Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 11, 2011 1:52 pm 
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A campaign against Cairo gropers

The title stands for a crowded Cairo bus where women are routinely harassed sexually by men. The story is one of self-empowerment. Thus it fits in well with the post-January 25 moment in which Egypt lives today. The film reads at first like an a lesson and consciousness-raiser for Middle Eastern women. But it's done with such vividness and humor it quickly becomes involving and thought-provoking for any audience. 678 follows three women who become connected because of shared anger at the way Egyptian men habitually feel up and assault women in public places. If it was noted that it didn't happen in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations, that reflected the new revolutionary spirit.

Each of the thee women suffers from different assaults -- gropers, grabbers, feelers, lone and group. A wealthy young woman is felt up by a dozen men who press upon her at a crowded football match. She isn't raped, but she feels violated. Another is a "muhaggiba," a veiled women who's constantly bothered on buses, which limited income forces her to ride to her job at a government registry office. The third is a free-thinking young lady -- she aspires to doing stand-up, like her fiance -- who is grabbed and pulled along by a man driving a pickup truck through a public square.

Fayza (Bushra), the "muhaggiba," gets groped daily. Her husband Adel (Bassem Samra) is a crude dude who works two jobs just to pay the rent. Their two kids are being forced out of a tuition school. He wants a little loving when he gets home, but Fayza is so turned off by men she pushes him away. A TV appearance by Seba (Nelly Karim) leads Fayza to attend her class in self-defense for women threatened with male groping. She keeps coming back to the class again and again, but is too ashamed to tell Seba what's been happening to her.

Seba is the one who was assaulted at the soccer game. What's worse, when it happened her husband Sherif (Ahmed El Fishawy) was more concerned about himself than her. He claimed to be so disturbed by Seba's "defilement" that he had to stay away from home for weeks. This meant he wasn't around when she had a miscarriage, for which she can't forgive him.

After Fayza keeps coming to Seba's class, Seba tells her she doesn't need to learn self-defence. She points to a pin she's wearing and says that's all she needs. Fayza takes this advice and after she stabs several perpetrators with sharp objects, she tells Seba. They both know it's wrong but still feel pleased.

Nelly (Nahed El Sebai) is the would-be comedian engaged to marry a standup comic (Omar El Saeed). She wants to take the pickup truck driver to court in a sexual harassment case, but Omar's family says it she does that, he can't marry her. Another issue is he must give up standup and become a banker to be able to afford to marry -- the crippling cost of weddings and the low incomes of college grads being big issues in Egypt.

The stabbings lead to all three women being questioned by a wry and rotund cop, Essam (Maged El Kedwany), who eventually figures what's going on (and also stands in for various segments of the Egyptian male audience). El Kedwany is especially good as a classic Egyptian figure who yet is complex and unpredictable and has tragedies of his own to deal with. When the tension grows to a peak, the women temporarily turn on each other, Fayza accusing the more modern women of provoking assaults while they blame her traditional outlook for perpetuating male chauvinism. Nelly's case refers to the first actual presentation of a sexual assault case in an Egyptian court. After-titles point out that there are still very few such cases. But both Fayza's counter-attacks and Nelly's daring in court evidently reflect shifting attitudes.

His directorial debut, this is Diab's fifth screenplay, and the writing skill shows in the earthiness of some of the characters and the street, police station, standup audiences, domestic scenes of different social levels and bus scenes, all written and directed to deftly convey the texture of Egyptian daily life. Ahmed Gabr's handheld camera could have been toned down a bit. 678 is distributed by Fortissimo Films (Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Radiant Child; Winter's Bone).

2010. Egypt. 100 minutes. In Egyptian Arabic.

678 , aka Cairo 678, was shown at the Dunbai festival, where it won the Muhr Arab award and Bushra and Al Kedwany won best actress and best actor prizes. The film opened in Cairo to acclaim and notoriety in December 2010. Seen and reviewed as part of the New Directors/New Films series presented March 23-April 3 by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, NYC.

Screening times and dates for ND/NF:
2011-03-26 | 3:30 PM | MoMA
2011-03-28 | 9:00 PM | FSLC

NOTE: The film gets a theatrical release in France under the title Les Femmes du Bus 678 scheduled for May 30, 2012.

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