If Egyptian director Mohamed Siam had written the young woman at the heart of his namesake IDFA opener film Amal as a fictional character, she may have seemed too far-fetched.
A defiant force of nature masking a deeper vulnerability behind a bolshie, devil-may-care façade, Amal has experienced more in her young life as a child and teenager in the 2011 Egyptian revolution than most people do in a lifetime. She was 14 years old when Egypt’s popular uprising swept presidential dictator Hosni Mubarak from power in January 2011. Siam joins Amal’s story a year later, as she is making her way in post-revolutionary Egypt.
One of the rare girls to head to the pro-democracy protests on Tahrir Square, Amal is still healing from the emotional and physical scars of being beaten by riot police in an incident that went viral on YouTube. She is also grieving the recent death of the boyfriend she met at the demonstrations, killed a year later in the Port Said stadium massacre when fighting between rival fans went unchecked after police officers abandoned their posts.
Overlaying all of this is the fact that she is growing up in a male-dominated society with little place for strong, independent women. Siam reveals he had originally planned a film about one of the country’s young ‘ultras’ soccer fans (who played a decisive role in the protests) as a means to explore what was happening to 12- to 25-year-olds in post-revolutionary Egypt. “This group played a big part in the revolution, and on a number of levels it is also the future of Egypt,” said Siam. “I was curious about what would happen to the younger generation – that had only ever known change and violence – as the revolution died down. I wasn’t really expecting to come across any girls, because it’s a male-denominated scene.”
On meeting Amal, his plans changed. “I had been following a couple of potential characters when I met this short girl wearing a hoodie. She didn’t look like either a boy or a girl. She was very loud and very obscene,” he recalls. “She is a force of nature you simply can’t ignore. Instinctively I knew she had something, but I wasn’t sure what to do with her.”
Siam initially thought he might follow her for a year or so, but as he came to see how current events in Egypt were shaping choices and destiny, he hit upon making a coming-of-age tale over a longer timeframe. He followed Amal for six years, filming her progress sporadically as the country witnessed the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, terror attacks and religious persecution.
Beyond the portrait of Amal, Siam suggests the film has a wider message. “It’s hard to pin down one theme in the film but if I had to boil it down, I would say the film is about choices and how Arab youth have so few choices in that part of the world and in this time. Amal is living through this revolutionary period at an age when she is naturally asking questions about identity and the choices that could shape her future; the problem today is the Arab youth don’t really have any choices at home. They either have to leave, or live with a sense of alienation.”