A leper, an orphan, and a mule walk into the desert… That sounds like the opening for a bad joke, but it is actually the improbable setup for the Egyptian debut film Yomeddine by 32-year-old A.B. Shawky which landed him an immediate berth in the main competition, a feat last pulled off by László Nemes with Son of Saul (and we all know how that turned out). While veering close to saccharine territory at times, this veritable road movie coasts along on its humanity and the charisma of its two stars Rady Gamal and Ahmed Abdelhafiz, both in their first acting roles. Combined with good cinematography and a solid score this makes for a feel-good movie that might just end up with a place in the palmarès next Saturday.
Beshay (Gamal) is a leper whose disease is actually cured, but he still lives in the desert leper colony where he was left as a young child. After his wife dies Beshay decides to go in search of his family and his roots, and so he sets off on a trek across Egypt with his donkey and the few possessions he has. He is joined by the Nubian orphan Obama (Abdelhafiz), like Beshay an outsider in Egyptian society, and together the improbable duo face off with the hardships of life as outcasts in search of a family and a place in life.
If all of this sounds a bit clichéd, you wouldn’t be completely wrong, but Shawky gives his characters enough material to prevent predictability, and the natural charm and lightheartedness of Gamal make sure that Yomeddine avoids the dangers of becoming misery porn. Beshay’s disfiguration as a result of the leprosy is distinct in his face and his hands mainly, but it is not something that he lets dictate his life, likely an attitude that comes from Gamal himself. At a pivotal point in the film Behsay and Obama meet a group of men with various physical handicaps, whose life philosophy is tied to the title of the film: ‘Yomeddine’ means ‘Day of Judgment’, and it is a day these outcasts actually look forward to as it is a day on which all people are judged on their deeds, not their looks. This idea helps them to pass their days of being looked down upon, giving them a hope that shines through in Yomeddine.
It doesn’t happen that often for a debut film to make it into competition at Cannes, and while such a decision by Thierry Frémaux et al. is always up for debate, it is not hard to see why Shawky was given a chance here. The message of the film may be slight even if uplifting, but the film is very accomplished for a first-time effort and shows Shawky as an African talent (a category that is sparsely populated as it is, sadly) to keep an eye on. While Yomeddine does not set the world on fire, it might just do so with your heart.