Wednesday, March 23, 2011

ND/NF ’11: Cairo 6,7,8

When CBS journalist Lara Logan was assaulted by a gang of rampaging men in Tahrir Square, it became clear there is a real problem in how a sizeable portion of the Egyptian male population relates to women. When NPR had to delete scores of hateful comments on the Logan story and issue a scolding reminder to its readers (serviced by our tax dollars) that violence against women is always unacceptable, the western media’s deficiency handling issues like the conditions endured by women in Egypt (and the wider Muslim world) also became blatantly clear. Now with his directorial debut, Mohamed Diab offers a blistering corrective to his country’s self-serving denial and outright misogyny in Cairo 6,7,8, which screens during the 2011 New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Cairo’s buses are a groper’s playground. Fayza understands this only too well. Every time she files onto the titular 6/7/8 line, she is felt up. It is taking a toll on the traditional working class Muslim woman, depleting her spirit and further poisoning her already frosty relations with her boorish husband.

Modern and affluent, Seba was the victim of a large scale sexual assault during a soccer match that eerily parallels the subsequent Logan story. Naturally, her husband blamed her—not directly of course, but through his emotional distance. As part of her own recovery process, Seba begins teaching self-defense and empowerment classes for women, attracting Fayza as a student. Eventually, the two join forces with Nelly, a hip aspiring stand-up comic who has launched the country’s’ first sexual harassment lawsuit.

One day Fayza fights back with a straight pin. And the next day too. On the third day, the media gets wind of the story and Cairo’s buses are suspiciously empty. Finally, the police spring into action—to make mass transit safe for mashers again.

678 is an angry, bracing film. Though written and directed by a man, it clearly vents the rage (if you will) that Cairo’s women are largely unable to express. Yet, it is a tightly crafted drama grounded in its human elements. A braided story with multiple overlaying flashbacks, Diab draws the strands together quite adroitly. While dealing with a scaldingly hot button topic, 678 provides at least one nuanced male figure with a legitimate arc of character development. Indeed, keep your eye on that shrewd police detective.

Of course, the three women are the soul and nucleus of the story, but even here Diab does not take the easy way out, forthrightly exploring their own cultural prejudices towards each other. As Seba, Nelly Karim displays a riveting screen presence, while taking her character to the film’s most interesting emotional places. Perhaps the trickiest role is that of Fayza, who willfully subjugates herself underneath her headscarves and billowing layers of modest clothing, in an apparent attempt to deny her own femininity. Yet Bushra (one name) finds a spark of resistance buried beneath the harassed and self-hating woman. If there is a weak link in the film, it is Nahed el Sebai as Nelly. (Perhaps something was lost in the translation, but both she and her supposed comedian boyfriend seem painfully unfunny during their routines.)

678 is a bold film that has a currency beyond the recent tragic headlines. It certainly seems NPR listeners could benefit from its message as much as its target Egyptian audience. If not exactly subtle, it is a sharply written, tightly executed film. A standout highlight of this year’s New Directors/New Films, 678 screens this Saturday (3/26) at MoMA and the following Monday (3/28) at the Walter Reade.