I Am Free was one of a trio of films from esteemed Egyptian director Salah Abu Seif that are now referred to as his “Female Empowerment Trilogy”. However, anyone naïve enough to expect an uncompromising feminist statement from it would do best to keep in mind that, at the time of I Am Free’s release, Egyptian women had only had the right to vote for two years. It may be far from radical by today’s standards, but when seen in that light, it’s certainly possible to appreciate it as a step in a progressive direction.
And fittingly, I Am Free is a film about a society in transition, as well as a heroine who finds herself trapped between the old and the new. Set in the years prior to the 23 July Revolution of 1952, the film casts Lobna Abdel Aziz, the radiant star of Oh Islam! and Bride of the Nile, as Amina, a rebellious young woman chafing at the strictures she faces in the home of her fiercely traditional Aunt and Uncle. Most of what constitute the principle pastimes of a teenage girl’s life are considered haraam in this household, with physical punishment frequently the penalty, and it is only through Amina’s more liberally raised friends -- like the conspicuously Westernized “Vicky” -- that she is introduced to such innocent pleasures as dancing to pop music and riding in cars with boys.
Finally reaching her breaking point, Amina makes it her single-minded mission to achieve freedom from the dictates of others at all costs -- even if she’s not quite sure what that will look like -- and essentially sets out to do so by acting as if this were already the case. However, unlike her friends, who eke out what little autonomy they can by sneaking around behind their parents’ backs, Amina’s flaunting of authority is open and demonstrative. As a result, she begins to gain a reputation among the gossipy residents of her stiflingly conservative community. We also see some of the open and ugly hostility that the sight of a young girl pursuing the unashamed enjoyment of a self-determined life inspires in the town’s young men.
Lobna Abdel Aziz, in one of her earliest featured roles, gives a star making performance here, portraying Amina’s fierce intelligence while, during the film’s first half, imbuing her with a perpetual air of smoldering insolence that’s both amusing and vicariously thrilling. As the film progresses, Amina shakes off her impediments like a rocket leaving Earth’s atmosphere, freeing herself from the authority of her Aunt and Uncle when she rejects an arranged marriage they’ve proposed, and then her community when she, against the outraged objections of her elders, heads off to Cairo to pursue a college education. Finally she attains the last stage of her plan, that of gaining financial independence, by taking an office job with an oil company, whereupon she crashes headlong into the antithesis of freedom that is the nine-to-five grind.
Dispiritingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I Am Free tells us that, despite her success in taking charge of her destiny, Amina is still left feeling a little unfulfilled and (sigh!) empty inside at the end of the journey. Even more dispiritingly, and perhaps even less surprising, is the fact that her salvation will come in the form of a man -- in this case, Abbas (Shoukry Sarhan), her intensely earnest former neighbor who is now the editor of a big city magazine. More uplifting, however, is the fact that Abbas’ magazine is one with a revolutionary political bent, and that he is in fact involved in outlawed activities on behalf of the anti-colonialist movement. Happily, it is her involvement in this cause, as much as her newfound love for Abbas, that ultimately gives meaning to Amina’s life and a purpose to her freedom.
Despite his reputation as a pioneer of realism in Egyptian cinema, Salah Abu Seif is shown by films like the previously reviewed Sleepless to also have been a finicky visual stylist with no aversion to artifice. While lacking that particular film’s Sirkian hues, the black and white I Am Free suffers no shortage of beautiful and expressive compositions, while still making time for a few engagingly lively, stolen scenes of Cairo street life (watch for the few quick glances of bystanders gawping into the camera as Abdel Aziz skips past). It also should be said that, it’s subject matter notwithstanding, I Am Free is a film that falls squarely within the tradition of Egyptian popular cinema, and as such has a surprisingly light touch for most of its running time. Amina’s quest for freedom at times comes dangerously close to being portrayed as little more than a charming folly of youth, and even a scene in which she is physically set upon by a group of enraged boys -- for the crime of roller skating with obvious enjoyment in a public square with a coed group –- devolves into a slapstick food fight.
I Am Free, like Sleepless, was based on a novel by the author Ihsan Abdel Quddous -- adapted, in both cases, by Salah Abu Seif’s frequent collaborator Naguib Mahfouz -- and was, in fact, one of a number of Quddous’ books brought to the screen by the director. Both it and Sleepless focus on a female character in spiritual torment, and in both cases that female character tries to hash out her situation in a series of literal discussions with God. In the case of I Am Free, Seif depicts those discussions in a series of dream sequences in which Amina is pictured as a tiny silhouette within a enormous doorway, looking into an abyss from which an echoing male voice booms out its displeasure at her actions. It seems that the closer Amina gets to her idea of freedom, the more elusive it becomes, and this because -- in God’s opinion, at least -- she does not understand what the true meaning of freedom is.
This image of its headstrong heroine being dressed down by that most imposing male authority figure of them all is a pretty good indication of the divided mind that I Am Free brings to the issue of female self determination. Nonetheless, the film does seem to be making a sincere attempt to depict the obstacles faced by women in Egyptian society on the eve of the revolution, as well as provide an honest rumination on the nature of freedom. The ultimate expression of Amina’s freedom, it seems to say, is in her willful sacrifice of that freedom for what she believes in. This is less inspiring in the case of her voluntary subjugation to Abbas -- whom, in a symbolic act of surrender, she literally kneels at the feet of -- but is undeniably stirring at the moment when she gives up everything in the name of her political convictions. Thus the arc of the film sees her go from a spiritual prison at the film’s beginning to an all too real one at its end -- albeit, in the latter case, with a serene spirit that could only come from her experiencing true liberation. I only hope that, once she gets out, she’s not too high minded to take up roller skating again.