Maverick helmer Ibrahim El Batout is fond of ensemble pieces that capture the melancholy of contemporary Egypt, using a cross-section of society to reveal people struggling to live their lives in their own way. With “Hawi,” he offers an unusual look at Alexandria, yet as in past films such as “Eye of the Sun,” mood is privileged over narrative construction, so while themes are apparent, the pic is weak at connecting its characters. El Batout’s rising rep as a lone wolf, plus the top prize at Doha, ensures “Hawi” will travel the more cutting-edge fest circles.
As with his two earlier features, El Batout makes a near-religion out of shooting with practically non-existent budgets and without permits, getting the largely non-pro cast and crew to work without fixed scripts; hoped-for residuals are the only promise of payment. It’s certainly a labor of love, deeply felt, and El Batout serves as scripter, lenser and one of the protags.
In a striking opening, Youssef (Mohamed El Sayed) is released from prison and told by his jailers that he has 10 days to bring them some documents; what they contain is never revealed. Nor is it clear what connects Youssef to Ibrahim (El Batout), who is likewise returning to Alexandria after years away, though his was a self-imposed exile in France. Ibrahim shows up unannounced to see his sister (Hanan Youssef), and tries to become involved in the life of his twentysomething daughter, Aya (Perry Moataz, also editing), without letting her know he’s her dad.
The meatiest character is Hanan (Rina Aref), a belly dancer trying to hold her head high and practice her art even as society condemns her for it. On her way home from work, she’s attacked on the street, but the mugging isn’t nearly as humiliating as the moment when she goes to report it to the police, where she’s called a slut. It’s a tough scene and the degradation feels very real, making it one of the few moments to truly pack a punch.
Elsewhere, it’s just not clear how or why these people are linked. Members of the Massar Egbari Music Band appear toward the start, scolded for a lack of commitment to their art; nearly 90 minutes later, they’re shown working on the title song, whose lyrics, such as, “I learned how to dig out a piece of bread from the ribs of poverty,” attempt to encompass the characters’ struggles with spiritual and financial poverty. “Hawi” means “magician” or “juggler,” and the song’s words refer to all those who’ve learned to render their battles invisible so as to maintain dignity.
El Batout’s vision of Alexandria is fascinating, miles from the sunny or elegant seaside images usually seen of this most Western of Egyptian cities. Instead, the majority of the pic, especially the first half, is shot in interiors or at night, yielding a much darker look that fits with the general sense of lost promise. Visuals are unabashedly unpolished, and sound quality uneven.