Dir/scr. Hala Khalil. Egypt, 2014, 122 mins,

Director Hala Khalil has a lot to say about Egypt post-Tahrir Square and 122 minutes is hardly enough to fit it all into the absorbing feature Nawara. This is a classic ‘women’s film’ in which life is tough for the determinedly cheerful Cairo maid Nawara (the appealing Menna Shalabi) from the get-go, and clearly risks getting worse. It’s just a question of when.  

In retrospect Nawara’s climax was always coming, but it’s an education getting there.

But Khalil’s film is deceptively light on its feet, ladling subversion into its classic set-up. This marks an arresting feature debut for Khalil which stands to be a hit for the director at home in Egypt despite her excoriating indictment of the country’s ruling classes. Life for the poor is always the same, she says, no matter how much the guard changes. That’s a universal message which, along with the film’s weepy watchability, could see Nawara appeal in select international arthouse play and festival screenings.

Chief amongst Nawara’s charms and one of the main reasons the film is so involving is Salalbi’s cheerful depiction of its heroine. Nawara may, perhaps, be saintly – a smiling, devout Mary Poppins in a hijab. And, as one character rightly says, she’s a little naïve. But the actress’s shy smile turns Nawara into a heroine the audience wants to spend time with; her optimism is infectious.

Nawara starts the film as she carries on – on her feet, helping people – chiefly her grandmother, with whom she lives despite being married to the long-suffering Aly.  Corporate corruption means their slum doesn’t have running water and she starts what turns out to be a very long day by lugging two laden containers from the well to her one-room home, where Grandma also operates a falafel business.

Then, it’s on to the back of Aly’s motorbike for a trip to the hospital, where his father is suffering from prostrate cancer and needs an operation. Despite bribing the nurse, Aly can’t get a bed, surgery, or even medicine for his dad. By now, Nawara is late for work, and she races onto one minibus after the other to get to an exclusive, gated compound where she works for one of Cairo’s elite families.

This is spring, 2011, and the compound is being emptied, the occupants fleeing overseas with their ill-gotten gains. Nawara, who is tyrannised by the family Alsatian, Butch, loves the spoiled and imperious Usama family, however, and has been working there since she was a child at the feet of her own mother, also a maid. Protesters are chanting for “bread, freedom and equality”, and the radio provides a constant commentary on events: Hosni Mubarak has been arrested and prosecutors are demanding the return of his funds. The people are powerful. The Mahmoud Hemeda decides finally to flee for London, leaving Nawara in charge of the house.

Khalil delivers an object lesson on Egyptian politics and corruption here, all hiding behind Nawara’s smile. The poor are desperate. Aly’s five-year-wait to consummate his marriage is a constant frustration to the short-tempered Nubian, but he loves Nawara, even though it looks as it they will never achieve their simple goals of water and a roof over their heads. Instead of helping them, the revolution is paralysing their economy even further.

In retrospect Nawara’s climax was always coming, but it’s an education getting there. Technically this is an efficient production, with sharp visuals and shots at service of the whole piece. Music is restrained, with occasional saccharine bursts which could be palatably diluted for international play.

Production company:  Red Star for Production and Distribution

International sales (outside Middle East); info@redstarfilms.net

Cinematographer; Zaki Aref

Editor: Mona Rabei

Music: Layal Watfeh

Cast: Menna Shalabi. Mahmoud Hemeda, Shereen Reda, Amir Salah Eldin, Ragaa Hussein, Ahmet Rateb