Iraq’s entry in the Cairo International Film Festival hit the right notes with Egyptian audiences, not for its plot or its script, but due to its employment of elements that were too close to home.
“Dawn of the World, an Iraqi-French production, was shot in Egypt, using rising Egyptian artists in front as well as behind the camera.
The feature film, written and directed by Iraqi-French filmmaker Abbas Fahdel, depicts the plight of Iraqis, more specifically the Marsh Arabs, during the Gulf war.
Egypt’s Manzala Lake, near Port Said, was disguised as a village in Iraq’s Tigris-Euphrates marshlands through makeshift huts that were built from scratch. The current circumstances in Iraq prevented the director from shooting there, a post-screening panel discussion pointed out.
The film revolves around cousins Mastour (Waleed Aboul-Magd) and Zahra (Hafsia Herzi, of “Secret of the Grain fame), who grow up together and eventually get married. However, shortly after, Mastour is recruited by the army and finds himself on the frontline.
He meets Riad (Karim Saleh), with whom he forms a close bond. Both soldiers seem to have drifted from their battalion and were left wandering in the desert. Mastour then steps into a fatal landmine. As he lies dying in Riad’s arms, he makes him promise to marry Zahra and take care of her.
When Riad goes to Mastour’s village to deliver the news, he immediately falls for Zahra, who shuts herself off from the world.
Subplots of a more political nature are also present in the film, with Fahdel portraying Saddam Hussein’s tyranny on the small village.
Following the screening at the Cairo Opera House’s small theater, audiences were disappointed to discover that Fahdel, who was scheduled to attend for a panel discussion, did not make it to this year’s festival altogether.
However, the attendance of three of the Egyptian actors who starred in the film seemed to be a suitable compromise.
Aboul-Magd and Mahmoud Nagui, who played Zingi – the village rebel who was wanted for refusing to join the army – and Injy Ashour, who played Zingi’s wife, all said they survived several auditions and casting calls to finally get a chance to showcase their talents in “Dawn.
The actors said speaking in the Iraqi dialect was not an easy task. Besides being coached by professionals, the actors said they opted to spend a lot of time with Iraqis residing in Egypt, getting them to talk freely using their dialect, which made it easier for them to pick it up.
Ashour credited Fahdel, who she said spent a lot of time with them before they started shooting, mentally preparing them for their roles.
Audience members lauded their performance, most agreeing that they would have never guessed they were Egyptian because of their mastery of the Iraqi dialect, despite the fact that at certain points in the film, the Egyptian dialect would inevitably slip through, exposing the actors’ true nationality.
One actor who had this reviewer fooled was Mostafa Wagih, the little boy who plays Hussein. While he did not have as many lines, Wagih, who is also Egyptian, portrayed a believable Iraqi adolescent, wise beyond his years.
While none of the actors hails from the Egyptian Cinematic Institute, they said they are amateurs, only honing their talents through attending acting workshops.
The panel also revealed that the other stars in the film hail from different countries, Riad (Karim Saleh) being Lebanese and Zahra Tunisian-Algerian. The press conference’s moderator quoted Fahdel as saying that he hopes to “unite Arabs through this film.
Some of the audience’s questions regarding the film were unfortunately left unanswered, seeing they were directed at Fahdel.
The press conference’s moderator said that while he might have the answers to some of the questions, “he cannot speak on [Fahdel’s] behalf.