Last November an underground screening of the film The Nile Hotel Incident was shut down by Egyptian police in Cairo. The official explanation? The film had not been approved for screening by the country’s censorship board. Before this raid, the film had been removed from the lineup of the annual Panorama of the European Film Festival for, as organizers put it, “reasons beyond our control.”
The Nile Hotel Incident chronicles a brutal murder and cover-up, framed against the backdrop of the outbreak of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. A construction magnate appears to be behind the murder of Lalena, a locally known singer and escort. As the film’s protagonist police major Noredin Mostafa begins to dig into the case it becomes clear that powerful people don’t want the truth getting out.
Preventing the screening of this film may seem to send a message about freedom of expression in a country widely criticized for stifling the voices of its citizens. But anyone working in the music, film, or television industry in Egypt is well acquainted with how the governmental body operates. Make no mistake: This film was not made to be shown in Egypt.
Beyond the controversial story, which hits at nearly every weakness and social ill plaguing the country, the cinematographic choices, including sex scenes and nudity, would have precluded the film from ever obtaining approval — a fact that any Egyptians working on the film would have known well. The Egyptian connections to the film are there, but filmmaker Tarik Saleh is Swedish of Egyptian descent, and the main character is played by the Swedish-Lebanese Fares Fares. The film itself was shot in Morocco and Germany.
There is intense suspicion in the country around these types of productions. While many celebrate international recognition — and this film has received much including the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival — many question why Egyptians would want to make their country look bad or what the intentions of their funders are. Conservative Egyptians, who make up the majority, would immediately dismiss a film like this, which they would argue encourages sexual misconduct and social depravity. But the film exposes several realities in the country that most would like to pretend don’t exist, or may simply be ignorant of by virtue of their social status.
The film showcases the usual suspects of a movie about Egypt for international consumption: Corrupt police, marginalized women, a disenfranchised population, and a cruel and untouchable ruling class. However, what makes this film different is not only the skill with which it exposes the many ailments of Egyptian society then and now, but also its focus on aspects often neglected in films of this type: most notably the lives of Sudanese migrants stuck in limbo, unable to legally work, and terrified of being deported back to their country of origin. For example, Salwa, who works undocumented as a maid at the hotel and the only witness to a murder, would rather face the consequences of disclosing what she witnessed than risk being deported back to Sudan. The depth displayed in this thread of the film is in no small part due to the performance of Mari Malek as Salwa. Malek herself fled South Sudan at 18, spending four years in Egypt before being granted refugee status in the US and moving with her family to New Jersey.
If you’re paying attention, this film explains many things that are often missed in discourse about Egypt. The divisions between police, military and state security, for example, are clearly depicted both through the outbreak of the revolution and the intervention of state security in the investigation, showing the stress, exhaustion, and helplessness felt by Egyptians across the social spectrum. The sources may vary (and let us not for a second compare the complaints of the elites with those struggling to find food), but the result is one and fairly depicted here: Substance abuse and escapism.
Overall The Nile Hotel Incident is nuanced and compelling. But this film is one that will be (and has been) received very differently by different audiences, and for good reason.