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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Yomeddine, Review: Disability or this ability?

Yomeddine, Review: Disability or this ability?

Unlikely companions embark on an impossible journey, to trace their roots, hundreds of miles away, on a donkey cart, with little money and barest of supplies. Both, the journey and the destination, hold many surprises for the two, some pleasant, some very unpleasant. On the way, they offer you a tribute to the indomitable human spirit, but also make you realise that in a society of regulars and normals, the irregular and abnormal cannot find their own place.

Yomeddine, meaning Judgement Day, is a word taken from the basic Muslim prayer of ‘Alhamdulillah-e-Rabb-il-Alameen, Maalik-e-Yomeddine (or deen)…’. A fully cured 40 year-old Coptic (an Egyptian Christina order) leper called Beshay lives in a leper colony in north Egypt, and does scavenging for a living. Every day, he goes to ‘Garbage Mountain’ and sifts through piles of rubbish, to find the occasional transistor radio or some trinket that he can sell to a junk buyer, for a pittance. His wife is in the mental hospital, not far from the colony, in a serious condition, and he misses her a lot. ‘Obama’, a Nubian, so called for his dark skin and curly hair, is a boy living in the attached orphanage. Obama loves football and also likes Beshay a lot.

As he is scavenging one day, news comes of his wife’s passing way. This breaks Beshay’s heart, although the entire colony rallies around him, to lend any needed support. He accepts no support. Suddenly, a woman comes to pay condolences, and identifies herself as his wife's mother. Beshay is dumbfounded. He did not know anything about his mother-in-law, and had married his love in the colony, assuming she had no relatives. Where did she appear from? He guesses that the colony’s administrators have records of the inmates’ families, and demands he be shown his records.

Unable to read his dossier, he is told that his family came from Qena, in the South, and his father had left him at the colony when he was a child. With no family left in the colony, and perhaps fed-up of the drudgery and routine, he decides to embark on a journey to Qena, which is his birth-place, to seek his family. Having no idea how far Qena is, and having never ventured beyond his small town, he takes his donkey-cart and all his belongings, and sets forth. Unknown to him, Obama is travelling as a stowaway.

As a debut for writer-director Abu Bakr Shawky, Yomeddine is a remarkable film. His theory ideas have been honed at New York’s Tisch School of the Media (he studied political science and cinema in Cairo earlier), he lives in Cairo/Austria. To be selected for the Academy Award nomination from Egypt is a real honour, never mind that it did not make it to the final list. Being shown at Cannes, where it bagged the François Chalais Award, was another milestone.

Ten years to fruition, it all began with taking a bold step and casting non-professionals in almost all roles, including the two protagonists. Egyptian independent producer Mohamed Hefzy’s Film Clinic is a co-producer of the project that was for long doing the rounds as a speculative venture. It was developed from his own short film, The Colony, that chronicled tales of the residents of the Abu Zaabal leper colony. Yomeddine has its protagonist suffering from leprosy, but he treats Beshay’s plight “in a light-hearted manner,” highlighting, instead, “his spirit in the face of misery--a universal trait of Egyptians as a whole,” the director has said. Yomeddine was partly funded by El-Gouna festival’s Cinegouna Platform, and is produced by American-Egyptian producer Dina Emam.

As soon as you read the words ‘orphanage’, ‘leper colony’, ‘mental hospital’ and ‘garbage mountain’, tears are already welling up in your eyes. Then, the leper’s wife dies. Now you are more or less shattered. Shawky then decides enough is enough, and as a kind of catharsis, he sends Beshay and Obama on a road-trip that will see them encountering the worst of humanity and human kindness at its best. That the two can survive without any money for days on end, even after their donkey dies, is a measure of resilience that many regular humans would find daunting. Shawky also makes sure that they travel on all modes of transport, except aeroplanes (that would be completely out of character), on land and water. These two meet three other men who are physically challenged in even more severe ways than Beshay is—one of them has no legs, yet those three live life with no bitterness at all. In fact, they play a key role in furthering Beshay and Obama’s cause.

