The deeply personal melds with focused outrage in the profoundly moving “Mohammad Saved From the Waters.” Helmer Safaa Fathy’s brother Mohammad was sick from kidney disease when she began filming his response to the illness; as he gradually wastes away, she also records his family’s heartrending anxieties. Subtly and seamlessly, she expands her scope to include the Nile and its importance to all Egyptians, revealing how the river’s befouled waters are responsible for the spike in kidney failure nationwide. Beautifully composed using several shooting formats, this almost regal portrait of distress deserves a place in fest lineups.
The Nile has famously been equated with the source of life since ancient times, so the idea that it also brings death comes as a disturbing realization. Fathy practically begins her film on the Nile, after her brother’s death, with her two nephews sailing to the temples of Isis and Osiris near Aswan (a visit Mohammad talked about but never managed to make). The irony that both gods were associated with resurrection isn’t lost on anyone as the two boys wander the stunning site.
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Mohammad was 42 and possessed of a sharp, analytical mind at the time of his diagnosis. Though doctors told him he needed a new kidney, his concern about whether organ transplants are acceptable for a devout Muslim keeps him undecided until it’s too late. Fathy doesn’t shy from chronicling his wasting away, though most heartbreaking are shots of her nephew Mahmoud, a round-faced, observant, thoughtful child whose sensitive nature, recognized by his father, leaves him racked with silent anguish.
Dialysis is expensive (a minimum of $45 every other day), though Mohammad’s wife tells him they mustn’t worry about money now. But he does worry, and Fathy shows others, less well off, in the same situation. The Nile is sick, her brother tells her, and worn out from the pollutants dumped into its waters. Like many Egyptians, Mohammad anthropomorphizes the river, saying people have humiliated her with sewage, and she, in turn, humiliates us.
Although environmental issues form an important part of the helmer’s story, this isn’t an ecofilm. The role of the Aswan Dam in destroying the delicate ecosystem is mentioned, but not explored; nor is much time devoted to the countless factories spilling their unregulated waste into the Nile. This is a much more intimate film than that, allowing sadness a more privileged space than anger. Mohammad isn’t saved from the waters after all, and unlike Jean Renoir’s Boudu, he isn’t returning to a freer state of being, unless death is the ultimate freedom.
The use of multiple formats highlights the closeness, making it seem as if the helmer picked up whatever kind of camera was on hand at any given moment. Despite the variety, she avoids a patchwork feel thanks to the strength of emotions and the skill of editor Pauline Casalis.