Ibrahim El-Batout’s "Winter of Discontent"

in 9th Dubai International Film Festival

by Ziad Khuzai

‘The pain which erupted into the fury’ is the subtitle on the poster of ”Winter of Discontent”, the latest film by the Egyptian director Ibrahim El-Batout. Amr (played by Amr Waked) with his eyes folded and arms tied, is bruised by his arbitrary political imprisonment. In his apartment, his only window overlooks nothing but a dark wall blocking his horizon, life and his longing to end his subordination. The situation of the Egyptian rendered helpless is intercut with disturbing scenes of the American style torture he experienced, scenes reminiscent of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. They summarize a familiar story in the Arab World, of citizens hostage to oppressive totalitarian regimes and obscurantist tribal leaders, who authorize humiliations and death sentences. Regimes which define loyalty and patriotism to suit their own ends.

Amr has been thrown on unsafe ground, and become a brick in the humiliated pride of the “Deep Government”- a Turkish term to define the ‘state within a state” which in turn was adopted in Egypt to name a government using iron fisted security powers to intimidate its people. Amr’s arrest and torture in 1999 is a calculated step for a nervous authority using fear to terrorize others, hoping that everyone will take refuge in the safety of his family’s den. An idea emphasized by the confinement of the camera of Victor Credi within the geography of a young man living opposite a solid wall blocking life and beyond. Amr’s den is the dramatic summary of a rigid country ruled by a worn-out and corrupted regime. No one comes to the den, the LCD screen on Amr desk has a still image, as if this man does not produce anything, his reticent speech reflects an internalized subordination. This anti-hero has been is certified by the members of “National Security” as a conspirator against the public safety. Their savage torture produced a human wreckage of Amr. His mother dies of grief, his friends let him down one after another, while the country is dominated by well organized groups of the ignorant, and the crooked.

Amr’s girlfriend Farah Youssef is one of them: she becomes  a television presenter employed by Safwat Al Sherif’s gang, not because of her beauty, but because of her career ambition, and her political naivety which enables her to become a compliant liar.

These are the two main characters of El-Batout film, the faces of its two conflicted sides despite their similarities: the victim of the “deep government”, and its voice. But despite their subordination, they care about Egypt, and are drawn to participate in the uprising against the President and his regime. These events are also presented through the character of the ruthless secret service officer Adel (played by Salah Alhanafy). El-Batout highlights the dates of these intersecting stories, building a narrative different from those of  his previous two films ”Eye of the Sun” (”Ein Shams” ) and ”The Juggler” (”Hawi”). Here he’s telling us that “the pain that was accumulating throughout the year will eventually ignite the fury”.

Despite El-Batout’s good intentions, the differences between characters, and their dramatic inequalities temper our reactions. We see Amr ignore a wise person who is seeking his vengeance against his oppressors, instead raising his fist in among protesters in the famous “Erhal” demonstrations. While Farah his fiancé is leading a hysterical mutiny inside the TV studio cursing secret service leaders she previously called “protectors of the country”, the interview only enables the secret service official to attempt to discredit the protesters, calling them names like” some kids, garbage, without manners… etc”. After that Farah immediately joins the protesters in Al Tahrir Square, then seeks supersized moral status by convincing Amr to broadcast her “Not Guilty Testimony” over the internet.

Ibrahim El-Batout’s own brother was arrested and tortured by Egyptian Security after he returned from Bosnia. El-Batout has included his brother’s testimony in his film, as a clip being edited by Amr. Those tears overtake the whole remaining 96 minutes, and displace all the consecutive protesters confessions.