Rags and Tatters
As blockbuster producers labour to make cinema more immersive – from vibrating seats to IMAX and beyond – art house filmmakers explore the possibilities of silence. It’s a technique usually associated with highly aestheticized cinema -- films like Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu both from 2012, which pair silent or dialogue-free soundtracks with black-and-white cinematography.
Though it does have a distinct aesthetic, *Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters is far more politically engaged than most art house fare. Like Microphone, Abdalla’s much-lauded sophomore film from 2010, Rags is a documentary-fiction hybrid. It is also a challenging departure from the successful template of Microphone.
In the early hours of Egypt’s January 2011 revolution, while Mubarak’s police force collapsed around itself, thousands of prisoners escaped from a detention centre outside Cairo. In the melee, while Mubarak’s former prisoners were shot on sight, few paused to ask how many of them were criminals.
At the centre of Rags is an unnamed escaped prisoner (Asser Yassin) who carries with him the mobile phone of a man he met shortly before his death, one containing video evidence of policemen murdering detained demonstrators.
The film follows the protagonist as he makes his way back to his own family, through the chaos at the margins of Egypt’s revolution. Abdalla’s camera – wielded by cinematographer Tarek Hefny – then follows him as he tries to keep his promise to a dead man, to get his video to his family.
As the protagonist wends his way through Cairo, he stumbles upon a range of common folk. As he is taciturn – the only word Yassin’s character utters in 87 minutes is “Thanks” -- these encounters become documentary testimonials.
One gent, who provides ramshackle carnival rides for popular religious festivals, shares his frustration with Salafi Muslims’ aggressive position against such amusements. In Al-Zarayeb neighbourhood (the, mostly Christian, garbage collectors’ settlement), he talks to one of the young garbage collectors about the abuse he endures because of his work.
These documentary-inflected sequences depict the poor’s daily concerns without the maudlin melodrama that marks the efforts of Egyptian commercial cinema to appropriate poverty. They provide uncharacteristic insight into the Egypt beyond Midan al-Tahrir, where people are most in need of revolutionary change.
It does come at some cinematic cost.
The film commences (and ends) with bracing action sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a thriller, but this narrative tension slackens considerably during the protagonist’s journey across Cairo’s underbelly.
In many ways Rags is quite unlike Microphone -- whose serious subject matter is leant joyous buoyancy by the contemporary popular music performed by its young cast.
There is music and joy in Rags and Tatters too, though the music is less cosmopolitan -- the film’s title comes from that of a found cassette tape of Sufi performance -- and realities necessarily mute the joy.
The idea of placing a silent, nameless protagonist at the centre of the film will no doubt strike some as unnatural. For the better part of the story, though, the character’s reticence is simply a matter of his proximity to the microphone – a gesture reminiscent of that used in Annemarie Jacir’s 2003 film Like Twenty Impossibles.
Yet Yassin’s taciturn character simply amplifies marginal figures in Microphone (an impoverished street peddler) and Heliopolis, Abdalla’s 2009 debut (a young policeman stationed in a guard box).
In conversation after the film’s premiere at TIFF this October, Abdalla said the silences of Rags arose because he wanted to make it as different as possible from the dialogue-laden Microphone.
This willingness to discard a form of proven popularity, while clinging to his political and aesthetic principles, is what makes Rags and Tatters such a bold and courageous gesture.
*Filmmaker Ahmad Abdalla’s and Producer Mohamed Hefzy in attendance
Second Screening: Sun 10/27/2013 15:30 VOX 1