Once in awhile, Indianapolis's Heartland Film Festival really makes me proud.
I've always fancied myself a fan of Indy's Heartland Film Festival, a film festival started in 1992 by a group of visionaries intent on creating a festival that celebrates the positive aspects of life. There are times, however, that Heartland has frustrated the heck out of me - too often choosing to celebrate merely average motion pictures simply because they fit within the festival's thematic structure.
In recent years, however, Heartland has tiptoed its way towards the realization that it is more than possible to create a positive and inspiring film while addressing serious, gritty, real life and occasionally quite dark issues. It's not that I've wanted Heartland to abandon its devotion to positive and inspiring cinema - Heck, we need to champion it even more. It's just that I desperately want Heartland to realize that sometimes the brightest hope is contained within the deepest darkness.
The last few years have seen Heartland broadening its thematic horizons and, at least in small doses, weaving its tapestry in such a way that the Heartland cinematic quilt has expanded to include films that tackle challenging and occasionally quite dark topics. While these films haven't typically been recognized by the festival's top awards, I've celebrated as Heartland has expanded their own definition of what it means to be a positive and inspiring film that celebrates the best of the human spirit.
This brings us to Cairo 678,
the winner of the Grand Prize of $100,000 for writer/director Mohamed Diab and a shining example of the Heartland Film Festival's thematic growth. Cairo 678
follows the story of three women and their search for justice from the daily plight of sexual harassment in Egypt.
For its compelling material alone, Cairo 678
is a must see film. Already having won multiple awards on the festival circuit, the film won High Commendation from the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, the Muhr Award at the Dubai International Film Festival, the Audience Award AND Youth Audience Award at Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival, 2nd Place at the Sydney Film Festival and now the $100,000 top prize here in Indianapolis. Diab, who reportedly arrived in Indy with $20 in his pocket, has committed to leaving $25,000 out of the $100,000 prize in the community by donating it to a non-profit.
That's what I call an amazing story getting even more amazing.
But, is the film really that good? Or is it just a compelling topic?
While the filmmaker's courage in tackling the topic is unquestionable and, admittedly, the film does get a tad obvious at times, Cairo 678
is also for the most part a really fine film. The film's central character, Fayza, is played with a mesmerizing intensity of spirit and intention by Egyptian actress and singer Boshra. While it is possible to read too much into her performance, she exudes a certain awareness within her performance that practically screams out the authenticity of what she says and what she does in the film. Fayza is an attractive yet rather "lowly" woman who works a government job while dealing with sexual harassment from morning to night. This harassment includes her typically boorish husband, a fact that only serves to stress how sexual harassment is supported institutionally within the culture. Fayza's experience and her moment of retribution brings her into contact with Seba (Nelly Karim), a rich businesswoman assaulted during a soccer match (an assault that will unquestionably bring to mind the sexual assault of US reporter Laura Logan). She also comes into contact with Nelly (Nahed el Sebai), a woman who has initiated the attempt to seek justice. The three begin to collaborate, though their efforts are monitored by Esam (Maged El Kedwany) in the film's weakest story thread.
isn't a flawless film, but it's a bold and inspiring film that deserved its recognition as the Grand Jury Prize winner during the 2012 Heartland Film Festival. It's a sign of growth for Heartland to recognize a film of such power and intensity that tackles such a challenging topic, and it's a sign of hope that first-time Mohamed Diab has contributed such an insightful and intelligent cinematic effort into a region that so desperately needs this message.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic