Just a couple of weeks ago I read a headline saying 21 Dead in Caïro After Army Brutalities, and I was thinking, "Wait, wasn't this a year ago?" It goes to show what a fickle thing a revolution can be. Indeed, it was on February 11th, 2011 that Hosni Mubarak resigned from office, but over a year later the country is still in turmoil. Revolutions are measured in years, decades even, not in days or weeks, no matter what impression press reports from Egypt at the time may have given. But the headline also shows that the line between 'good guys' and 'bad guys' isn't as clear cut. During the protests at the start of last year, the army chose the side of the revolutionaries. Yet now they are striking down these same protesters violently.
It is exactly this blurring of lines between good and bad, pro and anti, that director Yousry Nasrallah is exploring in After the Battle. The film begins with images of an incident on February 2nd of last year, an incident that later became known as the Battle of the Camels. A group of pro-Mubarak protesters from the town of Nazlet El-Samman, near the Giza pyramids, charged through the anti-regime protesters in the now-infamous Tahrir Square on horse- and camelback. But were they really just pro-Mubarak thugs, or did they have some other reason for their actions?
Mahmoud (Bassem Samra) was one of the horsemen who participated in the charge. During the 'battle,' he lost his horse and was violently beaten by the opposing forces. For this, he is scorned in his village, and his children are taunted. The local bigwig and leader of his Bedouin clan openly belittles him. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Reem (Menna Shalabi), a middle-class NGO activist from Caïro, who was at Tahrir Square at the time of the attack. When she visits the Nazlet village one day with her veterinarian friend Dina (Jordanian actress Phaedra), she meets Mahmoud, who is the only horseman not to get fodder for his horse when it is distributed, as a further punishment for his shaming of the village. Later, when the two women are invited to a horse show in the village, she witnesses another humiliation of Mahmoud and seeks him out. They share a kiss, and Reem becomes more involved with Mahmoud's family and the village, as she discovers that these people are not really the thugs she thought they were, but just a group of poor people (as a result of actions by the Mubarak government, ironically) acting on false promises. Unfortunately, Mahmoud is also married, leading to an awkward love triangle (or rectangle, if you count the husband Reem is trying to divorce) that feels more at place in a TV soap opera. But Reem doesn't get sidetracked completely, as she becomes a counselor and confidante for Mahmoud's wife (Fatma), helps sort out problems with his sons at their school, sets up a union for the horseriders, and makes the women of the village more aware of their rights. This results in the real problem – the village losing its source of income (tourism) due to a 16-kilometer wall built between the village and the pyramids, in an attempt to drive the people off their valuable land – ending up on the back burner.
And this is exactly where the film's problem lies. Nasrallah broaches a lot of interesting topics, but he takes on too much, and he isn't able to make it all gel into a coherent narrative. It jumps left and right without giving the different subjects enough time to sink in, despite burdening the actors with expository and at times downright didactic dialogue. The interwoven romance between Mahmoud and Reem never finds firm ground, and only leads to frustration as it has no bearing on the story, and gives the work the feel of a TV movie that somehow ended up in the Cannes competition. All of this is exacerbated by the rather pedestrian direction and filming, and the often soap opera level of acting.
The only inspired moment comes at the very end of the film. A man is seen climbing the Giza pyramid, and at first it seems he has covered quite some distance already. But then, as the camera pans up, it becomes clear that he still has a long way to go. As a metaphor for Egypt's current situation it is perhaps too squarely on the nose, but at least it shows that Nasrallah can do more than just point and shoot his subjects. Unfortunately, these subjects are important enough to warrant a better film, as they are the kind of stories that deserve (perhaps even need) to be heard in the West, with its desire for a black-and-white, easily digestible bullet-point view of the world beyond its own borders. But the film's poor quality will ensure that it will be severely underviewed. As a film, perhaps deservedly so, but the country and its people do deserve to have their stories told. Let's hope a different filmmaker than Nasrallah picks up the gauntlet.