Namir Abdel Meseeh’s documentary is more about the “Me” rather than the “Virgin” or “the Copts” of its title, but since Meseeh is charming, if somewhat self-centered, that’s not altogether a bad thing. The French-Egyptian filmmaker, whose parents emigrated from Egypt in 1973, decides that he’s going to make a documentary (his first feature-length film) about the various sightings, mainly by the Christian Coptic community, of the Virgin Mary in Egypt. A secular skeptic himself, Meseeh becomes intrigued by the phenomenon when his mother claims that she actually saw the Virgin in a blurry videotape recording of one of the alleged events.
Once he gets to Cairo, Meseeh soon discovers that the prospects for his documentary, which had only a vague premise from the start, look less and less promising. His attempts to interview eyewitnesses of the apparitions don’t yield much, except perhaps for the titillating theory that the 1968 sighting of the Virgin in Cairo may have been engineered by President Nasser and the government in order to distract the population after Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War with Israel. You don’t get much political insight, nor do you get a meaningful examination of religious belief from this documentary as it meanders along searching for a subject. But The Virgin, the Copts and Me does offer a little-seen view of the country’s Christians, who comprise either six or 20 percent of Egypt’s population, depending on whether you accept the official government figures or the Coptic community’s own tally. But Meseeh is out of luck here too; the patriarchs of the church refuse to cooperate, his movie reaches an impasse, and his producer is unwilling to write any further checks. So he turns to his mother for help.
Every budding filmmaker should be so lucky. Mom may criticize her son’s early filmmaking efforts and boss him around, but she’s certainly supportive. Although she initially forbids him to film her relatives in their home in Upper Egypt, even threatening to sue him if he does, she comes to the rescue when Meseeh’s financing runs out. She even travels back to Egypt to take over as the producer of the movie. As a last resort to save his film, Meseeh decides he’s going to recreate an apparition of the Virgin in his mother’s home village. The doc comes into its own when he focuses on the locals: the young man who gets a tattoo of the Virgin on his arm (a companion to the one of the martyr St. George on the other), the local priest who helps out with recruiting suitable young women to audition for the role of the Virgin. Setting up his own Virgin apparition with the help of a green screen and local actors, Meseeh eventually pulls off a minor miracle himself and brings his movie to a satisfying climax.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 18—29. For more information click here.