While Middle Eastern cinema seems to be having a fresh resurgence of late, films that shine a light on ordinary people in these countries remain few and far between. With an industry all but decimated by years of political and religious unrest in the area, many fans of Arab cinema have had to content themselves with revisiting old favourites.
In What Comes Around, first-time documentarian Reem Saleh delves into the lives of a small poverty-stricken community in the heart of Cairo, Egypt, and attempts to provide an insight on how community spirit could be as valuable as any governmental aid in a country where the majority of people still live below the breadline.
Saleh presents a raw account of daily hardship in one of the most overpopulated capital in the world. Centring the narrative around a group of people living in the Rod El Farag area of Cairo, the director allows those whose voices are seldom heard, to speak freely about their hopes and fears. In the absence of an adequate welfare state, many communities in Egypt have had to rely on a each other when it comes to plugging holes at the end of each month. Organising their own credit unions in which each neighbour is expected to contribute towards a monthly kitty, the sum is then awarded to the person who needs it the most each month.
Deliberately avoiding all talk surrounding political unrest or the recent events in Tahrir Square, you get the impression that Saleh is less interested in making a political point and rather more concerned in representing her subjects’ in the most honest way. Saleh manages to advance a globalist humanitarian discourse by allowing her subjects to interact which each other in the most natural of ways. While never shying away from allowing them to tell their own harrowing stories, the director also allows for more lighthearted moment to be depicted. In a country where women are at the heart of the community, we soon realise that these women will not allow themselves to be the victims of poverty. Taking their own destinies onto their hands, they have built a real infrastructure and system of trust which will remain unshaken no matter what.
What Comes Around is as visceral in its representation of poverty as it is hopeful in the way it represents the resilience of those it depicts. A raw and deeply affecting documentary which is likely to touch the hearts of all those who come across it. Saleh proves again that more can be done to encourage female filmmakers in countries where women are still battling for representation in all aspects of society.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 15-25 February. Follow our coverage here.