Published Apr 02, 2013Taking a few structural cues from the work of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (Babel) – temporally shuffled plot threads that tie in to a greater narrative – screenwriter, Mohamed Diab, uses his first turn in the director's chair to respectfully dramatize the powerful story of Egypt's first sexual harassment lawsuit.
By no means is Cairo 678 a stuffy courtroom drama; rather, it's constructed as a deeply personal look at the strength of character it takes to stand firm against the repressive tide in a culture of shameful avoidance. No one person can make a large enough splash for the ripples of change to reach the distant shores of staunch traditionalism and habitual entitlement. Recognizing this, Diab weaves together a number of disparate perspectives to demonstrate the snowballing rage against tolerance it took to reach critical mass in the fight against harassment.
Fayza (Boshra) is a poor conservative housewife subjected to daily groping on public transit. The consistent invasive behaviour from strangers makes even the prospect of sexually pleasing her husband repulsive to her. Her tactics to repel his advances – chomping down raw onion before bed and feigning exhaustion – puts a strain on her marriage, to say the least.
Seba (Nelly Karim) comes from a different walk of life but is no more protected from the repugnant conduct of pathetic men – encouraged to participate in debasing behaviours by a complete lack of consequence for their actions – than any other woman. Being well educated and from a wealthy family doesn't make a lick of difference when she's snatched and gang-groped in a crowd amidst the revelries of a soccer match victory celebration.
Adhering to the reprehensible attitudes ingrained in modern Egyptian culture, her husband turns the horror of her experience into an affront to his dignity. This type of selfish response is the norm.
Later, Egypt's first female comedian, Nelly (Nahed El Sabai), is treated as both hero and pariah for insisting on laying formal charges after being sexually assaulted by a truck driver. When she appears on a television program to discuss the case, only anonymous women praise her; the male callers accuse her of "asking for it" and besmirching the country's reputation. Even though she has the support of her fellow comedian fiancé – one of the only decent males depicted in the film – everyone else around her pressures her to drop the case. Men and women alike are consumed by the unthinkable shame of a tarnished reputation.
But her bravery is one of the sparks that helps to ignite the fiery ire of a vigilante cock-stabber whose refusal to continue to meekly suffer the sexual violence that's routinely swept under the rug proves to be exactly the kind of harsh retributive justice needed to curtail these wanton attacks of unchecked lust.
Diab takes great pains to present as many sides of the argument as can be effectively juggled, though a little more background on the relationship between Fayza and her husband would have helped contextualize her utter disdain for sex of any kind.
Overall, the result is a balanced, but firm, take on an emotionally wrenching subject.
To keep the focus on character and story, Diab shoots the scenes with an intimate documentary feel. More shot composition could have lent the film a greater sense of visual symbolism but his naturalistic approach works for the material.
Supporting that intent, the sparse folk music that serves as score is never emotionally manipulative—the weight of the subject matter inspires more than enough feeling on its own.
Cairo 678 is a vital and poignant work that is all too applicable on a global scale when even woman in ostensibly progressive nations such as our own are still ascribed fault for dressing provocatively when scumbags can't keep their hands and their dicks to themselves. (Global Film Initiative)