Dreamaway is imagined by its makers, relayed to its audience and experienced by its subjects in a Sharm El-Sheikh constructed as a desolate kitsch-adorned town overseen by a monkey on a red pick-up truck.
Shot on two occasions between 2013 and 2016, this feature-length documentary, co-directed by Marouan Omara (his fourth) and his two-time collaborator Johanna Domke, follows six young men and women working in the Red Sea town’s failing tourism industry: a room-service worker, a limousine driver, a masseur, a DJ, a diving-center employee, an animation team dancer and a living statue.
Although set in a fictional resort, the documentary is largely based on the real lives of its subjects, whom the directors met through a casting call in 2013. It is presented as an ethnographic amalgam of stories that combines their testimonies with those of other individuals the filmmakers came across in the city. The stories appear carefully collaged by Omara and Domke, perhaps to maintain a coherent narrative or to protect the subjects/actors from social retribution due to the risqué nature of their experiences. The result blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, both in style and content, and tackles a myriad of issues, from the alienation of labor to the performativity of work.
In Sharm El Sheikh’s persistent, seemingly year-long low seasons, the protagonists constantly perform tourist-friendly versions of themselves, each a brand of skilled labor that is essential to the hospitality and tourism industries. They move through a banal landscape of hopelessness, walking demonstrations of the nihilistic resilience it takes to survive in the plot-holes of capitalism.
Taki, a DJ who made a name for himself playing hotel nightclubs such as Space Sharm, finds himself spinning exclusively for the cleaning staff. Horreya announces “Housekeeping!” as she enters yet another empty room and makes the empty beds regardless. Shosha and his animation team dance to archaic EDM for an audience of white chaise longues while Alaa, the masseur, makes towel swans for clients that never come, and Yousra from the diving center washes unused goggles. Hossam struggles to make ends meet, juggling two marriages, passing time in the gym, and waiting around in his limousine for non-existent passengers, while Ramy the human statue paints himself gold, still, although there’s no one to watch.
The film is constructed from 45 hours of footage in which the characters open up to each other or the camera. These characters unfold slowly through the repetitive nature of their labor, conversations orchestrated by the filmmakers based on their fieldwork in the city, and monologues they each wrote with an acting coach (theater artist Salam Yousry), but they never really develop. Their past is addressed through memory, their future through fantasy, the present plays within the plots of their day-to-day. Occasionally, when the fourth wall is set aside, each character delivers a soliloquy, acknowledging the camera’s presence as the field shallows up and the others pose in a blurred background. The subjects’ amateurish and unnatural performances, emphasized in their delivery of dialogue, only complements the film’s portrayal of a distorted reality with a distinctly dreamlike aesthetic. Their lack of chemistry cuts through as a reminder of the staging and orchestration communicated from behind the camera, but also of the fact that it is, after all, a documentary, and they are not actually actors.
Throughout, however, an eighth character seems to direct the narrative, shifting focus to each of the characters alternately and thematizing Dreamaway after its name. Each character is occasionally depicted chasing an eloquent man in a monkey costume, speaking to them from the bed of a pick-up truck. With the monkey, they confess their fears and innermost desires and dreams. A lucid voice in the film, the monkey acknowledges the fact that this is a film, prompting questions about what he’s supposed to represent. Is he the director? Is he the film itself? In any case, he remains elevated, fleeting, distant and elusive — possibly a stand-in for an omniscient power.
Sharm El-Sheikh itself is a character, vibrant and kitschy yet barren. Wide shots situate pockets of urbanization against the mountains and sea of Sinai’s south. Pollution and artifice taint every natural landscape; almost all wide shots contain plastic bags. At one point, a camel eats a carton box in the foreground while a giant rubber brontosaurus, a spectacle erect for no one to see, watches over. The plastic bags, rubber beasts, carton vegetation and cement walls act as implied commentary on our insidious damage to the ecosystem, as we simultaneously mimic and exploit it.
The mise-en-scene and camerawork shine in these wide shots, consistently delivering context and emotion. In documenting the eco-social landscapes familiar from the directors’ previous collaboration Crop (2013) and Omara’s 2015 film The Visit, the film is informative and subtly didactic, this time accentuating the surrealism of The Visit and the hybridity of Crop. Mostly flat, the cinematography and coloring depict a bland wintertime summer, reflecting the state in which the non-events unfold and the tone with which Omara and Domke narrate them. With little music, the soundtrack shifts between jarring bass tracks and ambient melodies to suffocating silence. Diegetic EDM permeates Taki’s working hours in the nightclubs, and the hum of the hotel’s central air-conditioning bleeds into the backroom conversations had in the staff lounge.
Dreamaway delivers its simple narrative starkly, through an intense watching experience. At the film’s Egyptian premiere in the second Gouna Film Festival, one cast member let it slip that the job each character does in the film is not the one they do in real life, but that of another character. Ultimately, the film makes no claim on truth; rather, it presents a semi-fictional story gathered from a field and offered for reflection. A strong commentary on the status of desperate youth in an arid market, it is a heavy, ambiguous and contemplative work, one that toys, strikingly, with the genre’s limits.