Dismantling moral binaries: Ahmad Abdalla’s EXT. Night questions class and gender dynamics in post-2013 Cairo

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival marked the premiere of Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla’s Lail Khargi (EXT. Night, 2018). In his fifth feature to date, Abdalla examines social inequality in Cairo with loving precision via a trio of unlikely companions. The result is a plot line that reads like a bar joke but is at the same time an honest portrayal of a struggling city.

Set over the course of 24 hours, EXT. Night follows Moe (Karim Kassem), a disenchanted filmmaker sustaining himself through advertising gigs after the failure of his first film. His girlfriend has just left him, he’s disenchanted by his commercial gig and his friend has been detained for publishing “a profanity-laden” novel (a stand-in for writer Ahmed Naji, who was convicted on charges of obscenity in 2015). His life is essentially highly predictable, limited by the confines of his upper-middle social class. This status-quo is disrupted, however, when a debacle involving a driver, Mostafa (Sherif El Desouky) and a sex worker who goes by the name Toutou (Mona Hala) takes him on a nighttime adventure far from his social milieu.   

The bulk of the film takes place inside the cramped quarters of a taxi cab. In Egypt, riding cabs is a necessary evil, and Abdalla uses the familiar trope of the irritating driver to emphasize the complicated class dynamics of the city. Mostafa is an archetypal amalgamation of the various representations of Cairene taxi drivers — the hustler, the pervert, the nosy chatterbox. He preaches about piety yet isn’t above the sin. He represents a socially conservative majority that often tasks itself with policing public morality via unsolicited preaching, the taxi being a literal vehicle for critiquing what he deems to be the disintegration of Egyptian morals.

Take, for instance, a crucial scene that reveals the polarizing opinions of individuals from different class backgrounds in Cairo. When Mostafa hears Moe and his friend Dina (Donia Maher) speak about their plan to publicly denounce their friend’s imprisonment by publishing recordings of artists condemning it online, he interrupts their conversation to explain that people like them — with wealth and class status — have a duty to use their reach and influence to safeguard public morality instead.

Yet insightful social commentary isn’t the film’s only merit. EXT. Night explores the narrative exchanges between three people from different class backgrounds without performativity or excessive sentimentality. The connections in the film do not feel forced; each character is complex in their own way. This is most evident in Hala’s performance as Toutou, the intelligence and sensitivity of which cinches the film together.

In the Q&A session that followed the film’s screening in Toronto, Abdalla spoke about his long-held interest in creating a film from the perspective of a woman. The task, he said, proved a little more complicated than he’d originally imagined. “I don’t think I can ever, ever, ever, put the real point of view of a woman in Cairo in my films. I will never feel the same stress, I will never feel what [women] go through every day. But what I can do — what I decided to do — is to dedicate my next films to telling the stories of women.” He goes on to cite veteran Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah as an inspiration, who, according to Abdalla, once declared Egyptian cinema dead for “having given up on telling the stories of women.” And so we have Toutou.

Hala’s layered performance as Toutou, bold and aggressive at times and thoughtful and sensitive at others, makes her the heart of EXT. Night. The film’s portrayal of sex work is unsentimental; it spares Toutou the stereotypes that reduce sex workers from fully fleshed out characters to cautionary tales or objects of redemption. In fact, the nature of Toutou’s work and her intelligence inform her relationships, as we can see from her interactions with the two men in the film. Through her work, she has honed her ability to navigate the temperaments of men in a society that safeguards their birthright as stewards of violence.

When Mostafa’s hand crashes down on her face in a firm slap that is as shocking as it is mundane, she doesn’t utter a word. Later, in the dingy light of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant’s bathroom, her movements are soft and careful. She exudes elegance as she takes up the all-too-familiar gesture of reapplying lipstick with practiced, nearly unconscious focus, sniffling slightly.

Furthermore, Toutou is the only character who seems to question Moe’s motives. If he is, as he claims, a filmmaker, a graduate of the American University in Cairo, a man whose class status endows him with social mobility, why would he choose to spend his night with a sex worker and a taxi driver? She accuses him of mining content for a future film, and we all ponder it for a second. It seems plausible that she’s onto something, but she doesn’t care enough to investigate it further. Toutou is presented as a woman who is intent on exercising her right to choose in a city intent on thwarting it: she’s determined to participate in her own narrative.

To maintain the film’s momentum and credibility, Abdalla took inspiration from the 1980s’ films of Egyptian neo-realist directors such as Mohammed Khan and Atef al-Tayeb to document Cairo’s congested vistas. The use of handheld cameras serves a dual purpose: it allows him to circumvent the tedious process of filing for permits to film on the street, as well as lending realism to the film, since he doesn’t have to rely on extras to fill space.

Abdalla’s manipulation of space in the film is a critique of the literal and figurative lack of it in Cairo. Personal and physical space is afforded to certain classes but not others. Using a meta-narrative to take this point further, Abdalla resorts to the film-within-a-film arc, where his protagonist, Moe, struggles to make film about a traveler longing for escape — a seemingly inherent condition of the Egyptian experience as interpreted by Abdalla.

But escape isn’t an option for all of the film’s characters. There are obvious barriers which separate economically deprived areas like Hadayek — where Mostafa resides and where much of the film takes place — from Moe’s comfort zone in Maadi. Any attempt to challenge these is seen as an attempt to turn order into chaos. When the main characters embark on a boozey, drug-fueled night together, for example, they end up in jail, with only Moe’s ministerial connections to save them —  if he should choose to use them. In the societal context portrayed within the film, such a mixture of classes is almost perceived as taboo, something which Abdalla attacks with humor, honesty and intellectual rigor.

EXT. Night takes a sharp turn away from the muffled political criticism in current Egyptian cinema to confront the collective cognitive dissonance required to maintain the country’s socio-political balance. In one of the most honest portrayals of post-2013 Egypt to date, Abdalla dismantles the moral binary of vice and virtue to conduct a more nuanced conversation about gender and class.

Nourhan Hesham 

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