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Middle East International Film Festival: "Neighbors" (Tahani Rached, Egypt)

“This is not Egypt” says an interviewee in Tahani Rached’s new documentary Neighbors, but the old guard dies hard in Cairo’s Garden City neighborhood and probably think the opposite.  A beautifully constructed quarter of Egypt’s capital city nestled with trees, organized around Parisian urban development aesthetics, and originally populated with seemingly nothing but villas for the wealthy foreign elite, Garden City has since suffered through several changes in government and the virus-like expansion of the U.S. Embassy to become, in 2009, a corrupted, decaying, and intruded-upon shadow of its chic past.

That, of course, is the main message of the descendents of villa residents that Rached interviews, who talk of the glamorous first half of the 20th century while giving tours of mansions that range from resplendent to abandoned caverns of privilege from a dead and dusty era.  But nostalgia isn’t only the privilege of the rich—though it is far easier to track down descendents of the rich inhabitants than those of the impoverished—and the shop owners and poor in the neighborhood offer an alternative take on the unique value of Garden City as it has declined.  From this varied cast of characters—and characters they are, all charismatic and incredibly articulate about the area’s history and their own feelings about it, and all richly sketched by Rached—Neighbors eloquently presents a famed neighborhood as a microcosmic allegory for a modern, 20th century Egypt bouncing between the European governments and various forms of nationalism.

The changes are etched as strongly in the architecture—tacky colors obliterating the elegance of a house once used for movie shoots, hotel monstrosities blocking light and air flow, ruining gardens and views—as in the people, the wealthiest seeming the most lonely and isolated in their empty, unsocial houses and preferred used of French and English languages, and the rest complaining about economic downturns, the missing sense of community and friendship in the area, and, of course, the U.S. embassy.  For a film that presents a neighborhood as a microcosm of a country, Neighbors wittily presents the two main embassies in the area, the British and the American, as the emblematic structures that both bare the marks of changing times and change times themselves.  This is perhaps the film’s most brilliant move, as the danger of letting Garden City be tossed and turned by Egyptian history as if it had no control over itself would be too much of a simplification.  Watching the security measures of the American embassy ripple outwards to effect the look and feel of the area and the economy and social community which surrounds it expands the reach of Neighbors beyond the beauitified confines of a single neighborhood. Tahani Rached’s rich documentary has the rare ability to focus on the streets to achieve an astute and pertinent sense of grander, external national and global allegories of political, social, and class changes across the 20th century.

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