Trying to promote a movie about resentful and unbearable retirees is no easy task. Yet this low-key social-anthropological documentary Welcome to Luxor (2022) is worth the effort. It explores the fragile world of expat women who have made new lives in the Egyptian city of Luxor, capturing their everyday conflicts. Conflicts that arise in relation to their environment, local customs, with one another and, especially, within themselves. At the same time, the film examines important issues tied to post-colonialism, sex tourism and the imposition of one’s own ideas. Gradually, we uncover much more than petty troubles of argumentative busybodies.
A sensitive insight into worlds on the fringes
A fad involving beaver hats, mobile home slalom race, minigolf, or men who play with toy trains. In her documentaries, the Swedish filmmaker Malin Skjöld often shines light on phenomena and communities that are easily overlooked by others. Like Werner Herzog or the photographer Martin Parr, she is able to capture the specifics of marginal human interests without explicitly deriding them. And like Herzog and Parr, Skjöld might give us a tongue-in-cheek wink but allows the viewer to arrive at her own conclusions. The same applies to Welcome to Luxor. Skjöld just lets the ornery women keep on talking, layering their statements on top of one another, to paint a complicated yet cohesive insight into the female expat community in today’s Egypt.
Sitting and gossiping about those who sit and gossip
Welcome to Luxor follows several different groups of women. At first glance, it might seem they have most things in common. They are all aging women with a wealthy Western pedigree, they are white and want to spend their old age in sunny Egypt. If asked, the women would probably say that this assessment could not be further from the truth. Each of them came to Egypt for a different reason, from different backgrounds and countries. Each has a different taste, education and ideas of how to spend their free time. While one group of women visits lectures on ancient pharaohs, another frequents an entertainment show with a disco where locals are dressed up as leprechauns. One group tries to fill their days with designing their own dresses, while another lounges at the pool. All of them keep on griping.
One group talks trash about another one, while contradicting their own words, which is then mined by Skjöld for its understated comedic potential. The women’s annoyed statements are sometimes heard only as voiceover and the comedic effect is amplified by the fact that we are not always sure about the speaker’s identity. The editing composition seems loose and almost random, yet in fact each situation is carefully tied to the next to build the overall picture.
Talking to Egyptian men? Why in the hell would I do that?
Whenever the protagonists start complaining about conditions in the country and about the locals, the film takes on a more pressing tone and confronts the West with some hard-hitting questions. Are we able to respect different cultures? Are we able and willing to understand different traditions and customs? Or do we tend to replant and impose our own ideas on others?
Judging by the behavior of the protagonists, the answer would be clear. The way the expats comment on especially Egyptian men is almost appalling. Condescending judgements, contempt, lack of understanding. While a viewer without any local insight cannot tell whether their critical views are based on fact, one feels that the expats in no way try to understand the locals and prefer to guard their own bubble. In between lines, we can sense their deeply entrenched, knee-jerk rejection of difference and otherness that also underlies the way societies often handle migration. The situation in the film is the exact opposite. The new arrivals are now the expats and their patronizing manners resemble those of expansive colonizers.
This comparison may seem exaggerated, and the documentary refuses any categorical conclusions. In a less harsh view, the film might invite us to examine some of the issues surrounding mass tourism. They say that travel helps to expand one’s horizons and understanding of other cultures. It is questionable to what extent this is ever the case if they view the tourist destination as an exotic theme park full of “dirty locals”.
The bittersweet phenomenon of sugar mamas
However, not even the contempt often expressed towards local men is as clear-cut as it may seem. In fact, some of the women are very close to young Egyptians. The film broaches the underdiscussed issue of female sex tourism. While Thailand has built an almost separate industry around male sex tourism, Western women’s trips to Tunisia, Kenya or Egypt to pursue erotic adventures are not so often talked about in the public domain. One of the few cinematic excursions into the subject, Paradise: Love (2012) by the Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl is an excellent feature drama that takes a remarkably complex view of the issue. The phenomenon of so-called sugar mamas, i.e., aging well-off women who provide financial support to younger men from poorer backgrounds in exchange for sex and care may seem emancipating, yet in the case of inappropriate emotional investment it may have very unpleasant repercussions. If there is one thing that is barred from this kind of exchange, it is indeed true love.
Welcome to Luxor follows several stories like that from as many as three different angles. Understandably, the one that features derisively gossiping women is the least sensitive. With an air of disgust, they start questioning the age gap and the amount of money spent, serving as a kind of proxy to conservative points of view. In one unfortunate case, they even supply the stereotypical comment, “Is she stupid? It’s her own fault!” Quick judgement and the inability to extend empathy toward ambivalent protagonists is a common phenomenon. In a recent example, the victims who appeared in the documentary film Tinder Swindler (2022) have not garnered much sympathy due to their “gold-digging” disposition. Sadly, our society does not tend to acknowledge the issue of vulnerability.
In contrast to the jaded gossips, the film also shows a sincere story of one of the expats who really happened to fall in love and later had to face the harsh reality of an empty wallet and a broken heart. Seeing the events in retrospect, she herself finds it hard to understand how she ever got in a situation like that. We can only guess what personal struggles compelled her to blow the transactional affair out of proportion.
The third angle may be the most sober reflection on the issue. This is a group of women who want to enjoy life while they can and, at the same time, they are fully aware of all the benefits and pitfalls of the relationships, and they are able to provide cynical commentary while lounging indulgently at the pool.
Final resting place
The film is peppered with abstract cutaways to different colors being dissolved in water that should probably evoke the lazy vibe of hot days slowly going by. However, without having any clear purpose, these shots seem hollow, as if the abstract footage should grant the otherwise sparsely shot film a higher aesthetic value.
Featured at the beginning of the movie, the story of the archaeologist Francesca seems a bit out of place. While backroom intrigue and archaeological discoveries are also rife with conflict and are closely tied to the environment of the film, they do not fit in with the overall effect because they have little in common with the other motifs. Perhaps the director wanted to present a broad range of protagonists, or the story seemed sufficiently enticing to be included. In either case, the story might have worked better had it appeared later in the movie instead of the beginning.
Francesca’s story also follows right after the opening shot with a statement informing the viewer that Luxor used to be a famous burial place for kings but today people come here for slightly different reasons. This pithy hint that involves historical context and the importance of the city could have been exploited in a better way. The contrast could have either generated some humor or it could have been used to explore themes around aging and the fear of death.
Expat microworld as a litmus test for the West
The first, complicated story told by the archaeologist is a bit heavy-handed and the movie might not initially draw you in. But after that it will keep you hooked. This is partly due to the pleasant running time of sixty minutes but also due to the strange appeal of the stories. A similar principle might even apply to tabloids or the general popularity of gossip in our society. The electrifying impact of gossip is sometimes hard to resist. The director does not in any way promote sensationalism so though it may be present, it comes solely through the attitude of the protagonists.
It is also important to note that the movie is not explicitly preachy. Skjöld does not confront the protagonists, overanalyze their actions or attempt to pigeonhole them into her own worldview. There is no historical context, views from talking heads or infographics with specific data. She “only” observes and allows any critical thoughts to percolate around individual statements. The result is a remarkably effective and approachable investigation of multiple issues.
Although Skjöld focuses on the microworld of one community, she also very astutely pinpoints several universal problems. Arrogance, inflexibility, inability to listen to others and, above all, the tendency to gripe are symptoms that should be reflected upon in any part of the world.
WELCOME TO LUXOR
Directed by: Malin Skjöld
62 minutes, Sweden, 2022