Monday, 4 September 2017


By Dimitri Keramitas

Cairo Confidential (also titled The Nile Hilton Incident) is an Arabic-language, Egypt-set movie, but made with Northern European funding. This may provide an explanation for the production values Swedish director Tarik Saleh was able to give his work. Even at its most grotty, this film noir has the elegance and assurance of a top-budget movie.

A poster of the film in France.
The film also melds crime and punishment with politics, and so we might wonder how close to the bone the director permitted himself to go. Probably further than when you don’t have adequate funding, as Saleh journeys to the heart of rottenness: in relationships and political affairs. The crime story is set in the last violent, corruption-filled days of the Hosni Mubarak era, although much of the film was shot on location in Morocco, not Egypt.

Officer Noredin Mostafa (wonderfully played by Fares Fares) is a mid-level plainclothes cop. In classic noir tradition, he’s a widower living a spare lifestyle which does not exclude alcohol, cigarettes and the occasional joint of kif.

He’s assigned to look into a murder, the kind of sordid crime he should be used to. Perhaps because he lost his wife, he gives the case of a murdered woman more than his usual attention. It takes him through a complicated investigation with many lethal twists - and the viewer on a dizzying tour of the underside of Cairo. The director’s dark vision and the quality with which it’s expressed recall the novelist James Elroy (and film adaptations of his work) at his best.

The director, of Egyptian descent but born in Stockholm, has a feel for contemporary Egypt and its people. Saleh also has a background in the visual arts, including animation. Paradoxically, this sensibility enables him to make details resonate not just as aesthetic motifs but as reality that is both social and emotional. Whether his outsider status, and that of the production in general, distorts that reality is a question that’s difficult to answer, but should be considered.

Sudanese model Mari Malek plays a hotel worker
in Cairo Confidential.
Cairo Confidential (winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize) is a film noir in the most literal sense, almost exclusively shot in dark hues via street lighting, indoor lights, or natural twilight. The effect is as handsome as it is forbidding - you want to join the habitués in a café and puff on a nargileh.

The vision of Egyptian society is one of poverty but also the teeming energy of a people kept from emerging from that poverty by a darkness that is more than physical - and by the bonds that stifle. The bonds are political, but also social, even familial. Just as the darkness has its romantic side, so the stress on family gives the story a strangely intimate flavour.

As long as the case stays within the seedy depths of Cairo - petty criminals, fences, shady barmen, entertainers moonlighting as prostitutes - Noredin can rely on his “family” of fellow policemen. In a milieu where official salaries are low, and rules need to be bent, complicity is taken for granted.

But then one of the nightclub entertainers turns out to have a higher profile than expected, and a person of interest turns out to be a rich industrialist. Noredin needs the protection of his superior, a high-level inspector who happens to be his uncle Kammal (Yasser Ali Maher). The uncle assures him that he has his back, and so Noredin digs deeper.

A scene from the film.
The story will take us to the upper levels of Egyptian society, but also to the hidden world of African migrants, including hotel worker Salwa, played by Mari Malek, a former refugee from Sudan who is now a top model, DJ and actress in the United States. It also takes us into Noredin’s darkly romantic heart, when he gets involved with the nightclub singer, Gina (Hania Amar). All the actors in Cairo Confidential are convincing, their authenticity etched in the acid bath of corruption. But Fares Fares stands out for his rendition of one supremely complex cop - dogged, melancholic, tough, smart, fair but also corrupt.

The deeper the obsessed Noredin gets into his case, the closer it gets to the Power. Ironically, the time-line creeps closer and closer to the Tahrir Square Revolution, the Power’s end. Noredin himself, whatever his intentions, can hardly claim to be divorced from the Power’s perfidy and its consequences: it’s all in the family. But, as we in the audience know, it’s not really the end of the Power. Although our hero gets battered as much as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow, and threatened with much worse, he will probably live to see another bribe. Who says there are no more Happy Endings?

Production: Atmo Production/Chimney/Copenhagen Film Fund. Distribution: Memento Films (France), Strand Releasing (USA)

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.