Moving beyond the one-dimensional us-vs.-them, now-vs.-then attitudes that instantly greeted and celebrated the Arab Spring revolutions, “After the Battle” focuses on the legacy of manipulation and issues like class, gender and corruption that still remain unresolved. Working on multiple levels, helmer Yousry Nasrallah mines popular cinema and artier forms through a seemingly simple story of two worlds, exposing hypocrisies in each. The pic resists pandering to either the international crowd or the local market, which means media buzz, along with its Cannes competition slot, will be vital for wide distribution.
There’s an almost chameleonlike element to Nasrallah’s use of various visual styles, ranging from the cerebral (“The Aquarium”) to something more storybook-like (“Bab Al-Shams”), yet these differing modes are always connected by a refusal to treat his characters as anything other than complex beings. He and co-scripter Omar Shama aren’t afraid to use an almost too-easy story of attraction or a certain Egyptian intensity of emotion here to expose the nation’s multifaceted problems — ones that don’t go away with the toppling of a single dictator.
The “Battle of the Camels” took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 2, 2011, when men on horses and camels charged into the crowd of demonstrators, creating waves of panic and leading to deaths and widespread injuries. It became a PR disaster for the Mubarak regime, as video of its shocking mayhem went viral, and created a tsunami of disgust that ultimately helped bring down the government. “After the Battle” begins one month later, when self-confident NGO worker Reem (Menna Chalaby) joins her veterinarian friend Dina (Phaedra) in distributing feed to hard-pressed horsemen in the impoverished village of Nazlet El-Samman.
The people of Nazlet, next to the pyramids, have lived off the tourist trade, but fear of terrorism has killed off their livelihood. It’s also home to most of the men who charged into Tahrir on horseback. While there, Reem is impressed by Mahmoud (Bassem Samra), a demoralized horseman whose misguided participation in the battle has left him and his sons, Abdallah and Momen (played by brothers Abdallah and Momen Medhat), ostracized, even by the animal-protection people.
Unaware of his family ties, the almost-divorced Reem is attracted to the troubled Mahmoud, and the feeling is mutual. Even after learning that Mahmoud has a wife, Fatma (Nahed El Sebai), Reem continues to frequent Nazlet, believing she’s helping a family in need and furthering the goals of the Revolution. But Fatma sees through the privileged woman’s naive conviction that she can bridge their two worlds, while Mahmoud looks to regain a semblance of dignity by sucking up to clan chief and local bigwig Haj Abdallah (Salah Abdallah), the very embodiment of corruption.
Just as Nasrallah knows Reem isn’t alone in her well-intentioned but patronizing attitude to the workers in Nazlet, so, too, the helmer wants to make clear that Haj Abdallah isn’t merely an isolated remnant of the previous regime, but rather an integral member of an entrenched old guard that shows no signs of going away. Early on during a discussion sponsored by Reem’s NGO, a veiled woman says there’s a difference between what’s normal and what’s right, whereupon she’s scolded by outwardly liberated women for settling for “normal.”
“After the Battle” is critical of both sides, uncovering attitudes shaped by decades of ingrained manipulation and prejudice. Reem’s preachiness is part of the hypocrisy the film is set on exposing, though some auds may think she’s Nasrallah’s mouthpiece. As always in the director’s films, misguided foibles (as opposed to outright ethical bankruptcy) aren’t barriers to sympathy.
The three main leads are among Egypt’s best and brightest, and casting is faultless. Samir Bahsan’s fluid lensing and occasional simple setups, along with strong lighting, bring an air of melodrama undercut by the complexity of the issues being raised, many of which (like the pale-complexioned Reem being mistaken for a foreigner) are merely touched upon. Footage shot under Nasrallah’s direction in actual demonstrations, as well as news clips, are nicely interpolated. The DCP projection at Cannes seemed tonally harsher than is probably intended.