Consider the following scenes from Hala Elkoussy's Cactus Flower. A woman is seen operating a sewing machine while young girls dance in front of a conductor. As Aida (Salma Samy) struggles to get out of a crowd on a stage, the audience watches her with enthusiasm as well as a cage-like helmet on their heads. What do these scenes exactly mean?
A few minutes into the film, it becomes evident that Elkoussy's work is charged with political illustrations. The dialogues don't merely inform us about the character's situation, but they also comment on (and criticize) Cairo's current landscape. I found this under Egypt Travel Advisory on the website travel.state.gov - Reconsider travel to Egypt due to terrorism. In the film, the characters talk about bombs and terrorism. Wikipedia tells me that one of the environmental issues in Egypt includes water scarcity, which is why there is so much fuss regarding water in this film. On top of that, the weather is hot, which along with the corruption, is burning the citizens of Cairo.
According to the U.S. Department of State's "2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," some of the human rights issues in Egypt are - Extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy.
The movie, at times, directly addresses this hell. People gather outside someone's house, and a man roars, "The country is on fire, and you are having a party?" Another person from this crowd is outraged at the fact that a woman's underwear was hung outside on the clothesline. The man, who owns the apartment, gets annoyed and asks if he really needs permission from others to do anything in his own place. A man runs on the treadmill and stops as soon as he hears, "You have earned the right to serve the nation." In a scene towards the end, Yassin (Marwan Alazab) is mindlessly beaten up by the police.
In this infernal land, the characters quietly seek heaven. They find friendship in unexpected places, like in a neighbor. When Sameha (Menha Batraoui) hurts her leg, Yassin and Aida take her to the hospital. The characters' relationship with their own family members is not so genial. But the bond is mended when Aida reunites with her mother and Sameha reconnects with her sister. In Cactus Flower, the personal and the political goes hand in hand. On one side, the movie talks about Cairo's situation; on the other, it focuses on its characters. And these two threads are tightly joined together.
Due to the scorching sun, the city appears dry and dull. It's riddled with problems, yet when the characters observe it from a distance, they express their love for this place. Elkoussy, too, adores the location and casts a poignant and optimistic gaze upon it.
Cactus Flower is not constantly absorbing. There are some stunning images (Aida's building looks otherworldly at one point during the night), but it often breaks the spell by heavily underlining that it's a film. The "arty" compositions can be a bit hit-and-miss. But the actors are wonderful, and Elkoussy permeates the material with her scent of confidence.
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