Day of Judgment
My Jewish readers who sound out the title of this film, “Yomeddine” will recognize that the Arabic title is very similar to the Hebrew Yom HaDin or Judgement Day in both languages and how appropriate that the movie is released on DVD so close to Yom Kippur, the traditional Jewish Day of Judgement.
Austrian-Egyptian director A. B. Shawky’s “Yomeddine” is reminiscent of the art films of early 1990s art-house hits and it is also a rarity since films made in Egypt are I themselves rare on American screens.
“Yomeddine” has both sentiment and grit found and it has an embracing and nonjudgmental theme. It all begins with Beshay (Rady Gamal) who we see scavenging for metal in a trash heap, aided by a 10 year-old orphan, Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz). Beshay is a Christian around 40-years-old (so he thinks) and had leprosy decades ago and now has scars all over his body. Most of his life has been lived in a desert leper colony, the one place where no one is afraid to touch him. He is a recent widower who begin to search for what is left of his biological family. All he knows is the name of his father and the village where he lives.
He acts on impulse heading south on his donkey-drawn carriage with all of his possession onboard and a young stowaway named Obama. The boy’s real name is Mohammad, but he goes by the name Obama because of “the guy on TV,” and probably because he has been ostracized; he has a darker complexion than the other orphans.
The story line follows the map of many a road trip movie and includes theft, transportation problems, the kindness of strangers but what is special is the sense of location and the integrity and authenticity of Shawky’s ensemble of actors who are all nonprofessional that give the film a straightforward voice.
Any description of the story is going to make it sound like a grim social drama, which it most definitely is not. The film has some of the same heart-tugging picaresque qualities. Beshay is no longer contagious but the scars, lumps, and twisted hands are forever. His sense of humor is a constant and he absolutely has no self-pity. One day, Obama, a ten-year-old Nubian orphan, attaches himself to Beshay and never leaves.
The two run away together to pursue Beshay’s dream to find the family that long ago abandoned him as a child at the gate of the leper colony in the middle of the night. This is a modern folk tale about a remarkable odyssey of as a tour through 2019 Egypt. Director Shawky loves the vistas of this rural land of villages and squatter camps, green fields, and the mighty Nile that we see as little more than muddy stream where kids take dips alongside the cattle. (I had the same feeling when I saw the Jordan River for the first time).
Beshay and Obama ride the donkey cart until the donkey dies. Then they hitchhike, freeload on trains, and get help from a legless professional beggar, who introduces them to the little colony of other outcasts who live together under a bridge. Obama and Beshay bond the deeply in a father-son relationship. At its serious core, “Yomeddine” is about fathers and sons as well as about acceptance and forgiveness. Beshay and Obama each face a terrifying moment of truth, in which their identity and future is at stake, and they manage to come out of it whole.
Leprosy, poverty and a story of social exclusion are the unlikely ingredients for the deeply engaging and often funny road movie yet it works here beautifully. If there is a message here, it is that we should not be too quick to judge others. There will come a day when we are all equal, Beshay says. Shawky sees the good in people and uses humor, even in miserable conditions and poverty. He is helped by the down-to-earth charisma of his leads and the film takes its tone principally from Gamal’s performance with his determination not to fall into despair or self-pity. This is an accomplished appeal for empathy and an entertaining journey of discovery.