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Egypt's ‘Eissa’ debuts at Cannes with spotlight on Africa’s refugee community

Egyptian critics and activists praised "I Promise You Paradise," a short film directed by Egyptian director Morad Mostafa, highlighting untold stories of immigrants living in Egypt, with a focus on African refugees.
Pictured in this undated photo is Egyptian director Morad Mostafa.

CAIRO — Award-winning Egyptian director Morad Mostafa's short film “Eissa” (“I Promise You Paradise”) was selected to compete in the 62nd Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week) at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.

The film, directed and written by Mostafa and Sawsan Yusuf, follows the story of Eissa, a 17-year-old African immigrant in Egypt who strives to beat the clock to save his loved ones after a violent incident occurs in Cairo.

Critics’ Week artistic director Ava Cahen unveiled the lineup for the short film competition, with 10 films slated to run beginning Wednesday. In a statement posted on the Critics’ Week website, Cahen introduced the Egyptian film: “A freedom — in its many forms, freedom to love, to come and go and to exist even — is at the very core of the intense and yet contemplative quest of the protagonist in Morad Mostafa’s ‘I Promise You Paradise.’”

The film features Kenyi Marcellino, an 18-year-old South Sudanese actor who, like thousands of others, fled the violence in his country to find refuge in Egypt. When he arrived in Egypt in 2021, Marcellino pursued his dream of becoming an actor by creating a Facebook page titled “Actors on the Stage Comedy Crew,” which posts comedy videos with fellow actor friends displaying their talents.

Marcellino celebrated the news of his film’s nomination on his personal Facebook page, writing: “Unbelievable, my film has been [selected by the] 62nd [Critics’ Week].”

“I Promise You Paradise” is the fourth short film directed by 35-year-old Egyptian director Mostafa. He directed “Henet Ward” in 2019, “What We Don't Know About Mariam” in 2020 and “Khadiga” in 2021, all of which competed in over 100 festivals across the globe and earned him many awards, including Oscar and BAFTA qualifying awards. Mostafa also worked on several independent films and collaborated as an assistant director on the feature film “Souad,” which was an official selection at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival and 2021 Berlin International Film Festival.



Mostafa is currently working on his new debut feature film, “Aisha Can’t Fly Away Anymore,” which tells the story of an immigrant Somali girl. The film was selected last week to be part of Cinéma de Demain’s (Cinema of Tomorrow) Cinefondation competition at Cannes, which provides support to directors during their work on films.

“I want to tell these stories because I used to live in an area where I was exposed to a vibrant and bustling African community,” said Mostafa — who grew up in Cairo’s working-class Ain Shams neighborhood, which hosts many African immigrants — in an interview with Scoop Empire last Thursday.

“It’s just going to be a continuation of what I started, which is to make stories and films about non-Egyptian characters,” he added. “There is a need for such stories that talk about Egypt, but through the lens of the African community.”

Egyptian film critic Magda Khiralla told Al-Monitor that the selection of “I Promise You Paradise” reflects the power of a story that helps Egyptians understand and embrace African refugees and migrants.

Some Egyptians blame non-Egyptians for contributing to the economic crisis that Egypt is currently going through and the increasing unemployment rate, which begot anti-Black racism against African refugees and migrants.

In August 2022, the International Organization for Migration (IOM Egypt) estimated that the number of international migrants and refugees living in Egypt originating from Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia, Iraq and Yemen is roughly 9 million.

The filming of refugees was welcomed by the African communities in Egypt. Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, an Eritrean activist who lives in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “Films on migrants can dispel common misconceptions and preconceptions about refugees and other displaced people, fostering a more empathetic and realistic understanding of their struggles.”

“It also can increase empathy and understanding among viewers by offering a voice to those who are frequently marginalized or disregarded in the mainstream media,” he added, noting that he was looking forward to watching “I Promise You Paradise.”

Although Egypt has a rich cinematographic history, with some calling it the Hollywood of the Middle East, it is rare to find classical Egyptian movies or series that focus on refugees or migrants.

Khiralla said that the Egyptian cinema industry prefers entertainment and commercial movies to entertain the audience, so filmmakers or storytellers ignore deep social issues such as immigration and asylum. Yet there is a growing number of films that do tell the deeper stories, she added.

Last year, the Egyptian film “Feathers” won three major Critics' Awards for Arab Films at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2020, the short film “I am Afraid to Forget Your Face” by Egyptian director Sameh Alaa won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes.

Film critic Khaled Mahmoud agrees that these films carry ideas that are interrelated and intertwined with the social and political relations in Egypt, which struggles with cinematic censorship.

He told Al-Monitor that the new generation of Egyptian filmmakers and storytellers like Mostafa seek to fund their independent ideas through international platforms and festivals interested in third world cinema.

However, these filmmakers sometimes submit to the conditions of major companies to produce commercial films, Mahmoud said.

He called on Egyptian authorities to embrace independent young filmmakers and support them to enrich the Egyptian cinema industry with ideas outside of the box. At the same time, he added, “Filmmakers should balance their ideas to engage with audience needs and gain their confidence.”


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