A raw, deeply personal essay on director Mohamed Rashad’s relationship with his cold father is combined with broader musings on the Egyptian political scene in “Little Eagles,” a splintered documentary which only fitfully succeeds in illustrating the slogan “the personal is political.” Shifting between painful, confessional reflections on his unhappy upbringing with considerations of his friends’ activist fathers, Rashad justifies therapeutic wish-fulfillment – “I wish I had been their son” – with ruminations on his peers’ sense of post-Revolution helplessness, and the earlier generation’s feelings of failure in light of abortive leftist reforms. There’s much to chew on, and certain striking images achieve a dreamlike intensity, yet in truth there are two movies here unsatisfactorily soldered together. Documentary festivals will likely come calling.
Few can doubt that Egypt’s increasingly repressive regime will foster a slew of inward looking films now that explicit critiques have become impossible. With a pervading sense of burn-out affecting so many, it was inevitable that directors would seek ways of expressing their dissatisfaction through autobiography, though finding the balance between broadly meaningful commentary and mirror-gazing psychologizing will always prove a challenge. Rashad’s situation is an agonizing one since his father Ahmed, a clothes presser, openly expresses disappointment in his son, but viewers may wonder whether cinema as therapy serves his stated aims.
Via the director’s voice-over narration, he reveals a childhood in Alexandria spent in sadness. His father worked long hours, rarely engaging with his son, and he remains demonstrably uninterested in his offspring. “I feel I deserved a better father,” says Rashad in one of the film’s most distressing lines, though it opens the way for the helmer to discuss the sort of father he wishes he had, such as those of friends Bassam Mortada and Salma Said. Their fathers were activists engaged in protests of the 1970s, jailed for their commitment to justice — in short, the exact opposite of Ahmed.
For Rashad, his friends’ childhood has an idyllic pull, full of purpose. While his father was content pressing clothes and nothing else, theirs were fighting oppression or heroically enduring solitary confinement. Bassam and Salma were sent away to camp with other activist kids (their nickname was “Little Eagles,” hence the title), where they developed a sense of confidence and independence. Rashad instead searched for a father figure, eventually finding one in a Muslim Brotherhood recruiter before rejecting that ideology in Tahrir Square, if not before (the chronology on this isn’t clear).
Three times in the documentary, the director speaks of his youthful desire to become an actor: “I wanted to play many roles,” he states, over mesmerizing images of perfect male mannequins gradually stripped of clothing. Curiously, he seems unwilling to allow that perhaps his father played many roles as well (or perhaps he implies this but so subtly that the point is lost). After all, he talks of Ahmed’s devotion to the music of Oum Kalthoum, whose passionate songs of love and longing unite the Arab world. Can someone so entranced by the singer be completely devoid of an inner life, as Ahmed seems in Rashad’s telling? Or is it just that the son is unable to peel away his father’s steely layers?
Also absent from the self-analysis is a discussion of class: Rashad’s proletarian origins contrast with Bassam and Salma’s middle-class (intellectually, at least) backgrounds, which surely adds another level of yearning for a wished-for past. Had the various themes unhappily grafted together been allowed to germinate alone, the director could have gone deeper into the more interesting ramifications of the sense of failure felt by two generations: the fathers, with their righteous fight betrayed by Anwar Sadat, and their children, whose hopes for a democratic future were smashed by the phantom Revolution.
Notwithstanding the sense of imbalance, the documentary has several notable moments that raise it to another level, such as shots of the denuded mannequins, their ideal sculpted plastic forms acting as impenetrable witnesses, male Galateas fated never to come alive. Even more striking is the image of a spinning fun-fair ride, accompanied by Oum Kalthoum’s plaintive voice, embodying a wistful dream-state of time past.