With Coming Forth by Day, Hala Lotfy made a debut feature unlike most other Egyptian films. Conceived of and produced just before the Revolution, by Lotfy's own company Hassala Films, the film won awards at Abu Dhabi (the FIPRESCI Award and Best Director in the Arab World) and was supported through the AFAC and SANAD funds. Edited by Heba Othman and production designed by Chahira Mouchir, it is an entirely female effort in a male-dominated film industry. It is also a film that goes against the grain of a film industry largely defined by straightforward narratives and stereotypically character-led stories.
One may have come to expect certain things from Egyptian cinema, on the one hand, and from revolutionary cinema on the other. The grand narratives of Egyptian cinema can be summed up by the expectations regarding stars, gender roles and fast-paced narrative constructions. Likewise, revolutionary cinema is usually typified by unambiguous ideology and a clear political agenda. Coming Forth by Day, however, is one of the exemplary films to come out of Egypt that defies expectations and paints a willful image of the Revolutionary atmosphere just before and since the revolutionary year 2011.
Among the most widely critically-acclaimed Egyptian from around the time of the Revolution were Ibrahim el Batout's Winter of Discontent (2012), about a country held hostage by those in power; Tamer El Said's In the Last Days of the City (2016), a melancholic love-hate ode to Cairo, a city in pain; and Mohamed Diab's Clash (2016) which depicts Cairo's highly claustrophobic atmosphere. These three films defied expectations in the sense that they were Revolutionary films in understated ways: their pace is slow and they are aesthetically challenging. In this new Egyptian cinema, of which the three aforementioned films are just the best known, there is a general resistance to explaining, or narrating, the Revolution. Rather, filmmakers are interested in depicting the atmosphere, of dealing with the stillness of life in spite of the Revolution.
In this way, time— and especially the slowness of time— is one of the main aspects that have come to define Egyptian filmmaking since 2010. Hala Lotfy's Coming Forth by Day is an outstanding example of this impetus for the stretching of time. It is a stylistic strength that indicates a deep awareness of change, a meditation on history and future, and a percipient handling of moments. The Revolution and the change a Revolution is intended to bring, as a long and slow process, is condensed into a Revolutionary moment in these films.
Hala Lotfy's film thrives on the slow movements of slow people, on the banality of tragedy, and on the depiction of loneliness. In the 24 hours within which the film takes place, the narrative is replaced with impressions and sensations rather than action and sensational happenings. The film aims to activate instinctual senses rather than any intellectual or revolutionary impulses.
The film's protagonist, Soad, is a thirty-something woman who lives at home with her parents. Her father suffers from immobility due to a previous heart attack. He is bed-bound and silent. Soad's mother is an exhausted nurse who barely communicates with her daughter. The flat is cold and dark and quiet even though it is summer outside; we hear fragments of the hustle and bustle of life on the Cairo streets. Hardly any dialogue takes place inside the flat.
As such, the film depicts the stasis of everyday life in Egypt before the Revolution. It shows a sense of slavery to solitude and an acceptance of what one cannot change. Coming Forth by Day thrives on a quiet and non-judgmental observational quality, emphasized through long takes and slow movements, providing suggestions rather than an obvious or outspoken political spirit. The absence of a tight plot works in favor of the visual image and the beauty of integrity. In fact, human tragedies, everyday injustices, political oppression and social suffering are of no importance to the plot. They are not the topic, they are just there. This is precisely where the Revolutionary spirit of the film lies— in its power to reveal the everyday banality of injustice in the Egyptian capital.
The first half of the film transpires inside the flat, ensuring a unity of space as well as a claustrophobic and ghost-like setting for the stasis with which the characters are struggling. It is a space of the dead and the non-living. A languid camera that hardly moves reflects the stillness of life— the filmmaker stages time rather than a narrative with a beginning, middle and ending.
Coming Forth by Dayis therefore a philosophical meditation on time and mortality, on the endlessness of time and the timelessness of life and death. Indeed, the preoccupation with the living dead is explored in the centerpiece of the film, in which Soad finally breaks out of the flat and goes on an aimless tour of a seemingly absent city. Cairo is made up of strangers, unfamiliar places and a complete lack of a sense of home. Her short time on a microbus initially seems to offer some respite to her loneliness, as a young woman starts a conversation with her. But it soon turns out this woman is a ghostlike figure equally haunted, and struggling to find someone who can help her to set herself free from the ghosts of the past. The ghosts of the present haunt Soad, and her inability to find common ground with anyone emphasizes the lack of awareness within Egypt of a common history or a common future.
The city of Cairo itself thus turns out to be a city of the dead. After a long night of aimless wanderings and witnessing her own and others' understated struggle with the dysfunctional city, Soad visits the actual City of the Dead, the necropolis in Cairo. The camera waits restlessly outside, acting as a witness to unadorned injustices. Social injustice, sectarianism, sexual oppression and religious compartmentalization are observed as from a distance and taken for granted, as is mortality. These cool observations foreshadow a breaking point that never arrives— the film remains a still life, a meditation on time's unchanging qualities. It reflects on what is, in the moment, rather than on causality and that which was or that which will be, as if the Revolution is not and never has been the answer or the solution to Cairo's problems.
The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, or, in its literal translation, the Book of Coming Forth by Day, consists of a number of texts that can be described as spells used to assist the person dying to travel into the underworld, the afterlife, in the company of Osiris. There is not one authorized version of this text, as some families had their dead accompanied by an individually selected number of spells, selections made based on a trust in particular spells for the transition. When Soad wanders into the City of the Dead, an area of graves and mausoleums, now used as the living quarters of the poorest Cairenes, the atmosphere shifts. For some, living among the dead and among ancestors is a blessing— for others, the City of the Dead is the slum they have been driven into, where drug dealing and other crime is everyday reality.
In Coming Forth by Day, the City of the Dead is depicted as a space of meditation for Soad: she sits down and watches dawn arrive slowly, as she turns her thoughts inward and reflects on her reality alone. This moment, while dark and still like the rest of the film, offers relief as the silence turns into a sense of peace inside Soad's head. As the dead and the non-living have been suffocating one another in the flat, in the City of the Dead they live peacefully side by side, and as Soad witnesses the sun come up over the city she finds purpose in going home and accepting death. She transitions into the light, into a new day, that offers some solace as she walks home and, with her mother, accepts that her father will soon pass on into the afterlife as well. The last dialogue in the film between Soad and her mother, reveals an acceptance of the father's death: "Where are we going to bury him? Where is our cemetery located?" The question goes unanswered.
Essay by Dr. Stefanie Van De Peer Associate Research Fellow University of Exeter