An ugly portrait of Egypt’s street kids

An ugly portrait of Egypt’s street kids

Children of the streets are the victims in director Ahmed Atef’s harsh ‘Al-Ghaba.’
By Noha El-Hennawy, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 19, 2007
CAIRO — "Cairo is very beautiful from above; I wish it were as beautiful from below," said little Mokhna, contemplating the glamour of the city’s night life while standing on a hill on the outskirts. However, the lights, the posh facade, the glitter of urban modernity seen from the hilltop do not match the teenager’s version of Cairo, where she and her family endure poverty, insecurity and abuse.

Mokhna is one of the characters of the Egyptian director Ahmed Atef’s recently released movie "Al-Ghaba" (The Jungle). The film is an unsettling portrait of Cairo today, brutally exposing the disheartening conditions of those living at the edges of a society that has become highly polarized.

The 90-minute movie was screened for the first time at Egypt’s major annual cultural event, the Cairo International Film Festival, which wrapped earlier this month.

The director chose as his vantage point the phenomenon of street children, who languish in disarray in all corners of Cairo, facing physical and moral abuse.

"I was driven by the fact that the child is a weak being by definition, let alone if this weak being is raped and beaten," Atef said. "He would need somebody to help him raise his voice high."

However, the director had other personal motivations. Waiting anxiously for his audience’s feedback outside the theater where his movie was screened, Atef, who calls himself "a fighter by nature," tells the story behind his third feature film.

"One of the forces that drove me to make the movie is the oppression I was subjected to when I was at the university," said Atef, who has been pursuing a dual career of movie critic and filmmaker for more than a decade. Besides his few feature movies, Atef produced eight documentaries.

Seeds of an idea

As a graduating senior at Egypt’s Cinema Institute, Atef produced a 13-minute documentary on the daily plight of Cairo’s population of street kids for his final project in 1993. However, Atef’s short piece elicited too much stir in his academic circles, until it eventually was banned for its political undertones.

"Back then, I stormed into the office of the Institute Administration Council," Atef said, "and vowed in front of the institute’s board that I would turn this documentary into a feature movie one day and prove to them that what they did was unfair to street children who deserved their support.

"Today, after 14 years, I made the movie."

Through its leading characters, the movie sheds light with bloody scenes on the dehumanization existing at the margins of society. The plot tackles the internal feuds that sweep this underground society by focusing primarily on two couples. Turbini, a ruthless gang leader and a drug dealer, is released from prison and seeks revenge on Hamosa, a rival drug dealer who had informed on him. To penetrate his enemy’s lines, Turbini asks Bershama, his girlfriend and a prostitute, to seduce Hamosa in order to find out where Hamosa hides his drug money. As she catches him in bed with Bershama, Gameela, another street girl and Hamosa’s lover, leaps upon her rival and cuts her face with scissors. Traumatized by the mutilation of her beauty, Bershama commits suicide by throwing herself in the Nile.

Atef struggled for 14 years to raise funds for his movie; he knocked on countless doors. "Every time I gave the script to a producer, he would spit on my face, as the movie was not commercial," Atef said. His next stop was local and international organizations concerned with children’s rights; yet his call fell on deaf ears. "They refused it because the story was shocking; they did not admit it, but it was clear."

Different tack

Eventually Atef toured Europe, competing for the best script awards until he collected about a third of the budget needed. Atef still had to tap his personal savings and secure a $20,000 loan to cover the movie’s $600,000 budget.

Artistically, the script does not mark any breakthrough; on the contrary, it has significant flaws. Despite the strength of the message, the plot shows little cohesiveness because there is no solid dramatic thread holding the different events together. And the characters are not as textured as they could be. The relationships between many of them remain obscure. As a result, the movie seems like a sequence of disconnected scenes overladen with a vast array of social and political issues, such as torture in police stations, drug smuggling, incest and organ theft. However, the director sees the incoherent content as a strength rather than a weakness.

"The phenomenon of street children is related to all those issues; I did not impose any irrelevant issue on the movie," Atef said.

Ramadan, a street child in his early teens, is another major character, whose story is peripheral. After he runs away from a children’s shelter, where he was mistreated by the administration and sexually abused by the residents, he learns that his father has raped his sister Mokhna. Eventually, Ramadan walks into his parents’ house and stabs his father as he is about to rape his other daughter.

The movie bears serious political undertones: It hints constantly at the ambiguous response of the government to these social anomalies. This ambiguity is conveyed through a police officer who, on one hand, declines to resolve skirmishes that sweep this underground society and, on the other, uses the disenfranchised as informants to achieve his vested interests. "Go fight for your rights away from me," the officer tells one of the characters, who has begged him to correct a wrong that was inflicted on her.

Surprisingly, this staunch criticism of the police did not seal the fate of the script, which was screened in advance by the interior ministry. Atef admitted that he had to rely on his personal connections to make it past the ministry. "I find my ways," he said. "You should use your connections to infiltrate the institution because it is impossible to defy it."

Despite the flaws, the movie succeeds in depicting the deep polarization of Egyptian society. In many scenes, the Nile River cuts across dichotomous worlds. In the forefront, the viewer sees the world of those who live in slums, sleep in huts or mud houses, search for food in garbage stacks. In the background stands the world of the rich, with its opulent residential towers and luxurious shopping malls.

Atef held the Egyptian government as the main perpetrator of this social chasm. "It is wrong policies that led to the proliferation of poverty and eventually sent those kids to the streets," Atef contended. The movie, which was screened four times to limited audiences during the festival, still needs Egypt’s permission to be widely released to the public.

Despite the controversy it may prompt, Atef expects his movie will hit theaters soon.

"I am optimistic, because the movie has been greatly appreciated by the press and the people who watched it."

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