On the outskirts of Cairo, more than 500 Egyptians with a rare skin and nerve disease live isolated in the Abu Zaabal settlement. This real-life leprosy colony is the setting for Egyptian-Austrian director Abu Bakr Shawky’s film Yommedine (Day of Judgment): the odyssey of a man’s search for his roots and a tale of friendship. 

The main protagonist, Beshay (played by Rady Gamal) – one of the inhabitants of this still-operating facility – gained celebrity status after the film won the Cannes 2018 François Chalais Prize.

Watching Gamal early on in the film sift through a pile of garbage and mumble his lines a bit clumsily, the viewer quickly realizes the man has never acted before in his life. Nevertheless, his genuineness and obvious spontaneity add a documentary-like quality to the film.

It is Gamal’s awkwardness and witty humor, particularly while interacting with the young Obama (Ahmed Abdel Hafiz) – an orphan he befriends, nicknamed after the “guy on TV” – that creates a congenial and heartfelt atmosphere which prevails throughout their search for the parents who abandoned them.

Marginalized communities

Yommedine revolves around marginalized outcasts and their tormented self-perception, imposed on them by a conformist and rejecting society. Beshay’s leprosy is often mistaken for a contagious skin disease or filth, and he is shunned by the people he stumbles upon. Obama advises him to hide his face under a beekeeping hat. What adds to Beshay’s feelings of estrangement is his religion. He is Coptic, a minority within a minority. As an orphan and a member of the marginalized Nubian community in the south of Egypt, Obama is in a similar position.

The entire cast of the film consists of non-mainstream actors, and the locations are set outside of the capital Cairo or Mediterranean second city Alexandria, where most Egyptian productions — both mainstream and independent — take place.

The forlorn villages that Beshay and Obama travel through on a wobbly donkey cart to reach Beshay’s original birthplace in Upper Egypt are poor, shabby, and neglected. On their way, they encounter benevolent strangers and kind-hearted outcasts like themselves, but also criminals, Islamists, and distrustful policemen. Given this dissonant and quirky amalgam of characters, Yommedine could have easily drifted into a cliché tear-jerker, forcing the sympathy of the viewers. Indeed, a few scenes cement the notion that shunned outcasts, hiding underground, are good Samaritans who will stick up for their own. Some scenes are also cut too hastily and abruptly, especially those where the viewer expects the camera to linger on Beshay’s face to validate a certain sentiment of grief or loss.

Funded through Kickstarter

Yommedine is Shawky’s first feature film. It took him five years to finish it. Together with his wife and co-producer Dina Emam, they managed to fund the film through the online fundraising site Kickstarter with $22,254. There was no budget left to market it, and Shawky was indebted to many people.

What is fascinating about the film is that Shawky takes the viewer to a hidden part of Egypt that has seldom been tackled in recent Egyptian cinema, reminiscent perhaps of Henry Barakat’s masterpiece El Haram (The Sin, 1965) or Youssef Chahin’s (Egypt’s most prominent director of the last century) El Ard  (The Land, 1969), with each director’s painstaking and elaborate portrayal of the hard life of farmers. In almost every scene in Yommedine, Shawky manages to transfer an urgent sense of Beshay’s mental and physical suffering, while maintaining a light-hearted and carefree poise.

The ending is especially poignant, and the viewer shares the thrill of Beshay’s aspirations to reunite with his family.

Given the name of the film – Day of Judgement – one could equate Beshay with biblical Adam, who after having been banned from paradise, undertakes a long and wondrous journey to return to his roots. Beshay’s greatest fears are the day where he will stand before his father, awaiting his judgement, and rejection because of his looks, evoking the dilemma of humans, judged daily for their race, religion or ethnicity.

Following international hype, Yommedine did not fail to score with Egyptian viewers. Cinema halls were packed for weeks, a rather uncommon phenomenon with independent productions. Shawky seems to have struck a sympathetic chord with thousands of viewers, whose hearts were won over by a lovable and talented “outcast.” ♦