“Yomeddine” is Arabic for “judgment day”, and is the title of the Egyptian film I saw on Friday as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. This is a roadie film, as badly disfigured leprosy sufferer Beshay leaves the colony in the desert where he has lived since boyhood and sets out in a donkey cart to find his family. His mentally ill wife has died. A young dark skinned orphan, who goes by Obama after “the guy on TV”, hides in the cart and is determined to accompany Beshay on his quest.
Everything that can go wrong does. The boy is injured trying to help Beshay fix the cart when the wheel fails. Carrying the unconscious boy into a town, Beshay is thrown in to jail when villagers grow agitated at his appearance and the chance that his leprosy is still contagious. While the cart is unattended, Beshay’s small stash of money is stolen. Both the boy and Beshay escape, but the cart eventually fails for good. The donkey dies. The boy falls ill.
They find comfort and help among other outcasts, sharing a fire and food under an overpass. The town is where the original orphanage of Obama’s early years is located. The building is closed and abandoned, but they find what might be Obama’s records. His name might be Mohammed. His parents might be dead. One of the outcasts asks a friend, a truck driver, to take Beshay and the boy to Beshay’s home town. They find his family, a brother who thought Beshay had died when they were both children..
The most moving part of the film for me is Beshay himself. We are introduced to him first by his badly deformed hands, seeking small treasures in a mountain of garbage near the leper colony. Gradually, we come to know his badly disfigured face, his foreshortened body, his smile, his kindness to the boy, his perseverance, his resilience in the face of daunting odds. We hear his cry, “I am a human being.”
People still get leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Now, if caught early, it can be cured. But not then, not in a developing country, not for Beshay. Yet he builds a life, painful step by painful step.
The title Yomeddine, judgment day, comes into play twice. The first is early in the film when the donkey Harby dies. A weeping Obama asks Beshay if Harby will have to stand before God to be judged, like people. Comforting the boy, Beshay says Harby has gone straight to heaven. The second time we hear of judgment day comes near the end of the film, when Beshay kneels before his elderly, infirm father, the one who promised to come back for Beshay when he was cured and never did.