In the award-winning documentary We Have Never Been Kids, Mahmood Soliman offers a gripping portrait of an Egyptian family living under the poverty line. Presented as part of the Arab Film Festival, the film follows four children and their mother, Nadia, as they experience hunger, violence, the abuse from Nadia’s husband and the tumultuous political events that shaped Egypt in the past decade.
“The most important thing was to live with dignity,” concludes Nadia, after explaining to director Soliman the everyday struggle of life under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. At the brink of the revolution, in early January 2011, accessing food is difficult, and finding a regular job nearly impossible. Yet Nadia survives, and strives to provide for her children, just as she has been doing for the past 10 years. Her days are spent sharpening knives for a living, with the help of a rustic machine, and helping the kids with their homework. They eat on the street, against the school’s walls, and sleep where they can.
When Mubarak resigns, Mohamed Morsi takes his place, offering a glimmer of hope for peace. It doesn’t last long: Egypt soon erupts into another revolution, in which Nadia, like many of her peers, participates. Even for the poorest of the poor, political change is important, and so is the need to fight for one’s rights.
But perhaps more than politics, it’s the abusive nature of Nadia’s husband that most affects the family. Although he is not named and never seen on screen, his presence is ubiquitous throughout We Have Never Been Kids, to the point of being suffocating. The husband, through years of abuse, destroyed the core of the family and had irreparable repercussions on the children. He didn’t want them to have an education and withdrew them from their school. As a result, they were forced to beg for jobs on the streets, find places to sleep and make their own living. They were adults before they were teens; they have never been kids.
Also prominent in the documentary is the idea of masculinity, and the way one’s vision of masculinity is hereditarily passed on. Nadia’s husband strongly believed that the man is head of the household, and that only he should command; he knows what’s best for the members of his family, and reserves himself the right to beat them if they disagree. Nadia disagreed. Before she could divorce him, her husband beat her and raped her. When their father died in 2012, Khalil, the oldest child, unconsciously started adopting his abusive behavior: “Khalil is a bully now that dad’s dead,” explains Noor, his little brother.
Heterosexuality is also part of the husband’s idea of masculinity. Throughout the film, Nadia’s fear that Noor might be gay is palpable; yet, she eventually concedes that gay or not, “he’s my son, and I’ll never give up [on him].” This is a ray of hope, in this oppressing, male-controlled household. Here, Soliman excels; he understands the tensions gripping the family, and is able to reveal his subjects’ deep, true sentiments.
Near the end of the documentary, we learn that Noor has moved to a town in Southern Egypt to live with his friends and that Khalil has disappeared. The tension, cleverly built through the movie, reaches its paroxysm at the end with a powerful, almost surreal, climax. The screen goes black and only remains the sound of a recorded phone call between Khalil and Soliman. “I’m in deep shit, completely broke,” Khalil says. “I want to burn myself to death, or maybe kill someone, or join ISIS, I don’t know. Kill or be killed, I’m dead all the way.”
I was spellbound. These last sentences go beyond the simple showing of a harsh reality. These are the hopeless words of a young man who might commit suicide, or join the deadliest terrorist organization in the world, because he lost faith in life. And it’s up to the viewer to decide what to make of that.
Soliman may seem cynical in portraying these dark themes and shocking moments. After watching the film, however, I think he is actually realistic. The atrocious reality of raising kids when living under the poverty line, in a country defined by its unstable political structure, is something that I cannot begin to comprehend. Yet, when one witnesses the most intimate moments of the family in their times of struggle, one can’t help but empathize.
The movie often makes the viewer question whether or not they should be seeing what they’re seeing. At the Q&A session organized with Soliman at the end of the movie, someone inquired about the way the director navigated this line.
“I’ve known the family for so long,” he responded.
We Have Never Been Kids, in fact, is the second film Soliman has made with Nadia’s family. He began telling their story in 2003 with the documentary Living Among Us, and followed them for an additional five years starting in 2011. In Kids, we catch a glimpse of the 15-year relationship Soliman has entertained with the family. This lasting connection allows him to take part in the most private moments in their lives, and to bring the viewer along.
And yet, the viewer is not welcome everywhere. Halfway through the film, as Nadia is helping a friend sell vegetables on the side of the street, a man calls out Soliman and his crew, complaining that the footage will be shown in other countries: “If it’s shown on Egyptian TV, fine, we know our problems. But abroad, no!” For this middle-class business owner, American audiences should not see the reality of poverty in Egypt. For him, and many people in the film, it gives the country a dishonorable image. Yet, despite this backlash, Soliman insists during the Q&A session that “Nadia wanted to tell the world her story.”