Director Ingrid Serban’s feature-length documentary Free Trip to Egypt follows Canadian and Muslim/Christian filmmaker Tarek Mounib’s desire to provide an all-expenses-paid excursion to Egypt for Americans of varying political affiliations, world-views, and religions. This is an attempt to provide a bias-free context of the peoples of Egypt, and to promote harmony between the cultures of America and the Middle East.
What follows is an occasionally naive and cloying “can’t we all just get along?” treatise, but admittedly is more often than not rather inspiring.
Mounib purposefully searches for his volunteers in red states, the Bible belt, and at Donald Trump rallies (himself festooned in a MAGA cap). Initially he is met with considerable blowback from folks who range from being frightened to visit the Middle East, to people who seemingly hate Muslim countries on principle alone.
Eventually, Mounib finds his volunteers who become the subjects of the film. They include Katie, an ex-Marine, Christian and mother with a traumatic past, Jenna, Brian and Jason – all evangelical Christians – and Marc, an African American Police Officer from Kentucky.
Rounding out the rag-tag group of somewhat open-minded travelers is the most fascinating subject of the film, Ellen. A Jewish woman in her 60s or 70s who freely admits that after protesting the Vietnam war in her youth, she became considerably racist against the Muslim community after the events of 9/11. She hopes to take this trip with her husband Terry so that she can gain perspective of a culture she knows little about, particularly as her progressive son Michael teaches English in Saudi Arabia.
There is a lot of fluff in this film. We see Americans and Egyptians finding common ground, which truly is good for the soul. We see the differences in perspective, but also the love and acceptance between human beings and the shared experience between people of varying worldviews. It’s beautiful. Still, it feels like perhaps there was a good amount of confrontation that was cut out to prove the film’s thesis.
Jason, Jenna and Brian are at times shown to be enjoying the excursion more as a chance to party in an exotic location. Further, we see them clearly trying to be humble on camera, yet still proselytizing about Jesus Christ, as though they know better than the religious beliefs of their hosts, and it comes across as holier-than-thou.
Katie spends some time with the family that she was paired with, and this is when the film gets you in the gut. She opens up about her second husband who abused her young son – causing him to be special needs – and the fact that she spent a year fighting for custody of her child because of it. Despite a considerable language barrier, her host family empathizes with her, comforting Katie in a very difficult moment. It is both a heartbreaking and heartwarming thing to witness.
The film ends with an absolutely emotionally crushing coda that adds some humanity and compassion to a documentary that occasionally comes across as a little precious and purposeful. The sequence feels like it truly and genuinely reaches the film’s thesis in an organic manner. While very powerful, it was indeed difficult to watch.
Free Trip to Egypt certainly has its flaws, and I truly did feel like things were left out so that the film could make its point more powerfully, but in the end, while it may make you cry, it will also warm your heart.