On Sunday, Egyptian director Ahmed Abdalla’s Exterior Night (Leil Khargi) will compete in the 7th Luxor African Film Festival for the best Long Narrative film. 

The first 20 minutes of the tragicomedy may not seem promising to the audience. A wild mishmash of seemingly incoherent scenes portray a burned-out film director, Moe, tormenting himself and his actors at a film set, while blending in hazy shots of a parting couple in a remote Nile Delta village.

It takes the viewer some time to realize that this parallel subplot represents the film of Moe, the protagonist of the film. Moe being Abdalla’s alter ego, a director in crisis who suffers a personal setback as a close friend of his is imprisoned for “violating public modesty.”

Exterior Night, the young director’s fifth long feature film, makes several allusions to political events of the last two years that have captured the attention of the Egyptian public. It becomes obvious as the plot progresses that Moe’s imprisoned friend is writer Ahmed Naji, who was sentenced in 2016 to two years in jail, and spent more than 300 days behind bars. The real Naji makes a guest appearance as a taxi driver in the film.

Another scene in the subplot, which shows a boat packed with people taking off in the Nile River Delta, eventually sinking, alludes to the Rashid boat disaster of 2017, when 202 migrants drowned when their craft sunk in the Mediterranean Sea.

Abdalla boldly tackles a wide range of issues, such as feminism, classism, illegal immigration, police brutality, and “public modesty” codes imposed by the state and society. While he merely scratches the surface of these explosive themes, his tackling of taboos amid Egypt’s stifled political atmosphere is in itself a rare feat.

Director, driver, prostitute

The film thrives on the dynamic triangle of Moe, his narrow-minded and misogynistic chauffeur Mostafa, and Toutou, a charming prostitute, as they embark on an adventurous ride into a Cairo night. The unlikely trio seem to exist worlds apart, despite that they each live one metro station away from one another, as Toutou remarks.

The film is reminiscent of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s epic Faust (1808). Mostafa embodies Mephistopheles, the demon who promises Faust (Moe) eternal wisdom and unearthly pleasures, luring him with Gretchen (Toutou), in exchange for his soul. In Exterior Night, Moe is perceived as a voyeuristic intruder, brushing with the poor world of Toutou and Mostafa in search of an inspirational experience.

Like Mephistopheles, Mostafa keeps testing and challenging Moe. In one scene he warns Toutou that the Moes of the world abandon the poor the first chance they get. Indeed, Moe reminds the driver during a violent altercation of his low status in the social hierarchy.

The film relishes in the wit of its characters, thanks to the spontaneous and charming performance of Mona Hala, who plays Toutou, and the brilliant acting of Sherif Desouki, who plays Mostafa. The latter succeeds in a balancing act of evoking both sympathy and disgust from the viewer. Only Karim Kassem, who plays Moe and who first rose to prominence in the groundbreaking Leisure Time (Awkat Faragh 2006), comes across stiff, trapped in the role of a depressed film director.

Parallel lives

Surprisingly, Exterior Night has gone uncensored, despite its criticism of the lack of freedom of expression in Egypt. In one scene, Moe confronts a senior police officer at a police station, accusing him and his peers of effectively incarcerating the whole of Egypt. The police officer, however, proves lenient in the end.

Curiously, the characters in the film invent false names for themselves, and despite spending an entire night in each other’s company, they part without knowing the true identities of one another.

In one scene, Moe stumbles across the fictionalized protagonist of his film, suggesting that the parallel lives we live in will eventually intertwine and that one cannot look away as human catastrophes take place in the rest of the country.

With Exterior Night, Abdalla builds on earlier experimental films like Rags and Tatters (2013), Microphone (2010) and Heliopolis (2009), peering in on humans in their “habitat,” as if secretly documenting their real life. A number of scenes were secretly filmed with a mobile phone camera in the Cairo metro.

Unlike his previous film soundtracks, Abdalla opted this time for Egyptian pop music, which the three protagonists merrily listen to in the taxi. The inclusion of songs by Sherine and Mohamed Hamaki suggest that Abdalla, who has reinvented himself in each of his films, is seeking to combine his eye for experimental independent cinema with mainstream popular taste.

The result is an entertaining and worthwhile cinematic experience.