Maya is a young Egyptian girl whose mother has recently died while undergoing surgery. Still deep in mourning, she believes the surgeon who operated on her mother was beset by evil forces. Immersed in contemporary superhero imagery and stories, she decided to fight these “monsters” by becoming a superhero vigilante out to avenge her mother.
Maya takes on some criminals on her own, managing to triumph in her adventures. But when she confronts a group of opponents that may be beyond her capacity, she may have to call on a different set of powers to overcome them.
Writer-director Tara Shehata’s children’s fantasy short (co-written with Andrew McGee) is not just an adventure about finding one’s inner magic and strength, but with its specific cultural milieu and flavor, it’s a keen-eyed examination of women’s place in Egyptian society, seen through the eyes of a young girl who wants to fight back against the oppressors who surround her.
Many fantasy films are shot with a sheen and polish that form the backdrop for stunning special effects. But the film takes a more naturalistic approach to its visuals, emphasizing Cairo’s weathered textures and gritty surroundings. Social context is key here — this is a story as much about contemporary Egypt as it is about Maya’s own personal journey through grief, pain and anger.
The storytelling adeptly balances these dual strands, capturing Maya’s emotional and imaginative world through beautifully observed scenes, poignant details and the occasional flight of whimsy in the form of personal animated flourishes. The combination has both a handmade DIY charm and an eye for the poetic that is unique to the genre and emphasizes both Maya’s innocence and precociousness.
Maya’s gift is that she’s able to recognize the larger societal forces that shape her world, even if she can’t quite articulate why they’re unjust or oppressive. Like many children and young people, she has an innate sense of fairness, which she responds to with a directness of action. Young actor Yasmina El-Abd’s performance also has a clarity to it, which makes for a kind of moral power. She may not have the ability to fly or be invisible, but she possesses the power of conviction.
The scope of her battles remains charmingly smaller in scale, but when Maya gets more ambitious and takes on something that may be larger than her powers, “The Shadow of Cairo” at its climax reveals the limitations of the fantasy superhero genre. It’s not exactly a move into social realism, but an acknowledgment that a mostly Americanized genre — and its focus on the individual — can only impact society so much. Instead, Maya draws upon something larger than herself — and learns a valuable lesson about community, collective action and connection, one that pulls her out of her isolating grief and back into the larger world.