Despite having gone through various incarnations, or perhaps because of it, “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” is a disarmingly honest, thoroughly winning personal portrait of family and heritage, grounded in religion but not dependent on belief. Tyro helmer Namir Abdel Messeh struggled long and hard to get this personal project made after being dumped by his French producers for not adhering to their vision; the last laugh’s on them, since the docu bagged $100,000 at Doha Tribeca and should easily find auds at fests and in Gallic theaters, as well as on TV.
It’s fair to say Abdel Messeh was unfocused when he went into the project with the partial support of French TV. The initial idea was to look into various apparitions of the Virgin Mary claimed by Coptic communities in Egypt over the last few decades. Though completely Frenchified, the helmer comes from Egypt, and his mother Siham’s family from Asyut, in Upper Egypt, where devotees claim the Virgin appeared in 2000.
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In Egypt, his skepticism rubs the faithful the wrong way, and following the New Year’s Day attack on Copts in Alexandria this year, the producers pressure him to focus on Egypt’s religious tensions. Instead, Abdel Messeh heads south to his maternal family, despite Mom’s implacable opposition to her son filming her nearest and dearest. The reason is clear: The family members are dirt-poor peasants, and despite her love for them, Siham also feels some shame in her roots.
Reconnecting with his family inspires Abdel Messeh, but his producers aren’t pleased, and when he fails to incorporate the Egyptian Revolution into the mix, they ankle the project; the phone conversations, heard onscreen, straddle the line between painful and hilarious. Mom, an accountant, saves the day by flying to Egypt and agreeing to be the docu’s treasurer. She’s dropped her threats to sue her son, and quickly gets into the swing of things, despite not understanding how this is going to come together as a movie.
At the beginning, she’s not wrong, yet somewhere along the way, Abdel Messeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people who can’t be reduced to a stereotype. He decides to re-enact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and while this reps the culmination of the docu, the real meat lies in the process.
For Siham, too, there’s a transformation as she reconnects with her family and realizes her son’s interest is respectful rather than exploitative. Viewers are left to contemplate parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and being an Egyptian in France; he’s an outsider in his two worlds, yet very much a part of them both.
Visuals are strong in the off-the-cuff way auds expect from this kind of personal docu. Given constant changes during the production, the excellent editing warrants special commendation, finding a rhythm and keeping pace with it all.