Scripter-helmer Mohamed Diab has tackled Egypt's hush-hush problem of sexual harassment with directness and nuance.

Rarely do issue films make auds think as well as feel, so it’s nice to report that scripter-helmer Mohamed Diab has tackled Egypt’s hush-hush problem of sexual harassment with directness and nuance. “678” deftly connects three women from different social backgrounds and throws in a terrifically dry-witted investigator, forcing viewers to question assumptions and prejudices while refusing to offer up easy answers. Though its merits stand alone, this window onto Egyptian society should prove popular on the fest circuit given the country’s current strife.

News stories about the ongoing anti-Mubarak protests remarked on the absence of sexual harassment among the enormous crowds; undoubtedly, the attention given to this endemic problem can be connected with “678,” whose popularity at home following a December opening generated major debate and even lawsuits claiming the pic shames the nation. Luckily, the movie’s strengths, as well as the presence of megawatt stars and the inevitable changes brought about by the present unrest, should speak for themselves.

Working-class mom Fayza (Bushra) is fed up with the gropes she endures on the bus: Neither her head scarf nor her baggy clothes reduce the daily humiliation of men copping a feel. Hubby Adel (Bassem Samra) works two jobs to pay the rent, and when he gets home, he expects his wife to give him some action, but she can’t bear to be touched now. After watching a TV program about sexual harassment, she audits a class in self-defense given by Seba (Nelly Karim).

Upper-class Seba has a good life and a good husband in Sherif (Ahmed El Fishawy), but after a gang disturbingly harasses her (well filmed), Sherif’s wounded male pride means he can’t even hear her sense of violation. Fayza seeks advice from Seba after reflexively stabbing a few gropers with her veil pin, and though the two women know it’s wrong, they’re relieved to be fighting back.

Also seeking out Seba is Nelly (Nahed El Sebai), a wannabe comedian and fiancee to standup comic Omar (Omar El Saeed). After being assaulted on the street, she risks her family’s reputation and her relationship in order to file Egypt’s first sexual harassment lawsuit. All three women come in for questioning by police detective Essam (Maged El Kedwany), who’s investigating the mysterious stabbings.

In his helming debut, Diab throws a harsh light on this issue via a deft combination of anger and humor. While taking as incontrovertible the feelings of violation engendered by sexual assaults, he explores associated emotions that make the issue especially volatile in religiously conservative countries where shame is used as a weapon to keep women “in their place.” When Fayza lashes out at women who wear provocative clothing and keep their heads unscarved, claiming such behavior encourages disrespect, the character is addressing a common argument. To Diab’s credit, he refuses to sanction this idea but makes it clear why such accusations can be powerful.

The cast is so uniformly strong, it’s difficult to single out particular perfs, though both Bushra, a singer and actress, and El Kedwany won Dubai’s thesping prizes. Neither has ever been better: Bushra’s physical/emotional exhaustion is as palpable as her fear and anger, while El Kedwany’s cynical yet wise detective provides a crucial channel into the story as the adversary who’s really an ally. Karim and El Sebai are also excellent, their fiercely righteous anger making their misjudgments understandable.

For the first 40 minutes, the pic shifts back and forth in time until it brings the three protags together; from then on, the narrative becomes linear. Ahmed Gabr’s handheld lensing is modulated to fit the moods, though some of El Kedwany’s scenes feel a bit too indebted stylistically to “Law and Order.” The title “678” refers to Fayza’s bus, but the consecutive numbers are also meant to connote an escalation of tension.

678

Egypt

Production

A New Century Prods. production. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Bushra Rozza. Directed, written by Mohamed Diab.

Crew

Camera (color), Ahmed Gabr; editor, Amr Salah El din; music, Hany Adel; production designer, Ali Hosam; costume designer, Malak Zo El Fakar; assistant director, Ahmed Saleh; casting, Marwa Gebril. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Bright Future), Feb. 2, 2011. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- market; 2010 Dubai Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Nelly Karim, Bushra, Maged El Kedwany, Ahmed El Fishawy, Bassem Samra, Sawsan Badr, Nahed El Sebai, Omar El Saeed, Yara Gobran, Ibrahim Salah, Moataz El Demrdash.

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