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In their footsteps
Published in Ahram Online on 24 - 11 - 2020

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, the number of the Egyptian immigrants rose by 10.6 percent between 2017 and 2018. But this is a much older phenomenon, and a favourite subject for filmmakers like Daoud Abdel-Sayed in Land of Dreams (Ard Al-Ahlam, 1993), starring Faten Hamma and Yehia El-Fakharany. This month, the 36th Alexandria International Film Festival last (7-12 November) opened with Fragile (Qabel Lel-Kasr), Ahmed Rashwan's second narrative feature. Rashwan's debut Basra dates all the way back to 2008. It won several awards including best screenplay at the Arabic Film Competition in Cairo International Film Festival. But immigration was probably also on Rashwan's mind when he made Copts Island (Jazeerat Al-Akbat, 2014), a documentary about Egyptian Christians emigrating to Georgia.
Fragile revolves around Nancy (Hanan Motawie), a Christian girl in her early thirties planning to join her mother and two brothers in Canada. Rashwan, who also wrote and produced the film, trails this character during her last three days in the country, while she disentangles herself from what few ties and friends continue to link her with Cairo. The film opens with Nancy and her friend Karim (Amr Gamal) monitoring movers as they carry furniture out of her flat, with the first few scenes at the beginning of the film giving the audience a rapid overview of the main characters and the relations between them. Nancy's best friend Lobna (Rania Shahin), a traditional Muslim girl who wears hijab, seems to have just moved back in with her mother, with some of her things in boxes with fragile labels on them. Here as elsewhere in the film the word has the double implication of someone relocating or travelling and something or someone that can easily be broken.
Rashwan (left) during the shooting of Fragile
The script intentionally confuses the audience regarding the relationship between Nancy and Karim. In some of the opening scenes, they are seen together on his motorbike in the streets of Downtown and at a popular café eating and drinking tea, but the dialogue reveals that Karim is in a relationship with Lobna's sister Laila (Fatma Adel). Later the script reveals that Karim nonetheless has a crush on Nancy. These confused feelings are beautifully woven, especially in the case of Nancy who seems, first, to draw a clear line between true friendship and love, but by the end is overwhelmed by emotion for Karim. At the same time, another dramatic line proceeds as Lobna arranges to have an abortion now that she and her husband are divorced. Although Nancy was very busy packing her things and selling her car, she manages to accompany Lobna to the clinic.
The story of the film seems very simple, but Rashwan adds spice by creating an antagonist in Karim's actor flatmate Hussein (Khaled Khattab, also the co-producer) who works with Laila dubbing Mexican TV series. The script shows that he has bad intentions regarding the relationship between Laila and Karim, and lusts after Nancy. It seems that Rashwan wanted this character to have devilish inclinations. The script avoids “national unity” clichés by glossing over religion except for one childhood memory of Nancy giving her then classmate Lobna an ankh that Lobna's mother mistakes for a cross.
In one scene, Nancy is using an ATM when she sees a woman being robbed by two men on a motorbike; the camera focused on Nancy's panic. In the next scene following scene, at another ATM, Nancy is attacked by a homeless madman who smashes her car window. Neither incident really alters the plot line, but both add colour and tension. Another such device is in evidence when Nancy visited her ex-fiancé Michael (Ahmed Rashwan) to see his father, Wadie (Adel Zohdi). The script presents crucial background information about their engagement in a previous scene, when Michael is seen talking to his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and it becomes clear that their relationship ended because he could not emigrate with her.
One of the salient features of this film is the minor characters and excellent performance of the actors playing them: the gynaecologist Nader (Aasem Nagaty), who is both greedy and cautious since he operates illegally; Nancy's landlord Ashraf (Karim Al-Attar), who though dry and uncompromising, accepts Nancy's condition that the next tenant should be Karim.
Immigration stands in for closure: Nancy's connection with her possessions, Lobna's previous life, Laila with Karim and Karim's job as a DJ are all being wrapped up. Rashwan dedicates Fragile to his mentor, the late Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Khan, which explains the film's artistic approach. Together with Atef Al-Tayeb, Khairy Beshara, Daoud Abdel-Sayed and Radwan Al-Kashef, Khan is seen as a pillar of the 1970s neorealism which relied on shooting in the streets and emphasised subplots and minor characters to help consolidate the main storyline and convey a message about society as a whole. This is what Rashwan does in this film, too.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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