Hot Docs: Neighbors [2009, Rached]

Toronto – How does one go about building an equitable society? We humans have been struggling with that zinger for a while now; and it seems that it often takes some kind of revolution to shake things up. At some point the downtrodden gather to rise up against the upper classes in the name of equality. Too often it seems that the ideals that are used to ignite and mobilize the people are then co-opted. One ruling regime supplants another and progress lurches forward, then sideways, then backwards a bit. Sometimes society seems to progress the same way a drunk dancer does when he lurches across the dance floor.

“[President] Nasser, I liked him a lot. Though he arrested me many times.” – Mahmoud Amin El Alem

Neighbors takes a multifaceted look at the microcosm of the Garden City district in Cairo, an affluent neighborhood that was prominent in the 30’s-50’s. Through the eyes of the locals, we see the changes that take place in this district through the socialist movement of the 50’s up to the post-911 world. In addition to snapshots of Garden City’s changes, we also get a better understanding of many local’s feelings towards Egypt’s place in the world. The characters talk candidly about their experiences and how it has shaped their lives.

For the rich gentry of Garden City, president Nasser’s socialist revolution marked the end of an area of decadence. Garden City was the most westernized area in the most westernized country of the Arabic world. The villas in the district tell a story of old money mixed with the European values of intellectual freedom. Many of the interviewees have mixed European descent and speak flawless French. They long for the decadence and simplicity of their privileged youth. From an idealistic point of view, they also long for the freedom of speech that their world once had. They are rightfully frightened by the fundamentalist movement that is gaining momentum all around them.

We also see an equalization force as the 50’s revolution gives way to an emergence of a middle class of sorts. No longer is Cairo split into ultra-rich and ultra-poor. But there never seems to be enough resources to go around, and the middle class looks at modern Egypt and laments the arrival of what one interviewee calls “the tyranny machine.” It doesn’t seem to matter any longer who is in power, the machine just needs someone to push the buttons; and it only gets more experienced with time.

Colonialism’s influence on Cairo and Garden City is profound. It was British, American, and French money that created this Parisian-style gated community. As we fast-forward to the present day, we see beautiful old British villa’s get supplanted by the American embassy, a concrete monstrosity of a fortress. Egyptians and Americans alike explain the distinct loss of respect and admiration that America has sustained in this part of the world since the invasion in Iraq.

“To find your way amidst good and evil, power and individual, past and present… How to find your way… That’s the real issue. And remain strong, solid and optimistic throughout it all. I’ve always been optimistic despite the many beatings I endured.” – Mahmoud Amin El Alem

One of the very best interviews is saved for the end, where we meet an older intellectual at home with his books and his thoughts. Mahmoud Amin El Alem explains the need to balance the fight for freedom and progress with positivity and grace. He’s a man that has been beaten and imprisoned for his political views, but still manages to preserve a boundless optimism and gentle disposition. His wisdom is the kind we need to make any real progress.

Neighbors is a fascinating, gritty, and human look at Cairo’s Garden City district. There are two Hot Docs screenings on Friday May 7, and Saturday May 8.

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Posted on by Mark in Hot Docs, Reviews

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