Rarely have I been on such a roller-coaster ride of emotions with a movie as I was with the documentary Free Trip to Egypt. That probably sounds sarcastic, and I absolutely do not mean that. At all. I was literally up and down and up and down again, crying and laughing and shaking my head and full of despair and then full of hope and then feeling misery creep back in again. And then maybe hope again. (Maybe.)
I mean, this is a movie about Egyptian-Canadian entrepreneur and activist Tarek Mounib, who has a flash of inspiration: He wants to gift Islamophobic, Trump-loving Americans with the titular free vacay as a way to expand their horizons and open their hearts and minds. Mounib worries that he’s being a bit naive with this project — like, can it really work? I’m thinking that he’s brave but only in a foolhardy way to be walking amongst a Trump rally in middle America trying to recruit people for this, where he encounters shocking ignorance and belligerence, the kind that prompts one woman to refuse Mounib — because of course — while insisting that America needs to “take back our oil.” You know, America’s oil that has been *checks notes* under the sands of Iraq and Iran from the time before America even existed.
WTF and SMH and STFU and OMG and I am just going to go back to bed now and never emerge from under the covers.
Also I would love a free trip to Egypt and why should I have to be full of hate to get it?
Poor kind Tarek — honestly, he’s a real sweetheart — finds his Internet groove (YouTube videos and Facebook outreach are involved, though not without pain there as well) and is able to recruit a small group of people whom, I readily admit, it pains me to concede are interesting: They are consumed with racism and bigotry but also somehow aware of that and cognizant that maybe there is another path. Apparently Tarek is quite a successful entrepreneur, because he fully subsidizes a collective trip to Egypt for them all: airfare, nice hotel, amazing outings, the whole shebang, while also pairing them up with locals to give them the grand tour of human life in Cairo. (One of Mounib’s ventures is Kindness Films, under the banner of which Free Trip is released, so I guess this whole thing is a big vanity project. But it’s all in a really good cause, so I can forgive that.)
These are the people Tarek takes to Egypt: Katie Appeldorn, a former Marine, whose parents just naturally presume she will be sold into sex slavery if she goes on this trip; Ellen Decker, onetime Vietnam War protester who went full Islamophobe after 9/11, and her “xenophobic” partner, Terry; another former Marine, Brian Kopilec, who thinks Trump is good for America; Jesus freaks Jenna Day and Jason Reynolds, the latter of whom, in what is perhaps the most astonishing statement of what-the-uneducated-fuckery I have ever encountered, wants to “bring Jesus to Middle East”; and cop Marc Spalding, who worries that the whole project is just a way to trick Americans into getting taken hostage by terrorists. (Spalding is black. I would like to imagine that black Americans would be slightly clued in to what it means to be judged unfairly and negatively solely by externals such as skin color, but apparently this is an unreasonable overreach on my part.)
Anyway: *pinches bridge of nose*
You will probably be unsurprised to hear that it takes only the slightest bit of exposure to foreign lands and Muslimic people for Tarek’s group to be absolutely overcome with love for their fellow human beings and fellow citizens of planet Earth. (Mostly. The Jesus freaks have some work to do still.) This first feature from filmmaker Ingrid Serban is pretty straightforward, stylistically and narratively, but I cannot help but see a certain sly cinematic side-eye in how, say, tattooed, pumped-up Marine Brian is kinda astonished to discover that his host in Cairo, Salma Salem, is a hot biker babe… like, literally into Harleys and literally not into burkas, and that she’s just, like, a regular person as he perceives regular person-ness, even grading on an American curve.
Again I am sounding sarcastic, and yes, okay, I am, a bit, but there is genuine honest bring-Kleenex emotion here as these admittedly bigoted MAGA-loving Americans are staggered to find common ground with the very people Fox News has told them to hate and fear. I cried quite a bit watching this movie because, dammit, it made me think that perhaps we are not doomed and that there might be some saving of us all, if only we can somehow convince all the hate-filled bigots to open up a little. Or at least to watch movies like this one. It might be the only hope we have.