Writer/director A.B. Shawky’s Yomeddine begins with a metaphor. Beshay (Rady Gamal), a small, wiry man with deformed hands who is covered in scars that mark him as a survivor of leprosy, stands on a mountain of garbage, sifting among the refuse for items of values. He is a discarded man who survives on broken things the world has forgotten. He is like the cassette player he finds and carries throughout the film, cracked, filthy but still functional and capable of relaying beautiful things. Gamal is himself a survivor of leprosy, and his scarred face becomes the vessel Shawky uses to tell his moving tale of dignity and identity in a country where ancient history and modernity brazenly intersect at every turn.

Beshay carries himself like a man of great dignity. In the leper colony in northern Egypt where he has lived since childhood, he has married and created a simple life that put him in the upper strata of the residents of the colony. He and his wife, Ireny (Shoq Emara), live in a small hut, raise chickens and care for Harby, Beshay’s donkey and constant companion. But they are still at the mercy of the colony’s administrators who send the wife off to a hospital when she falls ill.

Ireny is really nothing more than a trope, catatonic in one scene and a smiling face in a photograph in another, and her death provides the inciting incident for Beshay. She has no dialogue, but her mother does, a surprise attendee at the Ireny’s funeral. When asked how she knew of the funeral, the mother confides that the administrators informed her. Many of the records for the members of the leper colony have contact information for next of kin. Now alone in the world, Beshay decides to embark on an Odyssey befitting Homer from the leper colony to his family’s home in Qena.

But he isn’t quite alone. A young orphan called Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), who helps Beshay search for valuables on the garbage mountain, adds to Harby’s burden by stowing away on Beshay’s donkey-drawn cart. They make this journey together, surviving thieves, police, train conductors and the prejudices of their fellow citizens at the face of a leper. Beshay and Obama are as much tourists in Egypt as any foreigner, having few memories beyond the leper colony and orphanage, so they are perfect characters to explore the wonder of a place where donkey carts and Mercedes intermingle on the highways, and where pyramids and ancient statues appear on the horizon. Through their exploration, Shawky is telling his audience to recognize and appreciate the history so abundant in their country. He’s saying climb a pyramid, touch the ancient stones, know your stories but don’t ruin the antiques.

But the film’s explicit purpose is to remind us all to be kinder to people otherwise abandoned by society. Almost everyone with the slightest power Beshay encounters is indifferent, whether they are fellow passengers on a train or a bored military officer. Shawky displays this theme in a clever medium shot where Beshay and another man sit in a prison cell and a stone paperweight in the foreground on a policeman’s desk appears to be crushing them. The little people serve no other purpose than to be oppressed.
Kindness is reserved for those who have little or nothing else to give, like the beggars who help Beshay and Obama in the final leg of their quest. But it is not until they walk among the crippled and forgotten that Beshay and Obama remember not to be ashamed of who they are.

For a movie that brokers a bit too often in cliché, Yomeddine never gets maudlin. For an inexperienced actor, Gamal holds the screen and demands the audience’s empathy. His performance feels more like the pinnacle of a long career than a debut, and affection for the film develops because of him. As a director, Shawky builds kingdoms out of trash heaps, creating a small-scale epic by focusing his lens where others shy away. His success comes through exemplifying the dignity he espouses, at least to his male characters and to his audience. The innate value of a human being is the message Shawky wants to drive home. He sets his story in the third world, but that theme is universal.

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