Festival Films: Egypt’s ‘Ring Road’

First off, a confession: I watched “Ring Road” by accident.  

I showed up at the Supreme Council for Culture on a Friday morning planning to watch a different movie. But classic Cairo International Film Festival scheduling issues meant I came on the wrong day. I was, however, just in time for the screening of writer-director Tamer Ezzat’s feature film debut.

I came in with no expectations, having only heard the name of the film mentioned as one of only three new Egyptian films screening in the CIFF. So it all turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, one that adds to my growing hope that a new generation of independent minded filmmakers is starting to really make its presence felt in Egypt.

Ezzet is, to my mind, an aesthetic compatriot to Ahmad Abdalla, who made “Heliopolis” and this year’s “Microphone.” Both are writer-directors who shoot using digital cameras on shoe-string budgets. And both seem to be trying to present an ultra-real visual style, sometimes mixing in hand-held footage for a sort of artsy “Bourne Identity” look.

But “Ring Road” is a very different movie than “Heliopolis”—a film that focused on mood and scene-setting and where almost nothing actually happens in terms of plot. With “Microphone,” Ezzat isn’t trying to reinvent the storytelling wheel here. He tells a fairly traditional tale of good vs. evil and a little guy fighting for justice against the system. But the film looks and feels visually distinctive, and the storytelling itself is far more subtle and restrained than a standard studio melodrama.

“Ring Road” opens with a mystery: a man named Hassan makes a loud panicked kiosk phone call to Essam, shouting confusing references to some sort of scheme that seems to be coming apart and demanding an emergency meeting at their usual coffeeshop.
We cut to a second man waiting in that coffeeshop (presumably Essam) when a shout goes out about a dead body sprawled nearby. Sure enough that body is Hassan, slain on the way to that meeting.

From there the film jumps backwards and we spend a good hour watching how Essam ended up in this mess. Our protagonist is an investigative journalist for the fictional Al-Haqiqa newspaper, and he’s been hot on the trail of a powerful businessman he thinks is making millions selling defective kidney dialysis filters.

We also delve into Essam’s personal life–his possibly dying marriage and his daughter who just happens to have failing kidneys. We also see his dalliance with Amira–a hot divorcee who might be too good to be true.

Essam (played by Nidal al-Shafei) is the movie’s centerpiece. He’s in basically every scene and several times the action on screen literally freezes while he makes voiceover comments. Ezzat is fond of lingering shots of al-Shafei’s face as he frets over his mounting problems and make a slightly constipated-looking “tortured hero” expression. So how a viewer feels about this movie might hinge completely on how you feel about his performance.

For me, it worked. Al-Shafei as Essam and Samia al-Assad as his wife both give genuine performances that made me care about what happened to them. Their fights and angry silences seemed absolutely real.

And there are plenty of moments where a genuinely subtle filmmaker’s touch by Ezzat is clearly on display. At one point, the film takes an abrupt turn into violence with an extended beating on a secluded stretch of the Ring Road. In almost every other Egyptian movie, the soundtrack would have blasted us out of our seats with melodramatic excess. But Ezzat sets it to a weird little jangly riff of music that’s kind of gentle, and that makes the scene much creepier.

At one point, the film delves suddenly into Egypt’s organ-selling black market. But the rather horrifying transaction is pulled off so matter-of-factly that it comes as a shock.

Two-thirds of the way through the movie, I scribbled in my notebook that I hoped it didn’t verge into over-the-top melodrama at the end. The final confrontation between Essam the crusading journalist and the untouchable oligarch bad guy does have its clichéd moments. But, nevertheless, I came away from the film impressed with Ezzat’s deft touch, his clear visual imprint and the acting strength of his semi-obscure cast.

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