Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/14 & 10/16
World premiere: 1 September, 2012, Venice Film Festival

The January, 2011, protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, resulting in a revolution that forced President Hosni Mubarak from power, were perhaps the most significant event of that calendar year to happen anywhere in the world; though it will undoubtedly take a bit more distance before anybody can make that kind of statement with impunity. But the point remains, those events were of literally world-changing importance, and we can presumably expect many fictional and semi-fictional treatments of the revolution in years to come, which will be ignored almost completely in the English-speaking world, unless a way can be found to work Tony Stark into one of them.

Ibrahim El Batout's Winter of Discontent is not the first narrative feature dealing with the January demonstrations; just the one that, thanks to the realities of film distribution in the United States, I've personally been able to see. That is by no means the film's problem, though the temptation to want it to be a definitive take on its subject matter is hard to overcome, and that's certainly not something it aims for, nor achieves. While it does cast a fairly wide net, focusing on three individuals who just happen to stand-in for three broad segments of society, it's ultimately more concerned with the human element of the protests, rather than the context behind them, or the consequences that followed, and it has very, very little interest in holding the hand of anyone who doesn't have a sturdy working knowledge of the protests going in, something that I cannot claim to have.

But again, this is by no means the film's problem. On its own terms, Winter of Discontent is a strong, remarkable film; not flawless, by any means, but a rich study of the human element underlying the events that are so easy to discuss in terms of their broader political or sociological import. The three people it focuses on are Amr (Amr Waked), an activist involved with posting anti-government videos to YouTube, Adel (Salah Al Hanafy), a state security officer assigned to quell the protesters, and Farah (Farah Youssef), the co-host of a current events chat show, growing increasingly unhappy with the degree to which her job consists of tying to placate the Egyptian populace and propagandise the government. This trio, with their interconnected stories, represent three different ways of experiencing the revolution, but rather than using them as metaphors or mouthpieces, Winter of Discontent actively engages with them as people, especially Farah, the only one of the three who ends the movie in a significantly different place than she begins it.

She also gets, probably, the most interesting story: for besides grounding the revolution in terms of the human beings involved, Winter of Discontent also looks at the ways in which the revolution was enabled by social media (famously, it became the greatest argument in favor of Twitter as real communication tool and not just a toy) that could, for the first time, provide a counter-narrative to the state-approved media. And because Farah's story ties into this most directly, she gets to hog a lot of the most dramatic scenes.

Though, of course, not all: dramatic scenes are plentiful in the movie, or even just dramatic monologues, as the several beaten-down Egyptians who move through the story and interact with with the protagonists (several of them based on real people) are given the chance to talk about why they finally reached the point that protest seemed to be the only rational behavior (one of the film's highlights is a slow tracking shot down a line of protesters in police custody, each defending their actions in a one-one-one interview and the longer this extremely long shot goes, the more shocking the raw scale of both the protest and the arrest becomes).

Everything about the film's depiction of how people engage with the media, new and old, is deeply fascinating; its attempt to understand why some people join the police while some try to overthrow the system, while necessarily incomplete, is complex and politically aware without lapsing into polemic. The film only suffers one particular flaw as drama, and unfortunately, it's not a little one: it relies, far too much, on a simplistic series of flashbacks to 2009, when Amr previously tangled with Adel. This secondary narrative adds nothing of real value to our understanding of the characters in 2011, and it robs the film of crucial momentum: one thing that Winter of Discontent is intermittently great at is working into its drama the increasing sense of inevitability that this protest will move from simple demonstration to real revolution, and every time it jumps back two years, the thread of that feeling is snapped, taking all the heat off of its slow boil.

And while that is a major problem, there's so much that the film has going for it that it frequently doesn't matter: the slow, methodical camerawork - there are many, many beautiful, simple tracking shots in this film - the manner in which we're made to know the characters by spending a lot of time with them in reflection, rather than by having them declaim their beliefs; and, of course, its acute sense of contemporary history and even more acute sense of the reason that normal, everyday human beings would involve themselves in that history. It's dramatic shortcomings are one things; its great merits as docudrama are another thing entirely.