Films produced in the heat of a fraught political moment have little use for nuance. The good guys are pure and noble, the villains almost caricatures of evil. Soliloquies to the morals of the ideal society are often delivered in verse. The function is unapologetic propaganda. While this heart on the sleeve approach can play as corniness to those outside of the conflict and the moment, such expressions are still interesting in an anthropological sense. Which gods and heroes will the storytellers hold up as examples of this particular ideal society. Western film too produced many such films, particularly in the years before and during World War II. So we got to see the shadow of Abraham Lincoln extolling the virtues of a free society in Saboteur, or a reasonable German denouncing his home country in the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. In “Winter of Discontent” we see the an Egyptian perspective on the Tahrir Square protests that would oust multiple presidents from power.
Amr (Amr Waked) makes for an odd protagonist for such an exercise. For most of the film he keeps his own council while patiently waiting alone in his apartment to be arrested by one government agency or another. Late in the film, surrounded by like minded activists, he finally voices his philosophy: the revolution’s already won, all that’s left is to survive until the ending.
He could speak for the whole production. “Winter of Discontent” appeared in 2012, its narrative concluding at the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The optimism of that moment suffuses the whole picture. Even without knowing the political outcome of the protests I believe an audience member will pick up that the torture and interrogations will be weathered.
The protests at Tahrir stay at the periphery throughout the film. Amr can hear them from the balcony at his apartment, but they’re out of view, just around the corner. Contrast to Farah (Farah Youssef) the on-air anchor for the state-run news program whose network is running out of ways to avoid addressing the protests.
Winter of Discontent is stylish and sleek, full of small rooms and empty spaces. Its greatest strength lies in its multiple torture sequences. The method for each tends to vary depending on the notoriety of the target. The nameless protesters are beaten and electrocuted, picked up off the street by state actors in civilian clothes. Meanwhile an outspoken but important cleric is invited to the security agency, kept in a room full of posh leather furniture and at regular intervals made to drink two glasses of water over and over. He is allowed to leave only after his bladder fails. So it goes. The intent of every act of torture is not so much inflicting pain but breaking the victim. Amr straddles both worlds, certainly a man of the upper class, but relatively anonymous. He gets to experience both the physical and mental tortures in equal measure.
If there one joy to such polarized filmmaking, it’s that villains are allowed to be truly evil creatures. Salah Alhanafy makes for a great heavy as Adel a head of security who seems to be the face of all the interrogations across the country.
History didn’t slow after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Egypt remains largely unsettled even with another political lifer General Al Sisi ascending to the presidency. A more sobering perspective on the two steps forward, one step back, one step back, one step back nature of the Egyptian unrest can be found in The Square another contemporaneous feature.