The Other Land: Channelling the state’s narrative on undocumented migration

The first frame of Al-Barr al-Thani (The Other Land) is a black screen with a thank you note to Nabila Makram, the minister of migration and Egyptian expatriate affairs. Makram also attended the November 19 premier to present the film, which was included in the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) competition, after Tamer El-Said’s The Last Days of the City was removed in October.

According to the lavish booklet handed out at the premier, Makram helped the film crew get their visas to shoot in Spain after they were rejected. She told the audience, who filled up the Cairo Opera House Main Hall, that she hoped the film would raise awareness of the dangers of undocumented sea migration.

The Other Land follows three young Egyptians from generic rural villages who decide to pay a broker to get them passage on a boat carrying approximately 100 young Egyptian men to Italy, in search of a better future for themselves and their families. 

The film, the first Egyptian feature to tackle the topic, comes at a time when a record number of Egyptians are taking to the sea. While the majority of people making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean are refugees from Syria, Palestine and African nations, the number of Egyptians has risen from 344 in 2015 to 2634 in 2016, according to UNHCR data, making Egyptians one of the top 10 nationalities attempting to cross the sea. More than 200 undocumented migrants died at sea in September off northern Egypt’s Rashid.

Directed by Ali Idriss, whose repertoire mostly includes commercial comedies such as Al-Dada Doody (Doody the Nanny, 2008) and Adel Imam’s Al-Tagroba al-Denmarkia (The Danish Experience, 2003), the film is written by his wife and occasional collaborator Zeinab Aziz.

I could write about the characters, why they pay a smuggler to get a spot on a decaying boat, or how life is on the dangerous boat, but there is little to say other than that they’re poor. They’re simply struggling and want to either get married, raise a family or find a new life in Europe. There’s alpha-male Said (played by Mohamed Ali, also the film’s producer), mama’s boy Magdy (Mohamed Mahran), and decent husband and soon-to-be father Emad (Amr El-Kady). Caricaturing conceptions of poor people, they don’t give viewers much to relate to, and give the actors little to work with.

The Other Land relies on what my mother would call waga’ alb (heart-ache) to almost force viewers to sympathize with its characters and undocumented migrants at large. By enforcing a “poor them” narrative, the characters are stripped of their will, and melodrama takes the leading role. It’s similar to Khaled Youssef’s portrayal of his characters in Hena Maysara (When Things Get Better, 2007), which initiated the “slum movie” poverty porn genre. 

The main achievement was to spend the budget — LE25 million, which Mohamed Ali says he generated through his building contracting business — not on big stars but on equipment, a skilled crew and special effects. Most of the film takes place on the boat, and the boat scenes are all handled well technically, and not just by Egyptian film standards. Filming at sea is no easy task, and the Egyptian and Spanish team for the most part keep the film visually appealing.

But the technical achievements and urgently topical subject matter of The Other Land are undermined by the crass enforcement of the state’s narrative on undocumented migration instead of making any sincere attempt to understand why people take to the sea.

It is not just the film’s plot that is insensitive and reductive. Giving premier attendees a boat keychain and a passport on invitation (pictured above) reduced the horrendous obstacles most migrants have to face to mere promotional trinkets. It followed the same marketing approach of inviting people to have their photos taken from behind the bars of a fake paddy wagon at cinemas showing Mohamed Diab’s Eshtebak (Clash) this summer. Both these ploys were by MAD Solutions, a generally respected leading force in regional film marketing.

One of the film’s stars, Afaf Shoeib, who appeared on TV to denounce the protesters in Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising in 2011, gave an interview about irregular migration from the red carpet at CIFF that was transmitted live before screening. “I sympathize with them but I’m also upset with them,” she said. “Egypt is full of opportunity. They just don’t like their salaries and don’t want to work. You find young people sitting in cafes smoking shisha all day. How can they afford that?” On Lamees al-Hadidi’s show Hona al-Asema on November 22, Shoeb said “I hope this film will be a lesson for all Egyptian youth.”

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi made similar statements in his speech after the sinking off the coast of Rashid in September, urging young people to work or invest the money they would give to a smuggler in their own country. The state’s response to the tragedy was almost non-existent, according to eyewitnesses — those who survived were rescued by local fisherman.

Essentially, what Sisi said is what The Other Land says, as could be expected from a film that declares gratitude to a representative of the main state institution dealing with the subject at hand: If you take to the sea, you will suffer, be robbed by corrupt Italian coast guards, and drown. The film is a simplistic and judgemental cautionary tale, rather than a work of art exploring the complex agency of those, as Lina Atallah puts it, who would rather risk their lives at sea than continue living under poverty, injustice and fear.

The Other Land is released in Egyptian cinemas on November 23. 

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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