Director: AB Shawky
Cast: Rady Gamal, Ahmed Abdelhafiz
What constitutes beauty, family, freedom? Yomeddine forces us to reconsider our responses to these questions. It’s unlikely that you’ve seen a film like this before. Yomeddine is a film about leprosy and it features an actor, Rady Gamal, who has the condition. Gamal’s hands are disfigured. Another character in the film describes his face as a hammered nail. This is a heartbreaking story but neither Gamal nor debutant director A. B. Shawky want our pity. Instead they make a persuasive argument for looking beyond the obvious.
The title Yomeddine is Egyptian for ‘judgment day’. Gamal plays Beshay, a man afflicted with leprosy who has spent most of his life living in a leper colony, where he was left by his father. Beshay is no longer contagious and after his wife dies, he decides to go back to his hometown and find the parents who abandoned him. His partner in this journey is his beloved donkey and a 10-year-old orphan, whose name curiously, is Obama. Yomeddine is a buddy movie, a road movie, a character study and a coming-of-age movie all rolled into one. And driving it is Beshay’s quest for dignity.
The film’s naturalistic style makes the narrative matter-of-fact
Shawky doesn’t tiptoe around the damage that leprosy has inflicted on Beshay. In the first few seconds of the film, we see close-ups of his gnarled hands. Beshay is rummaging through a pile of garbage for things to sell. The first dialogue in the film sets the tone – Beshay asks another man if he has found anything good. The man replies, “It’s all garbage” and Beshay laughs. A little later, when he enters the colony, Beshay cheerfully says, “Greetings, sick people”. Very quickly, we start to see beyond Beshay’s physicality. We see his wit, a flash of temper, his tenderness toward his sick wife. Shawky presents him not as exhibit A to be gawked at but a fleshed-out character rendered with profound empathy.
Rady Gamal and Ahmed Abdelhafiz are non-professional actors. Both have screen presence and charisma
Beshay and Obama’s journey – on donkey, lorries, trains and boat – is tough. Beshay’s facial scars make people recoil. There is one harrowing scene on a train in which Beshay is being pushed around and eventually, he shouts – I’m a human being. His desolation is reflected in the starkness of the Egyptian landscapes, which are captured beautifully by cinematographer Federico Cesca. The film’s naturalistic style makes the narrative matter-of-fact. The story might become sentimental and the flashbacks are structurally clumsy but it doesn’t veer into sappy or manipulative. Gamal and Ahmed Abdelhafiz, who plays Obama, are non-professional actors. Shawky found Gamal when he made a documentary on a leper colony north of Cairo. But both have screen presence and charisma. Even when the plot meanders, you enjoy their company.
At one point in Yomeddine, a character explains that they are all outcasts and there is no cure for that. But in this film, the outcasts are the heroes. They have generosity and spirit and despite their grim circumstances, the ability to smile. There is much to learn here. I strongly recommend you see this film.