×
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.

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

  • PLAYA VISTA, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 24:

    Shorts Encourage Women to STEAM Careers

    Straight Up Films created the anthology “Power/On” of five shorts focused on encouraging girls in STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math with the arts thrown in) directed by actresses Rosario Dawson, Julie Bowen, Ana Brenda Contreras, Lisa Edelstein, and Nikki Reed. With support from YouTube, the shorts premiered Wednesday at the Google campus in Playa [...]

  • Stefanie Sherk obit

    Stefanie Sherk, Actress and Wife to Demian Bichir, Dies at 43

    Canadian actress and model Stefanie Sherk died on April 20 of an apparent suicide by drowning. She was 43. The Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner confirmed the ruling and cause of death. Sherk appeared in the TV show “CSI: Cyber” and the movie “Valentine’s Day.” She also starred in the show “The Bridge” alongside her husband [...]

  • Ron HowardBreakthrough Prize, Arrivals, NASA Ames

    Ron Howard Talks New Luciano Pavarotti Documentary

    If one is an anomaly, two are a coincidence and three are a trend, then Ron Howard might strictly become a music documentarian after “Pavarotti” hits theaters. The documentary about the world-famous Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti comes on the heels of Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” and “Made in America,” a look at [...]

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead to Star in Netflix Assassin Thriller 'Kate' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead is set to star in the Netflix actioner “Kate,” sources tell Variety. “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is helming from a script by Umair Aleem. The story revolves around a female assassin, who, after being poisoned and given less than 24 hours to live, must go on a manhunt through [...]

  • Shannon Hoon

    Blind Melon Frontman's Home Movies Captivate in Tribeca Doc 'All I Can Say'

    For a period of five years, Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon diligently chronicled his own life, videotaping himself with a Hi-8 video camera through every step of his musical journey — starting out in Indiana, through his meteoric rise to alt-rock icon, up to the day of his death in 1995. These captivating moments finally [...]

  • 'The Edge of Democracy' Review: A

    Film Review: 'The Edge of Democracy'

    How the hell did we get here? It’s a question that political liberals are asking themselves in many parts of the world, reeling as they are from a global tilt to the right that has yielded the tumultuous Trump presidency, the ceaseless, squabbling chaos of Brexit and, albeit less prominently in international headlines, Brazil’s submission [...]

  • Brie Larson

    Brie Larson on Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: 'We Gotta Move Faster'

    While Brie Larson is thrilled over the success of the female-led “Captain Marvel,” the actress wants more diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Larson sat down with Variety’s Marc Malkin for the first episode of Variety and iHeartMedia’s new film podcast, “The Big Ticket.” “I’m happy to be on the forefront of the normalization of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content