Winner of this year’s Grand Jury prize in the World Cinema, Dramatic, category, Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident is a wonderfully tense homage to mid-century noir and an incisive reflection upon this particular story’s time: January 2011, the turning point in Egypt of what’s come to be known as the Arab Spring.
Nile Hilton‘s early scenes introduce us to Major Noredin Mostafa, a police detective, comfortably rolling through Cairo’s crowded central streets with his young partner, collecting protection money from shop owners, just one of a complex tangle of rackets managed by his superior and uncle, Mr. Kammal. While Noredin might easily be satisfied with the privileges afforded him as a member of the police force, his lonely private life in a small apartment reveals evidence of despair and a deeply-set unease. A seemingly devout man, or at least a man who prays, Noredin also drinks, smokes pot, and pops pills to take the edge off after stashing the night’s take in the freezer and dropping onto the couch to watch distorted images of President Mubarak on his malfunctioning TV.
A call to the murder scene of a young singer, Lalena, found with her throat slashed in a room at the Nile Hilton, near Tahrir Square, sets in motion not just an investigation but an existential quest typical of American noir, which Saleh expertly translates into the autocratic world of pre-revolutionary Egypt. The film’s moody, overstuffed mise en scène gives us a vibrant and stylish image of Cairo, but it also serves as the perfect representation of Egypt’s more abstract conditions of institutional corruption and double-crosses, from which one never knows where a threat will emerge. If there’s a certain initial comfort we feel amidst the doings of Kammal’s predatory gang—born of the viewer’s familiarity with the genre—Noredin’s pursuit of something like justice, against first an attitude of indifference and then more direct and violent warnings, unsettles his world and ours with increasing effect.
Maybe the biggest mystery here is why Noredin would choose this moment to upset his situation, one in which cops can pursue their own enrichment with impunity, so long as they play their game on their own turf and continue to “protect good citizens, not bother them,” as the detective’s prime suspect, a member of parliament and close friend of the President’s, says. Given the film’s backdrop, the violent protests that will eventually topple Mubarak and his regime, we’re inclined to see Noredin’s transformation as analogous to that of the crowd in the street’s. As complicit as he’s been until now, he, too, finally seems tired of being pushed around by the wealthy and powerful, tired of assisting them in crushing basic human rights, of treating the variously disenfranchised as expendable material, tired of lies and deceit.
“You can’t buy dignity, son,” Noredin’s father tells him, refusing assistance paid for by Noredin’s ostensibly criminal, but accepted, activities. One cannot earn dignity, either, through appointments by or close friendships with corrupt leaders. Nor can such leaders claim dignity simply by assuming the ultimate seat of authority. Rather, dignity is best exemplified here by the murder’s only witness, an immigrant, a Sudanese maid with nothing to gain from her testimony but an association with truth, the only thing that might save her life.
The Nile Hilton Incident is not just a compelling thriller. It is also a thoughtful and ultimately hopeful analysis of a singular, and not uncomplicated, moment of triumph, when what one would like to think are inherently human moral imperatives can motivate a tremendous change, beginning with the toppling of a dictator.