“This film isn’t about the revolution,” said Egyptian director Ahmed Abdallah after a viewing of his latest film, Rags and Tatters. “It’s about the conditions we lived under, and still live under [in Egypt].”
This sense of ambivalence toward the upheaval and change experienced by Egypt in the past three years pervades the film.
While set during the January 25 Revolution, Rags and Tatters does not offer any sense of revolutionary triumphalism. There are no images of Christians protecting Muslims in mass prayers, or of intrepid youth battling with riot police.
Instead, the revolution keeps pace with the story through scattered updates: Al Jazeera reporting on the uprising, an activist beseeching others to join the protesters in Tahrir Square, and a journalist conducting an interview about the unrest.
The Revolution through One Man’s Eyes
To maintain its sense of ambivalence, the film has little dialogue. It begins as the main character (played by Asser Yassin) escapes from prison, a common occurrence during the revolution.
After escaping, the main character, who remains nameless, struggles to find a place and purpose for himself in Cairo.
A video recorded on a cellphone taken from another prisoner loosely guides his wanderings through the stricken city. Every person he shows it to leads him to someone new in a different part of Cairo.
The audience repeatedly hears, but never sees, the violent commotion the video captured during the prison break. Whenever he plays the video, the audience hears a voice utter, “I recorded this so people could know what really happened.”
What actually did happen during those fateful weeks in 2011? And what was the point? These questions have not lost their relevance nearly three years after the revolution, and Rags and Tatters repeatedly reminds us of them through a story defined by aimless and seemingly meaningless developments.
For instance, when the main character returns to Cairo, the neighborhood-watch guards beat him unconscious for no reason.
Later, he hunts down his former love interest. She gives him one long, ambiguous stare as she climbs aboard another man’s motorcycle. She never looks back as she rides away.
He eventually makes his way to the local mosque, which has been calling for volunteers to protect the neighborhood.
His listlessness is undeniable, however, and though he manages to find purpose installing lights for a few hours, he is forced to flee almost as soon as he establishes a rapport with those tending to the injured.
Now in the City of the Dead, Cairo’s sprawling cemetery, he seems to ironically feel most at home. He repairs damaged speakers and calmly smokes hash as plumes of smoke rise over Cairo’s skyline.
Eventually, our character makes his way to Garbage City, a neighborhood of garbage collectors populated primarily by Christians. When he arrives, he walks in on the funeral service of a man with whom he escaped from prison.
Again, he tries unsuccessfully to find a role for himself in the events. He attempts to join the pallbearers after they have already begun their procession, but there is no room for him in their makeshift hearse.
Next, he goes to the offices of Al-Masry Al-Youm, after learning the paper is collecting ordinary Egyptians’ personal documentation of the revolution.
From another room, he watches as a journalist uploads his video recording of the prison break, perhaps hoping someone else can give meaning to the events swirling around him.
Unresolved Grievances and Shifting Priorities
In the movie’s press kit, Abdallah writes, “The film is an attempt to delve into the deep; inside some worlds that surround us everywhere, but we consciously chose to ignore their existence.”
In one scene, a boy in Garbage City describes the disrespect he receives on a daily basis. In a slum neighborhood, a man recounts how he and his neighbors have been forced to pipe-in potable water.
The stubborn persistence of stories such as these has eclipsed the euphoria of the January 25 Revolution for many Egyptians, as ongoing social and political setbacks continue to tarnish the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
High levels of youth unemployment and underemployment, which affected nearly 60 percent of youth aged 18 to 29 in 2012, still plague the Egyptian economy.
A tumultuous year with President Mohamed Morsi led to growing opposition and eventually to the June 30 uprising, which was followed by a brief spike in optimism. But according to a recent poll by Zogby Research Services, 51 percent of Egyptians now believe the army’s decision to remove President Morsi was incorrect.
Moreover, while Rags and Tatters was being shown in Egypt, significant numbers of liberals and others not aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood took to the streets for the first time since Morsi’s removal.
They were demonstrating against Egypt’s new protest law, which, according to Human Rights Watch, “would effectively give the police carte blanche to ban protest in Egypt.” With an unrestrained police force bringing back the worst of its Mubarak-era abuses in the months since July 3, anger is rising once again.
Meanwhile, faith in political parties has continued to fall, while confidence in the military’s ability to implement a democratic framework is low.
Yet, it is not even clear that a majority of Egyptians want democracy anymore.
As Bassem Youssef said in a recent interview in the New York Times, many Egyptians now believe there are greater priorities than the revolution’s original demands for bread, freedom, and social justice. Instead, people “are now looking for security.”
Conclusion: A Bleak Future?
Three years after the January 25 Revolution, little progress seems to have been made. The present is bleak, the past ambiguous, and the future as hazy as Cairo’s pollution at its worst.
Just as the movie’s character struggles to find a place for himself in events that are beyond his control, Egyptians continue to wrestle with the momentous changes in their society and the implications for their everyday lives.
Rags and Tatter’s inaudible dialogue and unfocused shots mirror the public’s shifting sentiments. What deserves to be heard and seen in the post-Mubarak era? Will every Egyptian have a place in that new society?
When you hear the final gun shot in Rags and Tatters, you will be left with a bleak answer.
 James Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, (Oxford University Press: New York, 2012), p. 20.