Free Trip to Egypt
(Switzerland/USA/Egypt, 103 min.)
Dir. Ingrid Serban
Reality television meets Michael Moore theatrics in the earnest misfire Free Trip to Egypt. This well-intentioned doc sees idealistic Egyptian-Canadian Tarek Mounib take a handful of Americans on an all-expenses paid trip to Cairo. Mounib hopes that the getaway may help the Americans overcome their prejudices, but the project simplifies complex issues of identity and cultural exchange far too much to satisfy.
Alternatively humorous, heartfelt, awkward, ignorant, haphazard, and downright embarrassing, the film doesn’t do its participants any favours despite its sincere attempt to make the world a better place. The racism of Trump’s America can’t be solved by a weeklong getaway, and the project reduces culture to a bunch of Yelp reviews as participants check out the hotspots of Cairo and discuss their excursions as all-encompassing views on the Muslim world. There’s no doubt that the participants enjoy some eye-opening experiences during the trip, but the project’s unearned self-congratulation is, as Mounib says in the film, “stupid and naïve.”
The trip begins with Ottawa-native Mounib explaining his unrealistic quest to open the eyes of Americans to their pervasive racism. Mounib, an indefatigably energetic host, never really explains to director Ingrid Serban why he needs to transport the Americans halfway around the world to reveal their prejudices. The premise is flawed from the start because there are countless Muslim Americans experiencing prejudice daily on American soil, not to mention all the people of colour, women, queer communities and other marginalized groups.
Serban follows Mounib as he tries to recruit right-wing, bigoted, and/or ignorant Americans at a Donald Trump rally for the trip to Egypt, often scoffing at the Trump supporters who don’t immediately agree to the trip when they have a microphone shoved in their face. Their excursion, lifted from the Michael Moore playbook mixed with the stupidity-baiting of Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans, might have yields golden nuggets of vehement racism from the Make America Great Again crowd. There’s probably a more insightful feature doc to be found in these locations, rather than in the group trip. By interviewing the loudest, dumbest, fattest, and most racist people in the crowd, Mounib demonstrates that there is indeed a current of toxic racism, particularly Islamophobia, rippling throughout American. But once he fills his tour group, he leaves the problem behind.
The group includes seven participants, and the odd sample suggests that Mounib drew from a limited pool. There’s Brian, the lone recruit from the Trump rally who shows off his pro-war tattoos and assault rifle in flirtatious moments with the cast and crew. He’s joined by his two friends and devout Christians, Jason, who is determined to bring the Egyptians to Jesus, and Jenna, a beauty pageant queen, born-again Christian, and aspiring actress. She knows a good pro-bono on-camera opportunity when she sees it.
There’s also Ellen and Terry Decker, a retired couple that longs to understand life in the Middle East since their son is stationed in Saudi Arabia. Ellen’s submission video makes the lone compelling argument for the project’s existence since she explains to Mounib how she hopes the trip will help her comprehend why she’s changed from being a protesting lefty in the years of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam to a xenophobic racist who voted for Trump. Ellen at least admits that she has a problem, which might explain why the Deckers have the strongest, and most genuine, arc of the documentary. The team is rounded out by two solo participants: Katie, a single mother eager to expand her worldview, and Marc, a cop and the most progressively-minded member of the crew, who seeks new experiences.
Mounib divides the group into teams and pairs them off with Egyptian hosts who play tour guide for a few days. (As a point of interest for doc fans, one of said hosts is cinematographer Ahmed Hassan, one of the compelling figures of Jehane Noujame’s The Square.) Any potential for substantive cultural exchange disappears once Mounib disperses the crew and their hosts take them to tourist sites like museums and markets for informal history lessons and foodstuff. It’s like saying that taking in a hockey game with a poutine and a double-double gives someone an all-encompassing view of what it means to be Canadian. The film stages a few productive encounters as the Americans sit down and discuss their experiences with their Egyptian hosts and friends, but, more often than not, these conversations are hampered by language barriers and awkwardness.
There is also the matter of the cameras. Even before Jean Rouche and Edgar Morin documented the lives of Parisians in Chronicle of a Summer, it’s been well known that the presence of a camera inspires levels of self-awareness and performance. The “reality” of reality television is merely a construct, and the same goes for this exercise. The participants know they have cameras on them and their self-aware behaviour illustrates how they want to be perceived by their future audience. Their hyperbolic connections to the Muslim world come across as self-serving, superior, and bigoted. Just look at how quickly they identify with their hosts as “brothers,” “sisters,” or “twins.” The truth of the film largely resides in Marc’s no-nonsense expression as he sees the ruse and shakes his head over how badly some of his fellow travellers—namely, Brian, Jason, and Jenna—ham it up to get their free trip’s worth.
Jason and Jenna offer some especially cringe-worthy moments. The duo, paired with an orthodox Muslim family, consistently filters the norms and habits of Cairo through their Christian worldview. There’s an especially problematic scene in which the group visits a spiritual ceremony, and all participate for the song and dance tradition with Jason and Jenna eagerly participating and rocking along. The dance turns out to be a polytheistic ritual, which offends them greatly. The event’s leaders try to explain the meaning of the ritual to Jason and Jenna, but they want nothing of it. They don’t care to listen and learn. They simply ask Jesus for a spiritual cleanse and move on, suggesting to Mounib that he should better inform them of their activities.
Mounib and Serban convene the group daily, as one does in reality television, and the participants discuss their enlightenment based on the events of the day. These conversations are more revealing of the project’s missed potential, since the encounters with Muslims teach the participants that they shouldn’t be so quick to judge people and a culture they don’t know. What they often fail to discuss are the problems at home and each effort to deepen the conversation ultimately reveals its shallowness and naïveté as the participants debate how looking at mummies in a museum expanded their view of the Muslim world. Travelling doesn’t solve problems, nor does it present a truly immersive and authentic representation of a culture. It just provides an escape from the troubles at home.
Free Trip to Egypt opens in Toronto on Friday, August 2 at the Carlton and expands in additional cities throughout the summer.