Cairo 678 is the first major Egyptian film to cover the country’s growing problem of sexual assault. It is rather lengthy, but honest in focus and full of heart.
Fayza (Boshra), a lower class government worker, is routinely molested on a city bus. Her husband, Adel (Bassem Samra), is unsympathetic, and culture compels her to bow to him. Sheba (Nelly Karim), an upper class artist, is group groped at a soccer match. Her fiance leaves her, and she has difficulty overcoming her trauma. Nelly’s (Nahed El Sebai), a young aspiring comedian, is grabbed while standing on a street corner. She fights back, filing the first sexual harassment lawsuit in the country. However, she faces pressure to drop her lawsuit by both family and friends. Cairo 678 delves deep into how each woman overcomes her central conflict, never inflating the scale of the film beyond personal growth. I really appreciated it. The film works on a personal level. It’s long and pensive, but straightforward and genuine enough to overcome a few dull stretches.
My favorite aspect of the film is the social strife between the three lead women. It speaks volumes about the filmmaker’s knowledge of the issue, and desire to say something about it. Cairo 678 could’ve bound the women together in mutual trauma and spent little time playing them off each other. Instead, we are treated to more nuanced interactions. Fayza, for instance, cannot stand many of Sheba’s indulgences; Sheba, in turn, cannot at first abide by Fayza’s coping mechanism. These conflicts boil beneath their interactions for much of the film, before exploding at the climax.
Character, ultimately, is the strength of the film. By focusing on conflicts within and amongst themselves, the movie manages to bring light to the issue of sexual harassment without ‘solving it’ to end the narrative.
But where would those characters be without the performers portraying them? Boshra has received many accolades for her portrayal as Fayza, well deserved. Each of the trio create distinct, resonant characters. The male performers, perhaps, have an equally difficult task of playing sympathetic antagonists. Bassem Samra plays Fayza’s husband as a man spoiled by lopsided sexual norms, but sympathetic in his plight as a lower class working man. He is a stand-in for all the men we see tormenting the women throughout the film. Omar El Saeed plays the flipside of this, as Nelly’s fiance who helps her file her lawsuit. His choice between appeasing his family and employers or standing alongside Nelly is a harrowing one, ultimately uplifting.
While the film does steep into sentimentality, it never grows too large for itself. We never get the sense that the women in the film have a dramatic influence on curbing sexual harassment in modern egypt. What we do get, however, is a concise character study, an honest look into the role of harassment in the lives of Egyptian women. The first step to solving a problem is understanding it, and Cairo 678 is a step in the right direction.