Anyone reading the description for “Yomeddine” and deducting that A.B. Shawky is trying hard at tugging at the heart’s strings could be forgiven. There’s something vaguely, tacitly, manipulative about a road movie in which a leper and an orphan are paired together and travel across a part of Egypt on a donkey-pulled carriage, the world oblivious to them. Doesn’t this sound like the working script for a Save The Children ad? A leper goes to visit his family with a young orphan in tow, in an Egyptian society that doesn’t want them anywhere in sight. And yet, using these two characters, A.B. Shawky, a thirty-two year-old filmmaker who’s half Egyptian and half Austrian, has managed to make a rich and audacious film that brings levity and nuance.
“Yomeddine” means “Judgement Day” in Arabic, it’s the belief that on that day, all men will be considered equal and will be judged on the basis of their actions and not their physical appearance. Beshay (Rady Gamal), whose mangled body and deeply-scared face shows the ravages of leprosy, works on trash mountain, picking up scraps of metal and broken appliances. His mentally-disabled wife is bedridden. After she passes away, he leaves to find his biological family and a father he hasn’t seen in decades. Shortly after setting off, he finds Obama, a young orphan who used to follow him around on trash mountain to lend a hand, hiding on the carriage under a pile of tarps. At first angered by the discovery, he eventually warms up to the idea of having a travel compagnon. As they advance towards their destination, a father-and-son relationship develops between the two.
Rady Gamal (he plays Beshay, the main character) is a real-life leper, who lives in a leprosy institute in Egypt and tends a small shop for the patients. He’s not an actor and can’t read. But he met with Shawky several times in Cairo to do acting exercises. “Rady isn’t someone who feels sorry for himself, I wanted the film to be in his image,” Shawky commented.* Whatever his lack of experience as actor, the lovable rogue puts up a plausible performance thanks to his natural charisma.
“I did not want to make a movie that was painful or heavy, I wanted a ‘feel-good’ movie*.”
Shawky trained at NYU’s film school, but I can’t help but think that the overtly feel-good quality of “Yomeddine” might be attributed to his American influence. We America do love a feel-good, road movie packed with heavy music. Would Shawky have made the same movie if he had not spent anytime in the U.S.?
“Yomeddine” was nonetheless very enjoyable to watch, even though you feel a little taken advantage of.
* taken from the production notes