×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Amal’

Mohamed Siam's intelligent, immediate doc charts a young woman's coming of age against the turbulent backdrop of recent Egyptian politics.

Director:
Mohamed Siam
With:
Amal Gamal

1 hour 23 minutes

For most young adults, coming of age feels like a fight against stasis. As your body, emotions and perspective rapidly change from month to month, the world often feels too still and too staid to support your new, unruly self-in-progress. For the eponymous subject of Mohamed Siam’s tight, perceptive documentary “Amal,” however, the dynamic is rather different and more disorienting: As her adolescence is irrevocably shaped by the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, her personal growth and her country’s violent upheaval complement each other in their turbulence.

Checking in annually on Amal’s unpredictable progress over five tough years, Siam’s bittersweet film elegantly maintains its dual personal and political narrative without undue contrivance. The engrossing, quietly upsetting result should travel widely — as befits its multinational provenance — on the festival circuit following its prominent premiere as this year’s IDFA opener. Meanwhile, the multi-platform distribution appeal of a film that touches intersectionally on topical matters of gender, political and religious identity is clear.

“You think my hostility comes from nowhere?” asks the 15-year-old Amal, brazenly addressing a heavy-handed authority figure, when we first meet her in Siam’s film. In the case of many angsty, snappish kids her age, the answer would probably be yes, with some blame reserved for fizzing hormones. Amal, however, has seen and endured things most teens have not. The year is 2012, and she’s still smarting from her direct involvement in the previous year’s Tahrir Square demonstrations against President Mubarak’s illiberal regime, which saw her beaten and dragged across the ground by policemen. She’s also mourning the recent death of her boyfriend, killed in the 2012 Port Said Stadium riot; her father, too, has been wrenchingly and prematurely lost to her.

Popular on Variety

Such preternatural pain has made Amal hostile, yes, but it’s also made her sure and sharp in her left-wing political convictions: woke, to dip into millennial-speak, though in a battle-worn rather than performative sense. Styling herself as a tomboy to best fit into the male-dominated realm of Egypt’s young revolutionaries — “Sit-ins are not for girls… someone will harass you,” she is warned — she stridently tells off her elders for their opposing political persuasions. “If you vote for a military candidate, I’m going to disown you,” she chides her mother, a military prosecutor of a more centrist persuasion, in a loaded exchange that may well resonate with audiences far beyond Egypt: one is reminded of the polarized politics currently dividing families in Trump’s America.

Where “Amal” particularly succeeds is in identifying what’s both peculiar and entirely universal about its young subject’s politicization: Her liberalism may have been born in extreme circumstances, but her arguments with her mother are still tinged with the unsullied righteousness of generation upon generation of teens who speak as if they’re the first to so purely hold their right-on beliefs. Siam (who acts as his own cinematographer, often working in frank, illuminating close-up) is infectiously impressed by his resilient, charismatic protagonist, but is witty and knowing enough to show the audience how she — like every 15-year-old in the history of ever — can be a bit of a pill.

By the time she’s 17, she’s accepted a degree of compromise, and not necessarily for the better. She’s acquired a feminine, lipgloss-lacquered look and a misogynistic boyfriend who expects her to put marriage ahead of university; her more dogmatic political side has been muted, if not defeated. A year later, she’s a different woman once more: modestly hijab-clad and dedicated to her studies, though as the film swiftly catches up to the present day, the audience can grimly sense the scope of the future narrowing for this bright, promising girl. Intercutting this timeline with poignant home-video footage from Amal’s early, cheerier childhood, Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot’s quick, fluid editing deftly captures the sheer, neck-jerking speed of adolescent evolution: “Amal” plays almost as a time-bound thriller as we wait and hope for Amal to find herself before getting fixed in place in adulthood.

Yet the pile-up of social and political injustices in contemporary Egypt chip away at her ambition and resolve, so much so that she even considers joining the police force that once abused her so brutally, with a half-hearted notion to change things from within. “I don’t know if it’s better to be part of the system or remain forever an outcast,” she says at 18 — again, a quote that could broadly describe the coming-of-age experience from any angle. “Amal” isn’t without qualified notes of hope, but what’s most poignant about Siam’s film is that the older its heroine gets, the further she drifts from an answer to that question.

Film Review: 'Amal'

Reviewed at Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (competing, opener), Nov. 20, 2017. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production: (Documentary – Egypt-Lebanon-Germany-France-Norway-Denmark-Qatar) An Abbout Prods., Artkhana presentation in co-production with Andolfi, Barentsfilm, Good Company Pictures in association with Screen Institute Beirut, Linked Prods. (International sales: Doc & Film International, Paris.) Producers: Myriam Sassine, Mohamed Siam. Co-producers: Arnaud Dommerc, Sara Bökemeyer, Ingrid Lill Høgtun, Patricia Drati. Executive producers: Talal Al-Muhanna, Bruni Burres.

Crew: Director, writer, camera (color): Mohamed Siam. Editor: Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot. Music: Matthieu Deniau.

With: Amal Gamal, Nagua Said, Esraa Mamdouh, Hosny Swelam, Khaled Mahmoud

More Film

  • Danny Aiello

    Danny Aiello, 'Do the Right Thing' and 'Moonstruck' Actor, Dies at 86

    Danny Aiello, a character actor best known for his work in such films as “Do the Right Thing” and “Moonstruck,” died on Thursday night in New Jersey, the New York Times reports. He was 86. Aiello’s literary agent Jennifer De Chiara confirmed his death to the Times and other outlets. His friend, Joseph Amiel, also [...]

  • Reed Hastings

    Netflix to Launch Its Paris Office on Jan. 17

    Netflix is getting ready to officially launch its swanky Paris office on Jan. 17. The streaming giant has planned an afternoon of discussions that gather together Netflix executives, including the company’s co-founder, chairman and CEO Reed Hastings, as well as the filmmakers and producers who have worked with Netflix. As previously announced, the French outpost [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Hollywood’s 10 Worst Depictions of Female Music Journalists

    As controversy builds around “Richard Jewell” and its depiction of female journalists, it’s nothing new for women music writers on the silver screen. Although “Crazy Heart,” which premiered 10 years ago this month, was basically 2009’s equivalent of Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born,” it hasn’t had quite the staying power of some [...]

  • MADRID-CONTENT-CITY-RAUL-BERDONÉS

    Secuoya, Planeta Launch Madrid Content City, Site of Netflix’s First European Production Hub

    Spain’s Secuoya Studios has teamed with publishing giant the Planeta Group to expand Madrid Content City, the audiovisual complex that hosts Netflix first European Production Hub. Madrid Content City will multiply by a factor of seven its current operating area of 22,000 square-meters (236,806 square-feet). In total, Madrid Content City will span 140,000 square-meters (1.5 [...]

  • Imogen Poots

    'Black Christmas' Star Imogen Poots on Why Male Horror Fans Should See Slasher Remake

    “Black Christmas” is the second remake of the 1974 slasher classic, which centers on a group of sorority sisters stalked by an unknown murderer. While the original had the female protagonists (SPOILER) offed, in this one, the women fight back. “It’s been called a re-imagining of the original, and I think, in ways that the [...]

  • Imogen Poots as Riley in "Black

    'Black Christmas': Film Review

    “Black Christmas,” a low-budget Canadian horror movie released in 1974, was a slasher thriller with a difference: It was the very first one! Okay, there were more than a few precedents, from “Psycho” (the great-granddaddy of the genre) to “The Last House on the Left” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” to Mario Bava’s “A [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content