Abdullah narrates the story of contemporary Egypt that he sees and feels in a simple and sincere manner reflected by the parallel lives of five different young people who are supposedly in the making of their life paths, yet stuck in a “New Egypt”, which is the Arabic name for Heliopolis. One day in the lives of a generation full of plans, needs, ambition and dreams yet shattered by a castrated spirit and the daily pressures of a harsh Egyptian reality of socio-political unrest.
There is Ibrahim, excellently played by Khaled Abol Naga, who is doing fieldwork for his post graduate studies on the ethnical composition of pre-revolution Egypt through testimonials of Heliopolis residents from various social backgrounds, who in unison express their dislike of this suffocating “New Egypt”. His field work is abruptly interrupted by a policeman harassing him for permits which reflects the police controlled state and its ruling martial law.
We meet Hany, the acting debut of renowned musician Hany Adel, an introverted physician who is applying for a visa to please his mother, who already left Egypt, like many Christians who immigrate to the West, sadly, another reality of today’s vanishing cosmopolitan spirit and cultural diversity, for which Heliopolis (and Egypt) was infamous for. Throughout the plot Hany is trying to please people around him rather than being decisive about his own life or dreams, silent and stagnant this character is displayed through little murmured words.
There is Engy (Hanan Mutawa), a receptionist in a pension, whose aspiration and yearning painfully long to take her to a wonderful life in Paris, yet she makes it only from Tanta to Heliopolis. The closest she ever got to her dream was TV5 and the touch of a guest’s French passport, whereas her parents are made to believe that she actually made it to Paris.
A young couple preparing for marriage, very authentically portrayed by Aya Soliman and Atef Youssef, spends a day wasted for nothing trying to run a simple yet essential errand but never make it. Subjected to the will of a greater force they are stuck in traffic caused by an arbitrary state of play or a crossing politician.
The best performance ever was the most silent one given by the soldier (Mohamed Brequaa) who is serving his shift trapped like an insect in a matchbox. Renounced of a future or aspiration of ever having one, the destiny of the soldier is the hardest to bear and the most heartbreaking to witness. Abdullah skillfully visualizes the soldier’s entrapment that it feels like abuse not to be able to help this poor sod, who shares his dry bread with a stray dog and offers him empathy and compassion in a harsh world. The mere fact that this soldier reflects a large group of young Egyptians whose lives simply end where they should begin is an even harder reality to digest and a bigger cross to bear to those responsible for creating a breed of ostriches and broken youth.
The protagonists never really meet although their stories are all set in the backdrop of Heliopolis, formerly one of the finest districts of Cairo representing decadence and the heyday of the old Egypt in the pre-Nasser era. Heliopolis stands for the contrast of the long gone beauty and sophistication that our grandparents reminisce about versus the contemporary downfall and corrupted Egypt that our generation inherited yet is unarmed to fight its demons. It portrays with a sobering spontaneity and authenticity a castrated young generation of twenty something’s whose idle and entrapped lives suffocate you while watching. “Heliopolis” stands for the vanishing middle class, the loss of culture, diversity and intellect, thus its effect on our Egypt today.
The only common denominator among the protagonists is the dealer (Marwan Azab) who serves his Heliopolis clientele with hashish, the national pain killer.
The guest appearance of Tamer El Said, director of various award winning short films and Ibrahim El Battout, director of the acclaimed independent film “Ein Shams” is a standing ovation for the independent film movement in Egypt and a due respect for both indie veterans. The final voice over monologue appearance by super star Hend Sabry is another brilliant testimonial for the need of an independent film scene that offers a new insight and feel. With a musical backdrop that captures the melancholy impregnated atmosphere young composer Amir Khalaf completed the picture to this promising and capturing film. Sherif Mandour produced this indie film which hopefully encourages other producers to venture in young film makers and independent cinema. The cast did not get paid and invested their payment in creating this film hoping at “creating a cinematic movement of indie films which is a healthy development” Khaled Abol Naga explained in the post screening press conference at MEIFF. Ahmed Abdullah wrote, directed and edited “Heliopolis” in a record breaking time frame.
I hope that when screened in Egypt this film meets an open minded audience that wants to see and feel something other than cheap popcorn entertainment.