Living together, saving together

25. February 2018

Film makers aren’t welcome in Cairo. Anyone who has ever tried to shoot a film in the city knows this. Nevertheless, the Lebanese director Reem Saleh has ventured into the ill-famed district of Rod El Farag for her documentary Al Gami’ya.

The aversion to filming in Cairo is on the one hand owing to the media and their recurrent stories about alleged foreign plots aimed at destroying Egypt. On the other hand, it also exists in the minds of the directors whose films, although they generally tell of the country’s problems, do so without penetrating into the souls of the people on the ground.

You have to bear this in mind when you hear that a foreign director has dared to shoot a film in a neighbourhood like Rod El Farag. It is one of the poorest quarters of Cairo, known for crime and the arbitrary rule prevailing there, where even some Egyptians dare not go. The Lebanese director Reem Saleh, however, has accepted the challenge and shot her documentary Al Gami’ya, the only Arab film in the Panorama of the 68th Berlinale, in Rod El Farag.


The mother of the director comes from Rod El Farag. She left the neighbourhood to marry Saleh’s Lebanese father, but in her heart she remained faithful to her old quarter and conveyed this love to her daughter. The film ends with a dedication to the mother, who urged Saleh to take “the people of the neighbourhood into her heart”. She therefore resolved to tell the world their stories. What are these stories? And what are the “gami’yas”, which give the film its title?

“Gami’yas” are associations of several residents of a neighbourhood and a form of saving practiced together by poor people in Egypt. Every day each member of the community puts a small amount into a common pot, and members then receives the grand total” according to their current needs. A simple and ingenious form of social solidarity.

These family-like associations form the starting point from which Saleh collects the stories of Rod El Farag: stories of solidarity, dignity and the zest for life contrasted with poverty and hardship. The director feels with her characters and shows them from the perspective of an affectionate observer, not that of a judge. It is a perspective full of poetry and goes beyond a sober analysis. Amidst the restless and harried urban world, Saleh manages to capture moments full of harmony in a very artful way.


One of the issues treated in the film is female genital cutting. For example, one girl joined a gami’ya because she wants to save money for her circumcision – against the wishes of his father. At once disturbing and yet real, the film shows how deep the deplorable practice is anchored in many cultural and social contexts, so much so that young girls desire to undergo genital circumcision even contrary to the will of their parents.

The film of course does not speak in favour of the custom, just as it generally refuses to take an advocatory position. It attempts only to penetrate the everyday realities of the ordinary inhabitants of the neighbourhood. They are people, not research material, people with their own system of values, which can also be fallible and have terrible consequences. But, taken all together, what overweighs the rest is the sincerity of feeling which is so often lacking in our modern life. That Reem Saleh gives us access to a world which normally cannot be entered is the great achievement of her film, which has now made it to the Berlinale.

This blog post was originally published here and was republished with permission from Goethe-Institut.

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