An Ant’s Cry: Egyptian film ‘Sarkhet Namla’ tackles poverty and the revolution

Why would an ant cry when it has so few demands in life? That is the question that director Sameh Abdel Aziz tries to answer in his latest film, Sarkhet Namla (An Ant’s Cry).

Produced prior to 25 January and screened at the Cinéma de la Plage in the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the film is finally being shown in Egyptian cinemas.

Actor Amr Abdel Gelil, who plays film’s protagonist, describes it as the first film to historicize the 25 January revolution. Some have criticized the director’s decision to add documentary footage of the revolution in the ending, but the film cannot be classified as opportunistic because of its tight plot.

Sarkhet Namla focuses on the government’s privatization plans for public enterprises, highlighting corruption cases and touching upon a number of issues, including the marginalization of the poor and the culture of fear spread by the now-dissolved State Security Investigative Services under former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

Common advice you’d hear from your mother – or a State Security officer – before 25 January was, “You’re like an ant, so you should walk carefully by the wall,” an Egyptian expression that encouraged staying out of trouble through conformism and acceptance of the status quo.

The protagonist, Gouda, is imprisoned for six years by American troops in Iraq. Upon his return, Egyptian State Security detains him. He is only released after Abdel Sattar (Hamdi Ahmed), the corrupt parliamentarian of Gouda's district, negotiates his release. Abdel Sattar later implicates him in shady deals.

Sarkhet Namla shows that even when you walk next to the wall like Gouda, you might still get stepped on.

Gouda is an Egyptian contractor from a modest background, living in one of Cairo’s shantytowns. Along with the rest of his community, he’s neglected by the government.

In a conversation with his friend Kamal (Ahmed Wafik), Gouda says, “It’s their country and we should be grateful that they let us live here.”

This poignant statement summarizes the living conditions of the capital’s poor who are denied the most basic services, such as clean water and electricity.

In one scene, Gouda is informed that the government wants the people to dig up their dead relatives from a graveyard so it can allocate the land for one of its projects, emphasizing that even the poor’s dead were continually violated.

The underprivileged majority – as the film argues – have but two paths to follow. They can follow Kamal’s footsteps – a school teacher who remains critical of the government’s policies and resists being part of the system, or they can become like Gouda, whose aspirations for a better future make him agree to work with the corrupt Abdel Sattar and hence become part of the wall rather than living next to it.

In addition to highlighting social gaps, Abdel Aziz suggests through the film that Egyptians might wake up one morning to find that they have to pre-pay for water and electricity as basic utilities are sold to private corporations.

In funny and sarcastic language, the ant – a metaphor for the Egyptian poor – continues to cry, yet remains unheard, closing off with documentary scenes from the 18 days of protest. Abdel Aziz, however, leaves his audience to decide whether the revolution was the right answer to the ant’s cry.

Many people were skeptical that Sarkhet Namla would be another film about Cairo’s poor neighborhoods and prevalent corruption, a recurring theme in Egyptian cinema over the past few years, with a forced ending about the revolution. Yet Abdel Aziz was able to tackle the issue through the sincerity of his characters.

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