Review: Awkward and angry ‘After The Battle’ fails to fully capture Arab Spring

CANNES -Well-intentioned, unfortunately, is not enough for a film to work.  If it were, then most films would be great and that’s simply not the case. 

Yousry Nasrallah’s new film, “After The Battle,” has huge ambition, and on that level, I can certainly empathize with the film’s goals.  Set during the Arab Spring of last year, the film tells the story of Reem (Menna Chalaby), an Egyptian woman who works in television commercials, who is incredibly passionate about the possibility of a new democracy in Egypt.  She’s tired of dealing with the way women are treated in Egyptian society, and she believes that the revolution has a chance to change things.  Her beliefs are challenged when she meets Mahmoud (Bassem Samra), a horseman who was part of the “Battle of the Camels,” where armed camel and horse riders swept into Tahrir square to attack anyone who was staging anti-Mubarak demonstrations.  Very quickly, the protestors turned the horsemen away, attacking and injuring many of them, including Mahmoud, whose image ends up on YouTube, a symbol of the way the country is rejecting old values.

At first, Reem is disgusted by Mahmoud and what he stands for, but as she gets to know him, she starts to realize that she has judged him based on a single image, and she finds herself drawn in to the life of his community in Nazlet El-Samman, located right at the base of that Giza pyramids.  While her initial attraction is to Mahmoud himself, she quickly realizes that he’s married, and that there are major problems in Nazlet that she wants to help address, including problems in Mahmoud’s own marriage.  His wife Fatma (Nahed El Sebai) is a very traditional woman, worried about her children and the way Mahmoud’s actions at the “Battle Of The Camels” are affecting them at school and the way it has impacted their ability to make a living.  Reem reaches out to all of them, desperate to help, and it seems like much of her reaction is also born from a guilt she feels about her initial impressions and the way she’s bought into the media’s portrayal of all of the horsemen as simple cartoon thugs.

That’s the main point of the film, that idea that people in a conflict are rarely one-note, and that even in a situation where things seem to break upon very clear ideological lines, that’s not the whole story.  Nasrallah’s goal is admirable, and there are scenes and moments in the film where the polemic falls aside and the film works as character study. Unfortunately, Nasrallah is still too close to these events, and there is very little subtlety to his art here.  Reem in particular is simply a mouthpiece for ideas that Nasrallah is desperate to voice, and the film begins to feel like a political argument after a while, one voice shouting down any opposing voices, a stacked deck where Nasrallah gets to win every debate because of how completely he has rigged things.

I think the best performance in the film is Fatma, the traditional wife, and I sort of wish Reem wasn’t in the film at all.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on Egyptian politics, but the story that drew me in is the story of Nazlet, this Bedouin community that depended on access to the pyramids for their survival.  The horsemen would use their horses and camels for tourists, giving them rides around the pyramids, making a living off of this desire by people around the world to come and soak up some history.  These 50,000 or so people were cut off from the pyramids in 2002 when Mubarak’s government put up a 16-kilometer wall between Nazlet and the pyramids, ostensibly so they could begin an archaeological project.  The real effect was to kill the tourism trade almost completely, so that Nazlet these days is a ghost town of sorts, people whose one real source of income has been sealed off to them.  Mahmoud is a total zero in his scenes with Reem, but when the film just focuses on what it feels like for a man with very few skills and a limited education to find himself quite literally beating on a wall that has cut him off from the things he used to define himself, it’s harrowing and emotional.  That story, the story of how he deals with the wife and the children that he has failed, and how he tries to regain some control of his life only to find himself on the wrong side of history in the protests… that would have been enough to put a human face on the horrific images that escaped Egypt during the revolution.

It’s very hard when you work backwards from message, and “After The Battle” never manages to overcome its earnest intentions with the human drama it so obviously wants to be.