The assured feature debut of Egyptian-born director Hala Lotfy, Coming Forth by Day (Al-khoroug lel-nahar, 2012) follows a meandering 24 hours in the life of a thirty-something Cairo inhabitant. Following a world premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (where it scooped an award), Lotfy’s film made its European bow at the 63rd Berlinale earlier this year. Always likely to garner more acclaim on the festival circuit than on general release in English-speaking territories, the film is deliberately slow and evokes the sparse style of modern European arthouse cinema – albeit in the hands of a fledgling filmmaker from North Africa.
Soad (Donia Maher) lives in a suffocatingly still apartment with her elderly mother (Salma Al-Naggar) and invalid father (Ahmad Lutfi) on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital. Ostensibly trapped inside the property, almost the entire first hour of the 97-minute film is consumed by the mundanity of the two women patiently caring for the ailing paterfamilias amid the musty environs. Through evocative sound design, the hustle and bustle of the city constantly blares in via the windows but fails to breech the thick atmosphere inside leaden with mortality.
Throughout Coming Forth by Day, the audience is quietly privy to the strained relationship between mother and daughter in both moments of frustration and touching compassion. The oppressive airlessness is pierced when Soad takes her father out to the balcony, but the perceptible fresh air dissipates when the drudgery of caring swiftly reinstates itself. Slowly, a chiaroscuro picture is painted, not just of the two women in relation to one another, but also a disarming portrait of their subsequent pseudo-institutionalisation. In the evening, Soad finally leaves the house to go to a beauty parlour, but her discomfort in the wider world quickly takes on familiar traits of someone struggling to adjust to freedom.
It becomes apparent that both women have allowed the invalid to dictate their lives and have, to some degree, been imprisoned by this. Shuffling around their small apartment there is a constant sense of longing for outside, but once their Soad seems rather alien as she struggles to connect with people or understand them. This is where Lotfy’s film loses its way a little, as the camera escorts its subject in long and watchful takes through the city. Where a palpable burden weighed heavy in the opening hour, the final third appears as uncertain as its protagonist; fortunately, it’s not listless enough to completely derail proceedings.
Whilst it’s not going to be one to seek out for fans of fast-paced, action-packed fare, those for whom contemplative cinema is regularly on the menu will likely devour this with great relish. Coming Forth by Day is undoubtedly slow, but it’s beautifully shot, beguiling and moving – and may well herald the arrival from the Arab world of a new female auteur to get excited about.
Coming Forth by Day (Al-khoroug lel-nahar) will receive its UK premiere at the Birds Eye Film Festival on 6 April. For more info, visit whatson.bfi.org.uk.