At the center of director Fawzi Saleh’s Poisonous Roses is Taheya (Koki), who makes her living cleaning a public toilet for people wealthier than she is. She lives with her mother and with her brother Saqr, who works in a tannery. Taheya is obsessed with taking care of her brother, bringing him lunch every day and making sure he is comfortable at home. Saqr, on the other hand, takes his sister for granted. When he quits the tannery and begins a job at the local glue factory, he doesn’t bother to tell her. Yet she tracks him down and brings him his lunch anyway. All Taheya wants is for her brother to take her to the amusement park, presumably as a reminder of better days when they were children. Saqr keeps putting this off. What he really wants to do is to borrow money and leave Egypt illegally by boat to find a better life in Italy. When he slips away, Taheya informs the port police. When the official on duty asks her why she cares, Taheya replies, “He’s all I have.”
With the exception of Taheya, none of the characters in Poisonous Roses are well-developed. In the case of Saqr, this is understandable because, frankly, he is a young man without any depth. He works, he has friends, he finds a girlfriend and he wants the adventure of escaping the poverty of his life. Their mother and other local characters are merely place savers.
What makes Poisonous Roses a powerful film are the images of the bleak and unhealthy lives led by the tannery workers and others in the neighborhood. In 2010, Saleh made a prize-winning documentary, Living Skin, about child workers in a tannery. “If you worked here for half an hour,” one of the boys says, “you would curse the day you were born.” In Poisonous Roses, Saleh and cinematographer Maged Nader do an extraordinary job of conveying the awful conditions at the tannery and the surrounding area. In the opening shot, chemical waste flows into a street as people casually walk by and animals walk through the polluted water. You can almost smell the terrible stench that these impoverished workers and their families are forced to live with.
Poisonous Roses appears to be inspired by the legend of Isis, who gathers together the dismembered body parts of her brother/husband Osiris and brings him back to life. However, what is memorable about the film is not the plot or even the characters, but the all-too-real images of lives that no one should have to live.