This dispatch from the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising is more of a fiery news item than an engaging drama.
Even though it's been over a year since it was produced, Ibrahim El-Batout's Winter of Discontent is all the more interesting when viewed through the prism of Egypt's tumultuous recent history. There's even a certain naivety (and sadness) to the way in which the film presumes that the violent machinations which took place in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square in January of 2011 comprised of an enclosed dramatic arc, that this was an event so out-of-the-ordinary that it was surely an anomaly that would exist as a lesson for future generations.
As the news wires will surely attest, this has not been the case, and the mild pangs of hope which arrive in the latter stages of this film now look a lot like wishful thinking. Removed from the maelstrom of the protests themselves, Winter of Discontent offers a cross-cut of the revolution as seen through the eyes of those choosing to kick against the pricks and those charged with suppressing insurrection at all costs.
The film offers scenes and observations from the time rather than a contrived drama, but at its centre is a fairly rudimentary stand-off between a draconian security officer whose information extraction methods include humiliation and creative use of car batteries, and a revolutionary who has been driven to vengeance by a prior wrongful conviction. The latter is under very strict watch by the former, and so it's via the help of a female news anchor (herself morally unable to use her airtime as a way to cover up the extent of violent activities) in which he's able to reveal the horrific realities of his situation to the outside world.
Though clearly shot on the lam in order to retain its social relevance, the film has the sheen of a polished, professional production. And this serves to diminish its overall impact, as it feels like El-Batout is more concerned with plush production values than documenting the grubby fallout of this seismic political shift. After much of the film's runtime taking place within bland rooms and corridors, matters are suddenly enlivened in the its final shots when we actually get to see the scope and fervour of the assembled masses, and (like the revolutionaries themselves) you kind of wish you were out in the streets and not cooped up indoors.
The film is also prone to melodrama, with Salah Al Hanafy's security chief coming across like a menacing Bond villain and Amr Waked's dissident the cool, angular hero with the fetching five-o'clock shadow. The performances never feel particularly natural, as if they've been hastily sculpted to serve the film's political viewpoint.
Yet in revealing the extent of the outrages meted on the Egyptian public, from crooked military trials, ad-hoc beatings, raping of female captors and the occasional murder, the film remains a vital document of the effects of state-sponsored terror. It proves how difficult it is to make a film that would retain any kind of newsworthy status (due in part to the grinding juggernaut of worldwide film distribution).
With the — at time of writing — subsequent flair-up of bloodshed, this gives the film a second lease of life, and it makes the now rather modest closing-credit statistics detailing the extent of state crimes at the time appear all the more tragic.
There's renewed relevance for this account of Egypt's tumultuous recent history.
It's palpable sense of (understandable) outrage sometimes gets in the way of the human drama.
Admirable, but nothing you couldn't get from scouring a news website for a few hours.