Out on the Street: Playing the ‘good guys’

Barra fil Sharaa (Out on the Street, 2015) starts abruptly with jittery, fuzzy footage of a derelict building and warped growling noises. “Every morning the workers met inside this factory,” announces a slow, poetically annunciating voice, likely belonging to the man holding the mobile phone that’s recording the scene. “Good morning, Mr. So and So! Good morning, Mr. So and So! Roll calls, new mornings… Today, destruction reigns over the factory, and the only sound you can hear is birdsong.”

This man’s use of inadequate visuals and poetic drama to bear witness sets the tone for Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk’s experimental cinematic adaptation of what seems to be a real struggle through which a group of Egyptian workers took over their workplace after a murky, underhanded privatization process.

There are various types of scene in Out on the Street. We transition from the factory to the high downtown Cairo rooftop that will be the setting for the rest of the film, making use of an arty slow-motion moment in which the camera gazes down at the roof’s stone-tiled floor and up at the stretched canvas providing cover. We’re in the hands of professional filmmaking equipment now  we can tell from the crystal-clear image  and the growling has been adapted into a brief haunting soundtrack. Turning a corner, we come across men sitting in darkness, one recalling being apprehended by police on his way to work. We cut to two men acting out the scene in bright light, as an onlooking teenage boy suppresses a smile.  

The set-up never over-explains itself. We figure out as much as we can, as the men paint a map of the factory on the rooftop floor, perform exercises (which we learn from the credits are part of an acting workshop led by Jacob Lindfor), or take on roles to passively receive or authoritatively act out the absurdly illogical lectures of corrupt bosses. (“I really need you to trust me right now. Don’t think of me as your boss. I want everyone to feel like this is their factory.”)

At another point, the camera watches the men looking at a hanging sheet, on which is projected footage of themselves acting, or a factory scene from an old film (the credits tell us it’s Hossam Eddin Mostafa’s 1963 The Sunglasses). We also see acted-out press interviews slip into real out-of-character interviews (with the filmmakers acting as interlocutor in both). In the deliberately slow finale, we become aware of current events during the film’s shooting in 2012, as the cast wait uncertainly and we hear helicopters flying overhead. 

There is a lot of humor in the process, as well as inevitable vulnerability. At a couple of points, there is something like confused discomfort on the men’s faces — for example, when as a group they re-enact the sounds of a machine in the factory. At others the brutality of remembered humiliation can only be warded off by awkward laughter — when talking of mysteriously being kept in a police station from 9 am to 2 am with nothing to eat or drink, and not having LE30 to pay for freedom, and so gaining it instead for two ear-ringing slaps.

During the re-enactment of a strike, the acting is increasingly good enough to absorb us, to make us believe the story and be as enraged by it as they are. The film ends up focusing most on one particular man who has a great deal of on-screen charisma, and the relaxed skill to perfectly recreate the jiggling puppet-like bombast of the bully.

Out on the Street has an obvious left-wing political alignment, a clear-cut point about empowering labor and demonizing capital and corrupt power, and it was apparently made with very limited resources. Arguably, there is no better recipe for a bad film, and many of those have been made with the same limitations and emotional investment — although also, it should be said, a few really good ones (like Atef al-Tayeb’s The Bus Driver and Youssef Chahine’s The Land). Out on the Street manages to dodge the terrible fate of poor political art that compensates for its lack of anything exciting with a righteous self-image.

Its sharply thoughtful approach, both politically and aesthetically, keeps you surprised, on the edge of your seat. It takes its narrative to the extreme and totally theatricalizes the story while maintaining respect for both the audience and the actors, most of whom seem to be playing themselves or those who oppressed them in real life. The workers happen to have gone through an interesting story with significant symbolism for what the country as a whole was going through — indeed one points out that the factory was like a miniature Egypt. With the help of their acting coach, they pull off very convincing performances, playing out complex scenes that draw the features of their story.

The film is aware of itself, its characters and the conditions in which it was made. Everything is a mock-up of reality: The actors are not actors, the location is a bunch of painted lines on the floor, and machine noises are human produced through humming and clapping. Very gently, the film eases us into a state of illusion without exploiting it or over-romanticizing its aesthetics.

Instead of saying, “Well, I can’t shoot this movie the way you expect me to, so deal with it,” it seems to say, “This is how we shot this movie and you might like it!” Out on the Street cleverly and calmly controls your expectations from the very beginning, and uses its cinematic tools to weave through its limitations confidently toward its point.

A few minutes in, you know it isn’t going to try to suspend your disbelief through high production values, yet sedate camera movements and editing force you to respect the action and share the filmmakers’ interest in it. In paying close attention to the unprofessional acting and the actors’ interpretation of the script and feelings, you manage to isolate the surroundings or use the colors and compositions to imagine what the real situation was like and examine the body language and facial expressions used. The acting style and sense of humor are fresh and different, as Metwaly and Rizk seem to have largely left what they found intact and allow the characters to run the show — just like in reality when they actually did manage to run things.

This sort of formula — an experiment involving real people, especially when class differences are involved — has a tendency to exploit people, exoticize them, put the way they look and talk on show. But because a relationship based on respect seems to have existed, we do not feel that the filmmakers separate themselves from the people or patronize them or find them particularly novel because of their class or background. Instead, the movie’s weirdness mostly comes from its formal decisions, which reflect — in an honest way — the alienation intellectuals usually suffer in societies where huge gaps exist in terms of income, education and opportunities for communication generally.

It is inspiring to watch people living these small moments of pretending while what they’re saying is something they seem to very genuinely believe in, that means so much to their existence and understanding of justice. One can’t disconnect that from Egypt’s revolution in general, nor from political struggle and political art in general. We’ve seen many debates about integrity and originality in which art serves as a chant machine, a thin superficial layer that reformulates an extremely complicated issue into one simple exaggerated narrative in order to reach a mass audience and gather support or compassion.

Here we watch “the good guys” being “the good guys,” and think about how much of their performances are just re-runs of lines and positions already played out in reality while also thinking of themselves as “the good guys.”

This is the first feature by Metwaly and Rizk, who have been working together on short films since 2011. Produced by Seen Films, it won best feature at the Festival Internacional De Cine Latino Árabe and showed at the Venice Biennale last year as part of an installation that included tiles from the rooftop location.

Zawya is screening Out on the Street starting January 13 for one week. The film premieres there on January 10 at 6.30 pm in the presence of the filmmakers. Note: One phrase of this text has been edited out to reflect the final version of the film.


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