It’s difficult to grasp the socio-political challenges that have emerged from our current climate. Free Trip To Egypt is a documentary that, well-intentioned as it most definitely is, tries to do the impossible: problem-solve its way through these complicated circumstances using an overly simple premise. The title mostly says it all. A group of Muslim-fearing Americans is taken on a free trip to Egypt, where they’ll be hosted by the nameless, faceless Middle Easterners regularly demonized by the U.S. media. Directed by Ingrid Serban, the feel-good film never quite finds its footing.
The idea was conceived by Canadian-Egyptian producer Tarek Mounib, who was concerned about xenophobic tensions escalating in the U.S. — he lives in Switzerland — and described the project as his way of facilitating an exchange of ideas between two seemingly different groups. Details of the titular trip are murky. Funds and logistics aren’t spoken of. Mounib’s pull toward Americans and not, say, his fellow Canadians or Swiss is not really elaborated on. And most curiously, we’re left with a big question: why take them all the way to Egypt instead of introducing them to their Muslim-American neighbors?
Mounib sets out to assemble a ragtag team of Islam skeptics for his social experiment and eventually does. There’s the former Marine Brian and his two ultra-Christian friends Jason and Jenna; they’re joined by older couple Terry and Ellen, the latter who loathingly describes herself as “so racist.” And there’s the quiet single mother, Katie and finally police officer Marc, whom Mounib found on patrol at a Trump rally. Mounib’s pitch is blunt — he asks, “Are you an American who fears Muslims?” — but that line comes pretty damn close to perpetuating the very thing that the film seems to want to dispel, by playing into the idea of Muslims as being “other” to Americans. Muslim-Americans, after all, are a small but significant portion of the United States population.
Unfortunately, the issue with the film is that it seeks to prophesize its conclusion before the trip has even begun. How will these people be changed in their encounters with Egyptian locals? It often seems like the American participants are posturing for the camera, trying to prove who can be the least racist or develop the best rapport with their counterparts. Marc the police officer puts it best: “It just feels like we’re on a game show, and we’ve got a bunch of contestants trying to be the best actors, the best this and that.” The question of authenticity should be the stone that this film turns over and examines, but that is only acknowledged in passing. So if all of this is merely an opportunity for bigoted Americans to put on a show of liberalism, what’s the point?
Free Trip To Egypt excels elsewhere, particularly in its ability to catch subjects outside of their comfort zones. There are plenty of awkward moments as the Americans meet Mounib, then each other, then their Egyptian hosts. There is something to be said about the simultaneous navigation of cultural differences and the fears triggered by those differences. If the film had leaned into those anxieties just a little more or approached its subjects more critically, it might have struck a deeper chord.
Instead, the burden of “good representation” rests on the Egyptian participants, who open their homes — willingly, of course — to people who are there because they question the humanity of Muslims. We rarely see the Egyptians outside of their interactions with the Americans, even though they might be the more interesting group. Tell me more about Salma, the cool activist who rides a motorcycle! Or Ahmed, the cinematographer revolutionary! Free Trip to Egypt is, unfortunately, a one-sided affair that gives the Americans a chance to meet with local Egyptians but doesn’t really extend the favor to viewers.
There are certainly a lot of vulnerable moments that almost make up for the film’s meekness. Katie has a heartfelt moment with her host Asmaa, opening up about domestic abuse; Ellen and Terry are reunited with their son, who lives in Saudi Arabia and is proud of them for their baby steps. The final 20 minutes focus mostly on this trio, for a heartbreaking reason that the documentary deals with quite beautifully. But not everyone has a fundamental change of heart; Jason’s initial reason for going to Egypt is to spread Christianity and baptize Muslims, and even by the end of the documentary, he asks Mounib to open his heart to Jesus. It’s an off-putting remark, and it indicates the larger complications that the documentary is perhaps not prepared to deal with.
Ultimately, Free Trip to Egypt does the simple thing that it set out to do: construct a bond between a group of Americans and a group of Egyptians who never would have met otherwise. But it drops the ball by hesitating to dig deeper into the performative liberalism and deep-rooted bigotry of its American participants, who are given much more screen time than the Egyptian folks who are the supposed catalysts of their life-changing experience.