A poetic meditation on the Egyptian city of Suez as well as a bittersweet reflection on the failed dreams of the 2011 Revolution, Ahmed Nour’s “Waves” uses live-action and animation to build a powerfully melancholic portrait of a locale and a generation. Long the sacrificial host to political machinations, Suez was an early player in the anti-Mubarak uprising, yet its burst of protest has reaped little rewards. Nour’s attempt to force a half-hearted optimistic coda onto his story of justifiable depression is misjudged, but its inclusion doesn’t diminish the docu’s strengths or significance. Fests and showcases should take note.
Financial support came from San Sebastian’s Cinema in Motion, the Doha Film Institute and other international funding bodies wise enough to recognize that Nour’s first feature-length docu wouldn’t be the usual take on the Revolution. With moody animated sequences and a structure divided into four waves of ever-diminishing hope (the last is subtitled “Low Tide”), “Waves” is a very personal look at a neglected city whose fortunes, at least for the general population, have seen a steady decline since the mid-20th century.
The irony is that Suez is Egypt’s wealthiest city thanks to the port, the canal, and its relatively small size. Yet few of those riches trickle down to the inhabitants: Potable water has long been diverted for hotels, villas and factories; urban planning is nonexistent; and garbage collection is a major problem. Hosni Mubarak’s propaganda machine celebrated the city as a place of growth, though legend has it that he was told by a soothsayer that Suez would be his downfall; he never set foot there.
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The fortuneteller was right: Suez is called “the Flame of the Revolution,” and it was here that Mustafa Ragab became the first demonstrator to be killed during the uprising. The Arab Spring wasn’t the first time Suez experienced unrest: The city was destroyed in the 1967 Six Day War, and the canal remained closed until 1975. After Mubarak came to power, the inhabitants became increasingly disenfranchised while the leader’s cronies reaped the rewards. Once known for its crows, the city was traumatized when a governor had more than 100,000 of the birds killed for disturbing his peace; a disquietingly powerful animated sequence illustrates their annihilation, capturing these outsiders’ heinous disregard for local feeling.
According to Nour, crows are still afraid to nest in Suez. Beaches once open to the public are off-limits along with the canal, and the sense of optimism that came in the wake of the Revolution has given way to frustration and despair. The helmer’s voiceover, sensitive and beautifully delivered, questions what, if anything, has changed since Mubarak’s fall. Angry residents crowd his camera to complain of the lack of jobs and security, while suspicious police accost the filmmaker accusing him of being a spy.
“Is something in the past no longer with us?” Nour asks, demoralized by the sense of burnout and stalemate that’s infected Egypt in general. At the end he includes images of tree blossoms and tries to force a possibility of optimism, yet the attempt is phony and almost makes a mockery of the director’s understandable dejection. One wonders if the parting of the clouds was dictated by the film funds, or if Nour felt it was necessary for international exposure; target auds will see through the false notes with a sense of forgiveness. However, extended shots of a literal whirlpool definitely need trimming.
Animation from Paris-based Hecat Studio is cleanly drawn without being overly stiff, utilizing shadows and silhouettes to complement the overall tone. Lensing by Ahmed Fathy is characterized by uncannily well-judged framing and deeply satisfying visual polish. Sound is also used to artistic effect.