A 13-year-old boy follows his father’s ghost to the front line in “Little Dreams,” a sure-footed first feature by Egyptian Khalid al-Haggar. Powerfully conveying a generation’s disenchantment with popular late-’60s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, pic strays occasionally into manipulative overstatement, but remains a compellingly human wartime drama, and it should feature widely on the festival trail.
Set in Suez, in the period leading up to and during the six-day war against Israel in 1967, the story pivots on plucky youngster Ghareb. Captivating, dreamlike opening scenes unfurl with vivid splashes of color, recapping his parents’ wedding, his birth and early childhood and his father’s death as a Resistance hero in the 1956 Suez conflict.
Reality takes on a grittier tone as the boy’s mother, Hoda, unable to support them on her earnings as a seamstress, sends Ghareb to work in a printer’s shop. The overbearing boss, Salah, carries a torch for Hoda, but she turns down his repeated marriage proposals. Ghareb also rejects him as a father figure, forming a bond instead with Mahmood, an ex-comrade of his father’s, who prints propaganda at the shop.
Ghareb is soon swept up by political fervor, secretly printing Mahmood’s tracts after hours and distributing them in town. His ongoing clash with Salah causes conflict as his mother is gradually won over. As war breaks out, he arrives home to catch the tail end of their wedding ceremony, and runs away to join the war effort.
From here on, al-Haggar pulls out a few too many stops in his attempt to harness the boy’s plight to a wider-reaching political and historical framework. Unable to keep Egypt from defeat, Nasser steps down, and the resulting popular uprising literally crushes Ghareb. The scene’s emotional resonance is considerable, despite the muffling effect of a distinctly de trop coda showing the birth of his baby brother, with his own set of hopes, ideals and dreams.
The off-kilter finale, however, doesn’t undermine al-Haggar’s boldly confident storytelling skills. Pic is similarly sharp in looks and sound, with Samir Bahzan’s lensing and Rageh Daoud’s music both deserving of a nod.