longstanding collaborator of Nasrallah, acclaimed for his turn in his laureled 1999 film “El Medina”) and Menna Shalabi (whose 12-year filmography contains, I confess, no titles I recognize). I can’t even locate a screenplay credit for the film: Nasrallah has written much of his past work, though past collaborators in this regard have included Claire Denis.

The pitch: Though his films have never really crossed over on the international arthouse circuit, Nasrallah has been a quiet contributor to the revival and conscientization of North African cinema since the 1980s, working under Egypt’s leading filmmaker, the late Youssef Chahine, as an assistant director in his earlier years.

His work has been marked by progressive politics and resistance to Islamic conservatism, and his latest appears to be no exception. Topically set in Cairo against the backdrop of the recent Arab Spring protests, “After the Battle” charts the burgeoning romance between Mahmoud — a camel herder recruited by the Egyptian government to carry out armed attacks on Tahir Square protestors, and since ostracized by his community — and Reem, an educated, liberal-minded divorcee working in advertising. Expect the political and class-related chasms in this relationship to form the basis for a larger social essay.

The pedigree: Nasrallah is one of just six first-time Competition entrants in the lineup, but that’s not to say he’s a stranger to the Croisette: his 2004 feature “The Gate of Sun” played out of competition at Cannes, as did last year’s portmanteau film “18 Days,” to which he contributed. He’s also played Venice, giving him a measure of European festival cred, though he’s still less well-known than the filmmakers with whom he’s associated.

The buzz: I’d be lying if I said I’ve heard anyone talking about this one, but the film’s political currency and demographic USP — it’s the only entry from Africa or the Middle East in the lineup — ensure a lot of informed pundits are keeping half an eye on it. The film will have to make a noticeable dent of the festival jury and audience alike, however, to secure widespread international distribution.

The odds: The bookies, for obvious reasons of limited name appeal, aren’t giving Nasrallah much of a prayer for the Palme, but it seems safer to put it mid-table: juries are often persuaded by films with a degree of contemporary political relevance. That the film is a French co-production is a point in its favor, as is Nasrallah’s very public sympathy with embattled Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi; “After the Battle” may be a tad specialized for the top prize, but like the last African film in Competition (“A Screaming Man” in 2010), a Jury Prize is quite foreseeable. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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