At first glance, the plot of Yomeddine sounds like a Werner Herzog movie. Telling the story of a leper who travels hundreds of miles across Egypt with only his donkey and a ten year-old boy nicknamed Obama for company, it feels like the perfect premise for the gloomy German to turn into a despairing fable regarding the futility of human endeavour. Yet in execution, Yomeddine couldn’t be further from anything like Fitzcarraldo or Stroszek, instead somehow telling a feel-good story about the importance of friendship and loving yourself for who you really are. The result is a crowd-pleasing tale that may be somewhat slight, but still has a lot of enjoyable moments along the way.
Leprosy has mostly been eradicated in Egypt, but there are still those suffering from its consequences (a colony actually still exists to this day). One such man is Beshay (Rady Gamal), who makes his money from selling junk he finds on a rubbish dump. His best friend is Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), a young orphan who accompanies him on his adventures like Sancho Panza to Don Quixote. Despite Beshay’s facial disfigurement and crippled hands, he enjoys life at the leper colony, spending time shooting the breeze with his similarly afflicted friends. One day he finds out that his wife — formerly committed to the mental asylum — has died, an event that prompts him to find the father that abandoned him thirty years ago.
Obama (his real name is Mohamed) stows away on his cart, as he also feels like an outsider due to being Nubian, and is regularly beaten up at school. Beshay faces the whole kitchen sink of discrimination, including a whole host of verbal slurs, and is even arrested by the police for not wearing the right clothes. Later on he meets a whole assortment of disabled people, including a dwarf, a man with no legs, and someone suffering from a truck accident. Yomeddine has a strong sense of empathy for these people — all playing themselves — containing dialogue that rings with truth. Mainstream cinema has a lot to learn about the representation of differently-abled people here.
The conceit also allows the film to sneakily double as a travelogue through Egypt. From abandoned pyramids to the beauty of the Nile, to endless trains snaking through the desert, Yomeddine shows off the Egyptian countryside, depicting us every rung of society along the way. The movie incorporates both physical and verbal comedy — with Beshay finding himself in all sorts of dastardly situations — as well as more difficult moments, balancing the two rather well on the man’s quest to find out more about what happened to him in the past. This is a tricky thing to pull off, but Yomeddine works by knowing exactly who its two central characters are.
If Yomeddine veers into sentimentality, it feels mostly deserved — especially as A.B. Shawky has cast a real leper in the role. It only gets into trite territory due to a few unnecessary flashbacks that tell us nothing we didn’t already know from the dialogue. There is nothing particularly profound about the final message — that you must learn to accept yourself and find peace no matter what you look like or what happened to you in the past — but it is hard-earned considering what Beshay has gone through. The final scene manages to break through a considerable cringe barrier, making it land as a relative success. In addition, its depiction of faith, both Islamic and Christian freely intermingling, gives the film an authentic feel perhaps missing in contemporary Hollywood cinema.
This is A.B Shawky’s first film, remarkably finding its way into the Cannes competition, where the odds of it winning must be close to nonexistent. Nonetheless, this is a promising debut for the Egyptian director, making him someone to watch in the future.