My first film of the Festival de Cannes was After the Battle by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah—whose last feature, Scheherazade Tell Me a Story, I reported on from the Middle East International Film Festival in 2009—and its stable heft of construction and deep understanding of genre conventions and a digital, realist mise-en-scène allows it to move unexpectedly and with considerable complexity between engagement with mainstream melodramatic storytelling and integrating, sometimes fluidly, often abruptly, poetic observations and dubiously dramatic, but forceful, socio-political discussions.
Nasrallah centers his story on the historic-nationalist, uncanny figure of an impoverished horseman in Cairo who made his living by tourism until the Egyptian revolution took away his business and his involvement in an anti-revolution, horse-and-camel based riot took away his reputation. The melodrama comes from After the Battle sharing its fascination and attraction with the man with a beautiful, wealthy Egyptian NGO worker—continually taken for a foreigner—who clearly falls in love with the married horseman and begins personally acting as a social worker to help keep his family together while continually flirting with both infidelity and an attraction to their poverty. The polemics come from the woman's formal discussions with the family, the poorer classes in their neighborhood and her co-workers on the ambiguous state of mid-revolution democracy. The poetry flows from the strange evocations of the horseman and his horses, images of dancing horses, a corridor of hungry tourist steeds waiting in line to be fed by the NGO, a thoroughbred being trained in the yard seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows of a local gangster's mansion, horses standing unused under the pyramids. It is no mistake that several sequences that clearly exist in the story's reality—the NGO woman and the horseman sharing a ride, and, suddenly, a kiss, in the night, the man's sons taking his horse for a midnight "dance"—take on the qualities of a dream. Nasrallah introduces his figures as elements of his melodrama but allows their imagery to move beyond its dramatic function into a more suggestive and mysterious realm.
All three of these elements of melodrama, didactics, and poetry, pivot off and around one another to varying degrees of ungainly bluntness and sharp, suggestive cutting, but Nasrallah's real talent is to have identified a mid-point in his nation's current, contemporaneous history to set these things in motion. He transmutes the romanticism of filming a story of underclass revolution or underclass enlightenment into the troubling melodrama between the NGO woman and her magnetism towards the horseman, his wife and children, and the director puts this personal drama on the same playing field as nearly documentary-like, forthright group talks about political enlightenment. More importantly, After the Battle's mise-en-scène allows for this proximity, and its occasional fluid integration. A shot will follow the horseman's boy leaving his bedroom, follow him until it finds his mother, who turns and lets the camera catch her husband before following his eye to the beautiful NGO woman until, finally, the group comes together in the same movement and enters the family's house—multiple storylines and observations collected, integrated in one natural motion.
Nasrallah gives unexpected images of expected things, working well with doorways, entrances and exits. An argument between a teacher and the NGO woman moves out of the classroom and onto the school's roof, where the teacher suddenly sneaks a smoke and the whole tone of the argument changes. The film's edits take you into YouTube footage or a feminist discussion group; Nasrallah integrates his actors into a real protest and then abstracts them out to a high-rise apartment to temper the reality with the temptations of melodrama. It may not all work or work smoothly but that, to a degree, is the point—with a generosity of spirit and an eager ambition, After the Battle collects things, collects images and stories, buzzwords, conflicted emotions and viral images. It has no problem mixing, juggling, acknowledging. It throws together a combination in a manner of here's what we're thinking about and how can this all work together or why does it not all fit. It tracks something in-progress and it's certainly fitting that the form stretches itself out to be in-progress as well, a discussion point, not a solution. In a way, Nasrallah is positing a very dynamic, challenging but accessible form of mainstream political cinematic storytelling—a goal intrinsically experimental. The film is thus an admirably active, thinking film, energetic and versatile, and altogether working on a level of intelligent, agile and unafraid engagement that is a terrific way to start the 2012 festival.