Egyptian filmmaker Hesham Issawi made his second feature, Cairo Exit, while Hosni Mubarak was still in power as president, and he most likely intended it to be a timely reflection of some of the hardships in his country, especially for women, under his authoritarian rule. Now, as a result of the recent revolution that forced out Mubarak, Issawi’s film undoubtedly has a different kind of resonance—more of a reminder of what Egyptians just revolted against, and also possibly a warning of what their country may once again become if its inhabitants are not careful. Thankfully, Cairo Exit has other virtues to recommend it beyond topical relevance.
At the center of the film is Amal (Maryhan), an 18-year-old who struggles with the dilemma of whether she should remain in Egypt to care for her mother (Nadia Fahmy), or run away illegally with her Muslim boyfriend, Tarek (Mohamed Ramadan). (Amal, by the way, is Coptic Orthodox Christian, and the difference of religion between the two is a source of friction among their respective families; Amal is more or less treated like something less than a human being by Tarek’s otherwise caring brother, for example.) She isn’t the only one in her family who is looking for a better life though. One of her two sisters, Rania (Sana Mouziane), sees a deliverance from hardship through her marriage to a wealthy businessman, to the point that she actively seeks money for an operation to restore her hymen so that the businessman thinks she’s a virgin; the other, Hanan (Saffa Galal), is forced to work as a prostitute at a brothel in order to support her son.
But it’s Amal’s internal struggle that Issawi is most interested in exploring, and much of what she feels and experiences can certainly be applied to any young person looking to grow up and move on from her family, whatever the circumstances and country. That said, Cairo Exit isn’t a coming-of-age tale; that would suggest the kind of blossoming maturity that Amal has yet to experience under Egypt’s repressive conditions.
While Issawi doesn’t shy away from showing us scenes of outrage (one particularly tense scene involves Tarek getting shaken down by the police in a car wash after cops catch him and Amal making out in his car), his film is hardly a one-note maze of miserablism. Life in Egypt may be tough for these people, but Issawi still manages to find moments of warmth and joy among these characters and their predicaments. And though he shoots his story in a realistic style, his idea of “realism” doesn’t translate to the kind of austere long-take, real-time style that some might say has become an art-house cliché these days; there’s a fresh urgency to his shots and cuts that nevertheless manages to remain invisible enough to serve the story he’s telling.
Cairo Exit is ultimately less impressive as a social document than as simply a solid, well-acted, emotionally involving drama that goes beyond cultural specifics to tell a story of universal import. That’s not to say the film doesn’t contain an undercurrent of anger coursing through it, much of which only truly comes to the fore in its concluding melodramatic moments, which suggest—spoiler alert!—that maybe the only real deliverance for Egyptians in Amal’s position is, well, death and the hope of a reunion in the afterlife. The ironic implications of its calm, pastoral final scene are bleak indeed.