Fascinating viewing and a valuable piece of social history, “Neighbors” is one of the best docus on the changing nature of the Cairo scene, from Europeanized chic before the Egyptian Revolution to democratization and disintegration afterward. A fine counterpoint to helmer Tahani Rached’s earlier docu, “These Girls,” the pic will be most appreciated by auds familiar with 20th-century Egyptian history, though the interviewees and terrific vintage footage emotionally conjure up the past and present for general viewers. Welcome mats will go out to “Neighbors” at docu gatherings and fests with an Arab thrust.
Where “These Girls” dealt with the lowest rank of the social ladder, “Neighbors” looks mostly at the top, or at least the people who were at the top before Gamal Abdel-Nasser swept into power in 1952 and dismantled the hierarchy. Focus is the neighborhood called Garden City (which doesn’t have an Arabic name), a formerly leafy district laid out in the early 20th century to resemble the upper-class nabes of Paris. While still home to embassies and some members of the elite, the area underwent a radical transformation following the 1952 revolution, and today the remaining villas are suffocated by concrete monstrosities.
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Rached interviews the aging children of the privileged class, exquisitely educated people at home with Arabic, French and English, whose lives under King Farouk were, as Nadia Ojjeh says, “even more chic than Paris.” However, the docu is neither an empty nostalgia trip nor a starry-eyed look at a gilded era. Many of the subjects agree that change and some kind of gradual equalization were necessary. But as Alaa al-Aswany (author of “The Yacoubian Building”) explains, Nasser’s inability to control the revolution led to his creation of a tyrannical state.
Scattered interviews with workers reinforce al-Aswany’s remarks, showing that while the revolution was meant to bring a kind of balanced socialism, it failed all strata of Egyptian society. A further running theme is the obtrusive presence of the American embassy and its satellites, with their ever-increasing security perimeters cutting off access.
As local shop owners attest, the problem isn’t merely that the buildings themselves feel like alien presences. The permanent road blocks also drive away business and create animosity, despite attempts by former U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone to foster a neighborly feel.
In addition, Rached subtly weaves in a largely unspoken commentary on the city’s Islamization, including a telling sequence in which a woman adjusts her head scarf when she realizes she’s being filmed. As interviewee Fayza Hassan says, “Today, you must be Muslim their way.”
Ace lenser Nancy Abdel-Fattah pairs again with Rached, using her fluid camera to explore the elegant mansions that still remain. Many of the villas are also glimpsed in old photos, homemovies and an expert selection of film clips from the golden age of Egyptian cinema. Unfortunately, interviewees are not identified until the end credits.