Organ trafficking is a widespread but poorly understood concern in Egypt. Activists and documentarians have largely shied away from this sensitive but important issue, as it serves as a microcosm of many of the world’s more widespread social ills.
Egypt is one of the world’s leading destinations for illegal kidney trafficking, and organ sales among the country’s poor lower class are shockingly common. The selling of organs in these communities leads to all sorts of long-term health and social problems, which are only amplified by the difficult living conditions in which members of these communities live.
Given the situation, it is easy to understand why veteran award-winning documentary filmmaker Tamer Ezzat chose this topic for his first feature film, rather than tackling it as a documentary project. While a documentary on local organ trafficking would be welcome, Ezzat’s fictional film provides an effective lens through which to examine the devastating, personal truths behind this issue.
One of three Egyptian films featured at the 34th Cairo International Film Festival, huge crowds showed up at Maadi’s Family Cinema on Tuesday to catch a glimpse. Ezzat’s first feature effort is bolstered by a powerful storyline, effective acting, and dramatic restraint — a combination that makes for a riveting and realistic portrayal of the human costs of corruption. Subtle music and raw camera work — which includes handheld video footage — add to the realistic effect of the film and allude to Ezzat’s specialty as a documentarian.
The film, which was screened as part of the Arab Competition, follows the story of Essam, played by Nidal El-Shafie, a journalist who is trying to juggle investigating a corrupt businessman in the pharmaceuticals industry along with maintaining his marriage and caring for his daughter, who requires regular dialysis treatments.
Essam’s regular visits to the hospital lead him to suspect that the businessman he is investigating is marketing defective dialysis filters to oblivious patients. His investigation is bound to end badly: the opening scenes, a flash-forward, show a friend of Essam’s, Hassan, frantically demanding a meeting with Essam at their local coffee shop. Waiting at their usual table, Essam suddenly hears a scream and jumps up to find Hassan’s lifeless body in the street.
The story then reverts back to the beginning, showing Essam’s trajectory into this violent situation. We learn about his troubled private life and his work at a fictional newspaper, El-Haqiqa, the two major factors that lead him to investigate the pharmaceuticals mogul. His investigation leads him deeper into this man’s twisted world as he uncovers more and more evidence about this his link to the illegal organ trade, losing sources to henchmen and risking his life in the process.
The film’s climax sees Essam in a dramatic face-to-face confrontation with the corrupt businessman, a scene that is hard to imagine occurring in real life. The odds of someone like this businessman being called to account for his crimes seems depressingly slim, which is probably why the scene is so satisfying — this is a crucial point where documentary and fiction diverge sharply with varying effect.
Confrontation or no confrontation, the film effectively mixes a serious and dramatic look at Egypt’s illegal organ trade with sensitively rendered scenes evoking the challenges of family life with a sick child and the devastations of marital discord. The scenes between Essam and his wife, played by Samiya El-Assad, are some of the more human and convincing in the film, while the plight of Essam’s daughter is easy to empathize with and leads the audience to reflect on how difficult it can be to stay alive in a medical system rife with corruption and complacency.
Ezzat’s film is a successful foray into feature filmmaking and a satisfying and thorough portrayal of a serious issue in Egypt that deserves more attention. The choice of subject matter is key to Ezzat’s documentary-inspired style in this film: one can only hope that he will apply the same formula in other feature films on different social issues in the future and that “Ring Road” will gain a wider release in Egypt following its success at the festival.