Movie Reviews: Free Trip to Egypt (2019)

Today’s review is another prerelease one, but this time out, we are going to be looking at an upcoming documentary.  It’s one that deals with an important and yet deep rooted issue, Islamophobia.  At the center of the doc is Tarek Mounib, a Canadian-Egyptian Muslim who believes that he can change the minds of people by exposing them directly to the people they hate.  It’s a noble goal and there’s certainly an understandable belief that it could work to some degree, but it’s also a plan that feels hopelessly naïve.

To the film and Tarek’s credit, it’s something that they admit to readily even as he is determined to contribute something positive.  While there are probably more practical means to achieve his basic plan, it’s hard to deny that his idea is a catchy one.  Tarek offers the chance to go to Egypt for free so that they can actually meet  what they are afraid of.  Of course, he first runs into the obvious issue that the people who are so virulent in their Islamophobia aren’t going to be likely to head to a place they consider to be filled with foreigners that want to capture them and either hold them hostage or behead them, especially when they are so firm in their beliefs.

It takes a number of trials and errors before he’s even able to scrounge together a small (still cautious) group consisting of a police officer, an ex-Marine (and eventually his buddy who is looking to do missionary work and the also very Christian female friend of that buddy), and a (Jewish, which is mostly notable since she brings it up as a concern as well as being surrounded by Christians in the group) racist teacher who admits to becoming one after 9/11 (and who brings along her husband).  In Egypt, they are all paired up with their Egyptian counterparts to do different activities and be shown off some elements of their culture.

It is interesting to see the early failures make it on screen since it works as an effective counter to much of the gushing about the project.  There’s a sense that the film really wants to give a message of hope and “we can all work this out” even as evidence seems to point to the contrary, and those kinds of moments are key to providing any sort of balance.

For the first half hour, Tarek also foregrounds himself very prominently, not only acting as interviewer and narrator, but also principle interview subject.  It’s here where the film suffers the most as the actual subjects of the film, the group of people involved in the trip and the people they meet, are the far more compelling subjects.  The white people’s interactions (and all but one of those sent over is white) are all awkward as hell.  Sometimes it leads to amusing moments like the ex-Marine trying to look “hard” and then awkwardly having to hold on to an Egyptian man’s torso as he rides a motorcycle, a look on his face indicating that this action is the one he is most uncomfortable with in this whole journey.  Other times it leads to plenty of the sadly trademark stupid American tourist behavior.  It’s also ultimately hard for me when the film lets certain people in the group talk about Christianity to take them and their beliefs seriously (especially when one woman fully admits that she wouldn’t want to go to heaven if Jesus wasn’t there even if it was a paradise) and yet the film treats the opinions with the solemnity and respect they haven’t earned.

A major portion of the middle is framed as the group recapping what happened on their trips and this section probably could have benefited from a more traditional structure which merely depicts what they all saw and did, foregrounding those scenes instead of the after action report.  It both deemphasizes the Egyptians (who I would have loved to have seen more of) and creates an unnecessary detachment from the events.  It would be nice to see more of the counterviews from the Egyptians as it’s the moments of conflict on both sides which are the most compelling.  The differences in religion and specifically in compatibility of worship are what stand starkest.

While the filmmakers seemed to be willing to show the good and the bad of the trip, there seems to be a continued effort to ease it all over.  There’s a distinct divide between the people who seem concerned with the actual mission, and those treating it like a joke and for better or worse the film is largely willing to just let their actions speak for themselves with Tarek acting largely as facilitator and conflict resolver.  Whether by force of will or by actual results, the film ultimately strikes a hopeful tone throughout.  It’s not going to offer any grand solutions, but perhaps the small achievements are enough for the goals of it.

It’s a solid and far from flashy (not inherently a bad thing) documentary which favors a far more utilitarian style.  It’s at its best when it focuses on that basic premise and the big promise of the title, the only thing holding it back is the unwillingness to trust that the subjects alone will be enough to draw us in.

Opens in New York on May 31, LA on June 7, and through Fathom Events on June 12th nationwide.