Almost all scenes are so realistically written and shot that you might find it difficult to fault Shawky anywhere. Yet, let’s try and put the film under the scanner. Perhaps there is not enough motivation shown for Obama to join the journey. Maybe the records of the two protagonists are very easily accessed (never mind the mention of fine Egyptian bureaucracy); the nods to Vittorio De Sica, Iranian films and even our own Kitaab (by Gulzar); the dig at American influences on Egypt—the magazine cover with Warren Beatty and Madonna in Dick Tracy, and the shopkeeper who is listening to music on earphones but does not help Beshay get directions to Qena; the naming of the Nubian boy as Obama (his real name is Mohammed); the resorting to begging by Beshay and the assertion of territorial authority by another beggar—are tropes, in the end. That they are well-used and executed with sincerity is undeniable.

An example where an expected development ends unexpectedly is when Obama invites Beshay to take a dip in the river, where a group of women and children are bathing and washing. Beshay reluctantly agrees, only to earn the ire of the group, who are terrified that his leprosy might be contagious. Expected. As they get back to the shore, Obama spits into the water. Unexpected. Obama devising a straw hat with a veil so that Beshay’s leper face is not visible is a tour de force. Two religious references need to be mentioned. In the first, the Coptic takes refuge in a mosque and even offers prayer, which has a historical precedent in Islam and Sikhism, when it is strongly believed that Guru Nanak went to a mosque in Mecca, dressed as a Haji. In the second, the man giving the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, is a Black Muslim, reminding us of Bilal, an early, black convert to Islam, who was invited to make the first ever Islamic call to prayer. Also, the bonding between Beshay and Obama is highly symbolic, what with Hussein being Barack Obama’s middle name. Guess how Beshay addresses his fellow inmates of the colony? "Sick people!"

Rady Gamal plays himself, and that is not easy. In real-life, he works at a pharmacy. (Ironical that a former leper is employed in the business of dispensing medicines)! Playing one’s self, with such Brechtian distancing, is remarkable. Of course, the two months of preparation and two weeks of learning dialogue must have been crucial, but that is so common nowadays, isn’t it? Some awards would be in order. Playing second fiddle is another debutant, the young Ahmed Abd Elhafiz, who is another natural. He confessed that for the first two days, he kept looking at the camera, till Shawky convinced him to ignore its existence altogether. And boy, did that work! A very intimate portrayal that augurs well for a full-fledged career. 

Cinematographer Federico Cesca (Patti Cake$, Roxanne Roxanne) uses a lot of long-shots and wide-angle shots to highlight the panoramic views of the journey. (The banner is Desert Highway Pictures)! One shot in silhouette wherein Beshay watches revelry on a night ferry, his back to the camera, stays with you forever. Deliberately, close-ups of the leper’s disease scars and warts are avoided, though his disfigured hands are prominently and repeatedly seen. Erin Greenwell edits with flair, using the standard technique of the dialogue of the next scene coming in before the present scene is over. She often cuts to a blank frame in which the character(s) appear(s) a second later. Sometimes, the action is a little faster than the mood of the film, but then how does one restrict it to 99 minutes? Original music by Omar Fadel is among the precious assets of the movie. Not only does it help transitions, it provides another dimension to the narrative, moving along parallel to the story-track, coming closer on occasion, drifting away on others.

While Yomeddine just falls short of being an outstanding film, it is heart-warming, touching, philosophising, captivating and truly worth-watching. In the end it achieves what no self-help book can: pay tribute to the human spirit, without fatuous arguments, blaming you for all your troubles and insisting that because x, y and z could surmount obstacles and attain greatness, so can you. No such posturing here. The end is not easy to predict. But in the end, the film is not about disability. Rather, it is about this ability to survive and make the most of what is given to us.

Srinivasan Narayanan and Sanjay Suri continue to do yeoman’s service to the cause of good cinema, by distributing acclaimed, non-Hollywood films in India, at least on the vkaao (cinema bookings on demand) platform: Shoplifters, Ash is the Purest White, and now, Yomeddine. I gather seven more films will be released by their partnership companies in the coming months. More power to their commitment. Cheers to good international cinema!

Rating: *** ½


(Note: In Arabic, d and z, as well as g and j, are often interchangeable, like in Ramadan and Ramazan, and Gamal and Jamal).


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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