What begins as a genial comedy turns into an unexpectedly sharp critique of Egyptian society in “Cut & Paste,” distaff helmer Hala Khalil’s sophomore feature and a continuing sign of the growing strength of female filmmakers in the Arab world. Tale of a couple thrown together by their desire to emigrate has real crowd-pleaser potential, but its real interest lies in Khalil’s exposure of the lack of opportunities for Egypt’s struggling working classes. Regional play will be spurred on by the Cairo fest’s Arab film award, while programmers seeking Middle Eastern fare could foster further interest.
Fast-talking firebrand Gamila (Hanan Turk) ekes out a living buying and selling anything she can get her hands on, saving up for the day she’ll finally emigrate to New Zealand. While bargaining for a harp, she meets occasional repairman Youssef (Sherif Mounir), a genuinely nice guy without too much ambition who just wants to create a decent life for himself.
Youssef isn’t having luck finding steady employment, and with his brother’s approaching marriage, there’s increased pressure to leave the family home. Though he has never thought seriously about it before, immigration seems like a winning option after he discusses it with the razor-focused Gamila.
It’s not just money that’s preventing Gamila from leaving: Now that her 30th birthday has passed, she needs to meet additional requirements set by the New Zealand embassy. Marriage would be just the thing, so Gamila suggests that she and Youssef tie the knot and part company once they’ve made it Down Under. Overjoyed that her aging daughter is finally getting hitched, Mrs. Azza (Sawsan Badr) proceeds to make life much more complicated than the couple bargained for.
Enjoyable though unremarkable in its main storyline, pic’s strengths come from Khalil’s contextualizations: Gamila’s hard-nosed attitude clearly originates in her growing frustration with the circumscribed roles available to her as a lower-middle-class single woman past 30 in Egypt. Neighbor Soraya (Hanan Motawea), a mother of two struggling to hold onto her sanity with a husband working abroad (a theme also dealt with in the Moroccan “In Casablanca Angels Don’t Fly”), is one of several characters included to highlight Gamila’s limited opportunities.
Khalil (who also picked up a director prizeat Cairo) doesn’t ignore the male side, and in one of the film’s best scenes, Youssef and friend Samy (Fathi Abdel Wahab) level-headedly acknowledge that “this country is reserved for others.” A side romance between Samy and Gamila’s friend (Marwa Mahran) is largely unnecessary and too quickly developed, but each becomes a vehicle for identifying the country’s hypocrisies.
Though Jocelyne Saab’s trouble-plagued “Dunia” is widely reported as Turk’s final role before her controversial decision to don a hijab, “Cut & Paste” is actually her last veil-free feature. Spirited and sensual, the former dancer (now appearing scarved on TV series) is well paired with Mounir, whose sympathetic turn creates an approachable everyman.
Incidental music is initially over-present and teeters on the dangerous edge of whimsy. But contempo songs are nicely used to reinforce situations, particularly a number played during Youssef and Samy’s clear-eyed discussion, in which hope and choice are presented as pipe dreams.