It is a vista fraught with darkness and confusion. Seemingly captured on low-resolution mobile telephone video, the scene jerks and shakes as it follows the vague forms of panicked, gasping men, fleeing gunshots. Several fall dead. The camera momentarily falls on one man, grazed in the foot. Staggering up, he pulls a second, larger, man to his feet and the pair limp into a makeshift shed. The second man slumps to the ground, clutching his bleeding stomach.
“Mobile,” the wounded man says and the first man retrieves his phone for him. It contains a video of another chaotic scene of burning streets and policemen murdering detained demonstrators. As the video captures the scene, the wounded man’s recorded voice can be heard saying, “I’m photographing this so that people know what really happened here.”
At daybreak, the first man prepares to leave. The second man presses the mobile into his hand. He accepts it, promising the dying stranger, “I’ll come back for you.”
Egypt’s January 2011 uprising was a tumult of innumerable episodes, most of which have yet to be told properly. One of these involved some thousands of common prisoners who escaped, as Mubarak’s police force collapsed around itself.
At first, those parts of the security apparatus that still functioned simply shot the escaped prisoners on sight. Whether out of fear or darker motives, vigilantes did the same. In the melee, few paused to ask how many of those who escaped Mubarak’s prisons were guilty of any crimes.
“Rags and Tatters ,” the new film by writer-director Ahmad Abdalla, tells the story of one such prisoner. It had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday evening, where it’s screening in the Contemporary World Cinema program.
At the center of the story is an unnamed man (Asser Yassin), the escaped prisoner carrying a dying man’s video testimony of his state’s criminality. The film follows him as he first tries to get back to the poor Cairo neighborhood where his family lives. Then, in the chaos of disorder that characterized the margins of Egypt’s revolution, Abdalla’s camera – expertly wielded by cinematographer Tarek Hefny – follows him as he tries to keep a promise to a man he doesn’t know.
“Rags and Tatters” is an intriguing hybrid of fiction and documentary, one of the forms that has captured the imaginations of younger filmmakers committed to guerrilla approaches to cinema.
In this, Abdalla’s third feature marks an intriguing follow-up to his critically lauded, award-winning “Microphone” (2010).
That work began life as a documentary on the thriving alternative art scene in Alexandria, but evolved into a fast-paced fiction driven largely by non-professional actors. Though the subject matter is serious – a youth culture restive beneath the twin weights of a corrupt political system and conservative social norms – its action and soundtrack are both laced with contemporary popular music, which brings a strangely joyous buoyancy to the proceedings.
The joy is necessarily more muted in “Rags and Tatters” and the characters at the center of this story aren’t Western-oriented urban youth but Cairo’s underclasses.
Moving about the fringes of urban society, they reside in graveyards and garbage dumps, literally the detritus of the city which is sometimes also their source of livelihood.
There is music and joy here too, but it is expressed in the Arabic maqamaat that accompany Sufi musicians’ popular improvised performances of poetic chant (dthikr).
The film takes its title from that of a cassette tape the protagonist finds, a recording of such a Sufi performance.
This nameless protagonist, the silent guide to these relatively obscure corners of the city, is an echo of two characters in Abdalla’s previous work.
“Heliopolis” (2009), his first film, included in its ensemble cast a young policeman stationed in a guard box outside a church in the once-upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis. The camera looks in on the young man from time to time – as he shares his modest supper with a stray puppy, or when he is shaken to attention at the sound of the beautifully alien choral music arising from the church during a Christmas Mass. He’s never heard to utter a word during the film.
In “Microphone,” silence is clad in the figure of an impoverished street peddler of popular music CDs, who’s forever wary of the corrupt plainclothes cops who habitually thrash him whenever they find him – presumably because he doesn’t have enough money to pay their extortion fees. When he accidentally gouges the eye out of a political poster of the neighborhood’s MP, he uses a felt-tip marker to improvise a pair of shades for him. For a brief interlude, the silent young man sets up shop beneath the MP’s slightly cooler poster.
In “Rags and Tatters,” Yassin’s escaped prisoner is the more-fully developed successor to these two figures. Through the course of the film this silent character can occasionally be seen in conversation beyond the range of the microphone. The only word he can be heard to speak – when one of his benefactors offers him a ride to help the dying man he left at the start of the film – is “Thanks.”
As the protagonist wends his way through Cairo, mending busted electrical circuitry as he does – it seems he was an electrician in a previous life – he encounters a range of common folk. At first he looks on as an older lady shares her woes with a young woman recording her on a mobile phone. Later, he converses with people himself. As he is so taciturn, these conversations take the form of testimonials.
One interlocutor is a gent whose ramshackle carnival rides are used during popular religious festivals (or moulids, where Sufi perform their dthikr), who’s frustrated by Salafi Muslims’ aggressive forbidding of amusements like this.
Another describes the bleak prospects for children in Cairo’s destitute quarters. In Al-Zarayeb neighborhood – or Ezbet al-Zabbaleen (the, mostly Christian, garbage collectors’ settlement) – he talks to one of the young garbage collectors about how other Egyptians abuse them because of their work.
These documentary-inflected sequences depict the daily concerns of poor Egyptians, and do so without a trace of the maudlin melodrama that has characterized commercial cinema’s efforts to appropriate poverty. Far from provoking tears from a safe distance, these sequences provide uncharacteristic insight into Egyptian society, and how the lives of the country’s poor have been affected – for better and worse – since January 2011.
These insights do come at some cost. After the narrative tension that marks the film’s opening sequences (and bursts forth again to end the story), a notable slackening of dramatic tension accompanies the protagonist’s journey.
The subject matter of “Rags and Tatters” doesn’t embrace the tastes of Western and urban elite audiences as readily as “Microphone,” but it is a powerful example of the possibilities of some forms of documentary-fiction hybrid. Cinema is allowed to speak to the brain as well as the heart, and truth should trump joy.
The Toronto International Film Festival continues until Sept. 15. For more information see tiff.net 
By Jim Quilty