Ahmed Fawzi Saleh's debut feature, Poisonous Roses, which played as part of the ongoing Cairo International Film Festival, is a shocking look at the unsavoury conditions in a city's leather tannery district. It certainly reminded me of the deplorable state of India's own tanneries.
The young Egyptian director, whose work attracted a full house with tickets sold out two days before the show, probably decided to make his movie shocking all the way. His plot of a near incestuous relationship between a brother and sister was seen as being more dramatic than revelatory. In fact, we never seem to understand the real reason for the good looking sister, Taheya (Koky), to be so possessively affectionate towards her sibling, Saqr (Ibrahim El-Nagary). A guess can be that their impoverished lives push her to keep Saqr around her, his income from his tannery job supplementing her own meagre earnings from cleaning public toilets.
However, the film's source material, Ahmed Zaghloul Al-sheety’s influential 1990 novel “Poisonous Roses for Saqr”, hints that Taheya can be a contemporary ISIS-like woman with her suffocating over-protective tendencies.
Poisonous Roses is visually disturbing. The images of waste pouring out of pipes into public spaces that people have to traverse through day in and day out, and the carts laden with animal hides are sights that are awfully disgusting, and like the recent Cannes Competition entry, Yomeddine, which got an actual leper to act, Saleh's movie is also an attempt to thrust the truth on to us. So what if the truth is ugly. It must be shown and told.
The plot, though, is rather threadbare, and the director is often forced to repeat the scenes. For instance, we see Taheya carrying lunch to her brother at his work place several times. She uses the same public bus and the same dirty, stench-ridden alleyways overflowing with waste. There is no variation, and we see the same sullen Saqr eating the food. He is clearly unhappy and wants to escape to Italy as an illegal immigrant, but his effort is checkmated by Taheya, who gets police help to bring him back.
Finally, one must laud the actors for getting into a film that could not have been easy to shoot – the actual locations that the director chose must have been nauseating.
(Author and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival)