Millennial Letters

Watching 'Les Misérables' in Cairo

What happens when a revolutionary film opens in a revolutionary nation? I decided to sound out some politically active young Egyptians to find out. Here’s what they said after seeing Les Misérables, which opened in Cairo a few weeks ago amid ongoing political protests. The film was set to show at the opera house in the capital last night, hours after hundreds of people took to the streets in central Cairo calling for an end to sexual harassment.

Activist Ahmed Awadalla said, “It’s a well made film with some powerful performances except for Russell Crowe. It made me feel quite assured about our revolution. If it took the French that long to establish some sort of democracy, then we’re definitely getting there at some point.”

Adham Hafez is a politically active choreographer and composer based in Cairo. He runs the “TransDance” international festival for dance and performance, which links Egypt and international dance, and founded HaRaKa for Dance Development and Research. Writing during a brief visit to New York, he said, “It was so strange to watch a ‘blockbuster’ that is based on a musical and actually feel it connects to my reality. This never happened before, as I usually don’t enjoy blockbusters or musical in that way, it’s another kind of enjoyment, but not the pleasure of feeling; ‘yes, I know this, I live this.’ So, so many moments felt like I lived them, or witnessed my friends and comrades live them. The death of the little child [in the film] was scary in how it resonated with the children on the streets. It seems to be universal, one child born on streets is willing to die to perhaps let life be better somehow. This mix of purity and of loss of innocence at such an early age, and how it is there as a sacrifice … makes one unable to not fight for freedom.” He wrote earlier: “I was very unhappy to see more revolutionaries [die], yet very inspired that revolutionaries go through the same worries, fears and even skirmishes (building barricades from random objects, chairs, tables ... ). The film reminded me that, again, ‘political art’ can be very diverse in its content, nature and form. And, that many times struggles are universal, beyond nation and beyond temporal realities.”

Artist and journalist Sara Elkamel said, “Watching Les Misérables was an extremely emotional experience for me, in that bittersweet way that makes you see the film twice in a row! At many points, my mind made links to the Egyptian revolution, and that made it all the more sentimental. Particularly during the song ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,’ when the failure of the uprising is mourned by Eddie Redmayne, who lost all his fellow revolutionaries to French security, I couldn’t stop thinking of all of the Egyptians who died fighting for freedom, and the sense of loss and failure unfortunately echoes the sentiments of the public today.”

Maged Sami said, “Watching Les Misérables, I did not immediately draw any connections between the events of the movie and the events that have been unfolding in Egypt for the past two years. It did not invoke any feelings of frustration, inspiration or make my spine tingle. However, in retrospect, I do see some parallels of anti-monarchism, self-sacrifice, and a youth-led quest for social equity.”

Whatever Egyptians took away from the film, French Revolution–era questions of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” certainly seem in play in their country today.

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