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Photocopy: A story of evolution, told through Instagram filters

During the first edition of El Gouna Film Festival, the cast of Photocopy (2017) — along with a full house of eager guests and moviegoers — gathered for the film’s world premiere in the lavish outdoor theater at the resort town’s New Marina. A few days later, Tamer Ashry’s feature directorial debut was handed the award for Best Arab Feature Film in the festival’s Feature Narrative Competition.

It is definitely easy to relate to Photocopy. The film is a soft, character-driven story about the dilapidated architectural heritage of Cairo’s central neighborhood of Abbasseya, and is saturated in nostalgia over everything that is analogue or hand-painted

In the Q&A following the first screening, the film’s writer Haitham Dabbour told the audience that it isn’t meant to be nostalgic, which I found odd, considering most of the filmmakers’ choices within Photocopy clearly highlight nostalgia as a central theme. Opening shots of Abbasseya — once home to more economically privileged Egyptians before becoming the middle-class neighborhood it is today — focus on its colonial architecture of wide streets and buildings with high ceilings and big open windows, in evident longing for the quickly fading era of Cairo’s socioeconomic history. Not to mention the sepia palette, which makes every frame feel like an Instagram filter, further imposing an unshakable sense of nostalgia.

Perhaps Ashry’s background in advertising is behind this influence, given that recent trends in Egyptian ads have seen the extensive use of similar aesthetics to the same effect. However, his portfolio also includes several documentary films, including Pictures from Gaza (2015) and Sexual Harassment (2013), which may explain the realistic manner with which he approaches the film’s characters.

We first meet Mahmoud, the film’s protagonist (played by veteran actor Mahmoud Hemeida), in a job interview, while he is being asked where he sees himself in five years. It is a question he finds ironic, given that he is almost 60 and leads a stable but predictable life running a photocopy and print shop across the street from his house. Day in and day out, he sits in front of the store in a beret and sweater vest, under a vintage hand-painted sign that reads “Mahmoud Photocopy,” receiving hardly any customers. Once a typist at a newspaper, he was laid off after journalists and editors started using computers and typing themselves. Now he is in a bad financial position, as we come to realize from his repeated attempts to dodge his landlord (Bayoumi Fouad), who constantly nags him about late maintenance payments.

Mahmoud meets various characters in his little shop, most of whom reflect on aspects of an inexplicably romanticized past. A retired potter from Qena, who asks him to type a contract, laments the fact that there’s no longer a need for him to make pottery because people don’t drink from the olla (the traditional clay water cooler) anymore since the advent of refrigerators and plastic bottles.

When pink paint drips over his shop’s sign during the renovation of the building, Mahmoud seeks out the calligrapher who painted it for him, only to find out that he has died. His son says no one paints these signs anymore, and offers to print a digital one instead.

We are also introduced to lonely and diabetic widow Madame Safia (Sherine Reda), who lives in the photocopy shop’s building. A recovering breast-cancer patient, she chooses to visit the pharmacy for her daily insulin shot, since it constitutes her only real human interaction. She fears that if she were to administer it to herself, she would die alone at home and only be found days later. Mahmoud and Madame Safia interact politely, with mildly flirtatious vibes throughout the film’s first act, and it is during one of their scenes together that Photocopy delivers the subtle — almost non-existent — climax of Mahmoud’s storyline.

When a student gives him a research paper on the extinction of dinosaurs to type, Mahmoud asks Madame Safia to read it out for him, since he’s left his glasses at home. As he listens and types, his fascination grows, and he eventually becomes obsessed with the topic. He asks Osama (Aly Eltayeb), the young owner of an internet café next door, to help him search online for the reason dinosaurs became extinct, and starts to collect news clippings of other species near extinction.

We never see the moment in which Mahmoud finds out why dinosaurs disappeared, but the question lies at the core of the film, in that it forces him to look at his life and wonder who will remember him when he’s gone. With no career or children, Mahmoud begins to seek intimacy from the people around him, all denizens of the street corner where most of the film’s scenes are set. He tries to connect with Osama, Abdel Aziz, the building’s teenage porter (Ahmed Dash), Dalia (Farah Youssef), the pharmacist who gives Madame Safia her shots — and, of course, his interest in Madame Safia grows. These supporting roles are well-cast, and the actors deliver skilfully entertaining performances which help carry the film through its 90-minute runtime.

But we are barely given a sense of how the characters got to the point where they are at when we meet them, leaving us wondering why, for instance, Mahmoud is so suddenly forward with Madame Safia after the dinosaur encounter, and what, in turn, the source of her own timidity is. Without a sense of the characters’ backgrounds or inner lives, it becomes hard to grasp the full picture, resulting in a feeling of dissatisfaction that could have easily been avoided. Various events are not driven by the characters’ will or internal changes, but only happen because they serve the writer’s story or offer comic relief. Madame Safia’s son, who is absent throughout the film but emerges as a hurdle the lovers have to overcome, and the shops’ visitors from Sudan and Niger, whom Mahmoud initially suspects of espionage but goes on to connect with, are examples of these uncooked plot elements.

Photocopy relies heavily on its set of relatable but unconvincing characters, and in the absence of a strong structure, it feels incomplete. The film does triumph in creating various moments of genuine human interaction, but these heart-warming scenes are in desperate need of a tighter narrative to bring them together as a solid cinematic work.

The film’s victory in El Gouna is situated against its Arab counterparts: Egypt’s Sheikh Jackson by Amr Salama, which launched the festival, Lebanon’s highly acclaimed The Insult by Ziad Doueiri, which premiered in the official competition at the Venice Film Festival last month and won El Gouna’s Silver Star for Narrative Film, and Faouzi Bensaïdi’s Moroccan production Volubilis, which premiered at the Venice Days event on the fringes of the Venice Film Festival.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist