A clash between people representing very different social strata electrifies the drama “19B,” the sixth feature from Egyptian helmer-writer Ahmad Abdalla (“Heliopolis,” “Microphone”), a progenitor of the new wave of independent Arab cinema in the early 2000s. Like his other films, “19B” deals with the changes taking place in contemporary Egypt and his characters’ struggle to find their place. The film claimed awards for best Arab film, cinematography and the international critics’ prize at the recent Cairo fest.
The story unfolds in an affluent Cairo neighborhood once filled with big homes and shady gardens, where an abandoned villa becomes derelict even as the building’s elderly caretaker clings to his makeshift life there. At the same time, on the street, the impoverished children of the new Egypt attempt to make their living in not altogether legal ways.
Like the building he believes he is guarding, the nameless old man (Sayed Ragab, poignant) has seen better days. At times, he doesn’t bother to dress, pottering about the place in pajamas, drinking home-grown mint tea on the terrace while listening to his ancient cassette player and feeding the stray dogs and cats who shelter under his roof.
Referred to with the honorific “Haj” or less kindly as “old man,” he has been in the neighborhood as long as anyone can remember, even if they don’t recall his name. His feisty married daughter Yara (Nahed El Sebai) visits weekly and pleads for him to come to live with her, but he prefers to remain where he is since it connects him to a happier past, a time when he was useful and knew and maintained the order of things.
Meanwhile, the ruthless ex-con Nasr (Ahmed Khaled Saleh), a human version of a feral dog, is spying on the old man, envying his solitude and his space. Outside the villa gates, Nasr runs a gang of street youths who charge motorists for parking. He also deals in black market goods such as alcohol and cigarettes. Using threats and intimidation, he invades the villa.
Nasr’s takeover shocks the elderly caretaker and incenses Yara, who dares to stand up to the street thug. But as Nasr knows, people like them are powerless when it comes to getting help from the police. A tense battle ensues.
While having less to do, the film’s supporting characters are important to understanding the changes taking place in Egyptian society. The kind female doctor (Fadwa Abed) who gives the old man scraps to feed the animals is too busy to see the threat that Nasr represents to him. For her, Nasr provides a desperately needed modern convenience: a safe place to park. His neighbor (Magdy Atwan), the practical caretaker of the high-rise next door, represents the inevitability of change, while the criminal youths in Nasr’s gang indicate a social problem that respects neither age nor infirmity.
Director Abdalla and his DP Mostafa El Kashef shoot on site, making the villa, its surroundings and natural light equally important to the drama. The faded beauty of the place makes viewers understand the allure of the past that the old man wants to retain, even though the changing world will eventually catch up with him.