By Abhimanyu Das
Namir Abdel Messeeh’s highly entertaining documentary The Virgin, the Copts and Me is a curious beast, a bit like one of those clever New Yorker articles that start off making you think it’ll be about Batman but end up being about the tax obligations of the 1%. Only, in this case, it’s not entirely clear whether the thematic sleight-of-hand was artistic choice or just lucky accident. Either way, this narrative slipperiness is both what’s interesting and troublesome about this frustrating picture, easy to like but difficult to recommend.
The saga begins with the French-Egyptian filmmaker (the family emigrated to France in 1973), sitting down with his family to watch a fuzzy videotape of an alleged sighting of the Virgin Mary. Further discussion reveals that this is one of a spate of such sightings, experienced mostly by the oft-persecuted Christian Coptic community in Egypt. Interestingly, a few Muslims had claimed to experience these holy visions as well. This curious cultural hook is all Messeeh – a secular skeptic – needs to decide on making a documentary about the phenomenon.
The film’s tendency toward distracting self-referentialism is already front-and-center. Messeeh spends a chunk of time ‘documenting’ his attempts to find a financier and win his family over to the project’s cause. All this is done with great comic flair. We get an early introduction to the most memorable character in the film – his domineering mother Siham who continually expresses doubts about her son’s ability to pull this off. Unfortunately, much of this feels staged. It seems unlikely that Messeeh happened to have an HD camera running at a family gathering during which he is hit by a perfectly blocked creative epiphany. The film is full of what look to be staged scenes, contrived narrative setups and pre-arranged dialogue, raising the question (unintentionally, in my view) of whether this is a documentary at all. Messeeh is in every scene, an unapologetic puppet-master. At every turn, the developments feel arranged as opposed to observed.
Eventually, Messeeh does find a financier – who becomes an additional comic device via his increasingly angry voicemails – and sets off to Cairo. Once he arrives, however, he discovers that the prospects for success on the basis of his vague premise are remote. He finds few eyewitnesses to the phenomenon. Those who do come forward fail to yield much useful insight. Church patriarchs refuse to cooperate. Even his attempt to advertise in a Cairo paper, asking for eyewitnesses, is botched by a cellphone-challenged assistant who hangs up on all the callers. This first half of the film essentially becomes an amusing fish-out-of-water scenario, following the bemused Messeeh as he wanders around Cairo, searching for a subject. Unsurprisingly, entertaining though it might be, it yields little religious or sociopolitical insight.
At this point, the film takes a sharp left turn as Messeeh – out of desperation – decides to visit his extended family in the remote Egyptian village from which his mother hails. Here we get some tantalizing hints of insight about class-consciousness and the uneasy relationship that often arises between immigrant and homeland. Siham forbids Messeeh to film her family, clearly made uncomfortable by the prospect of an international audience scrutinizing where she comes from or whom she grew up with. These insights are quickly buried, mined for comedy value (the Tribeca audience laughed uproariously at Siham’s threats to sue her own son for filming his country cousins).
Messeeh goes ahead and films his extended family anyway in what proves to be the more interesting (yet thornier) half of the documentary. All pretense of this being a project about faith in religious phenomena is thrown to the winds. Suddenly, we’re watching a slice-of-life travelogue starring his rural relatives, an affectionate look at day-to-day existence in an Egyptian village. To this end, Messeeh is actually successful. This is not a frequently documented group of people. Their excitement at being filmed is palpable in every frame and their willingness to bare their souls to the interloper touching yet troublesome. It was a little discomfiting sitting with the director in an air-conditioned Tribeca Film Festival screening room while his cousins muse sadly onscreen about the hand-to-mouth misery of farm life. Still, there are rewards to be gleaned from this material. For a while, Messeeh drops his postmodern, comic remove and lets his connection with his subjects take over. There is real feeling in the scenes where Messeeh, his aunt and toothless old grandmother while away evenings together or when the cousins work the fields, proudly exhibiting their skills to the camera. Messeeh the self-proclaimed agnostic was never really interested in religion. His real preoccupation is with community. The film comes alive in a more believable fashion once he discovers that this is what he really wants to talk about.
Sadly, he strays back into the territory of manufactured drama and farce. His French producer leaves him a few amusingly irritable voicemails, pulling funding and expressing chagrin about this no longer being a marketable project about religious tensions. High and dry, the desperate Messeeh turns to the obvious replacement producer – his mother. An experienced accountant, she drums up some funding, draws up a new budget and flies to the village to help him figure out how to finish this film. The scheme they hatch remains borderline inexplicable to me, days after the screening. They decide to film a reconstructed manifestation of the Virgin Mary, using a cast drawn from the villagers. The meta-layers are enough to induce a seizure. This has already been – among many other things – a film about its own making. At this point, it becomes a film about the making of a film about the making of a film. If that makes sense.
This feels like a completely different movie, along the lines of numerous narrative features about the riotous circus of film production (State and Main, Be Kind Rewind…take your pick). As always, Messeeh mines numerous laughs from the fraught casting process, the makeshift pre-production and the one-day shoot. One can’t help but pick up on the infectious joy of the villagers as they prance through what is clearly a welcome diversion from the routine of their lives. They practice theatrically exaggerated reactions to ‘the Virgin Mary’, steal electricity from nearby cables to help power the lights, gasp with delight at the green-screen process that plays out on the director’s Macbook. The villagers’ awed reaction to the screening of the final product, as they see themselves onscreen, generates a definite bittersweet emotion. In a final twist, it becomes a film about the allure of cinema; as the villagers look reverentially up at the screen, it is hard not to equate the act of watching a film with the act of worship. It’s Giuseppe Tornatore via Morgan Spurlock.
But, then, what is this film about? In the prologue, his producer criticizes Messeeh for creating a project that is too sprawling – “Is it about the Copts, the Virgin or you?” (a joke that sets up the title). Tragically, Messeeh never really figures it out. Every time he wanders into potentially interesting material – socioeconomic facts of life, rural existence, the plight of women in a religious society – he quickly shoehorns it into the audience-baiting framework of comedy or easy sentimentality. There’s little discipline in the construction of the film and no coherent, overarching theme or thesis. Messeeh’s bull-headed co-opting of the villagers to his cause is not exactly laudable. It sets up the final emotional moment of the villagers reacting to the re-enactment, but has already undermined itself through its lack of verisimilitude.
Ultimately, Messeeh, having won his poor cousins over with the magic of Mac-based special effects, gets to tour Europe and the United States with a film tailor-made for Western audiences. But what has he actually offered the community that opened its home to him? Or, really, to those aforementioned audiences? Throughout, The Virgin, The Copts and Me promises to paint a vivid picture of an Egyptian community that rarely (if ever) gets media attention. Infuriatingly, the director never trusts the material enough to keep from cutting to the next gimmick. I wish he had put more faith in his subjects and less in meta-textual trickery.
Abhimanyu Das is a freelance journalist and NYU graduate student, working out of Kolkata and the United States. He writes about film, TV and comics and watches at least one movie a day.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.