Free Trip to Egypt: A light-hearted experiment in curing contempt with familiarity

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-

There’s something of a “nice Borat” quality to the sweet-but-slight documentary Free Trip to Egypt. The movie follows the gentle-spoken and idealistic Tarek Mounib, a Swiss-based Canadian software entrepreneur, on his mission to help Americans like Muslims better. 

To promote his cause, Mounib bankrolls seven Americans to Egypt on a friendship tour of his parents’ homeland.  Director Ingrid Serban documents the experiment, which Mounib produced.

West meets East in the Isamophobe-busting “prank doc” Free Trip to Egypt.

West meets East in the Isamophobe-busting “prank doc” Free Trip to Egypt.

There’s a prankish element to the early preparatory scenes where Mounib, wearing a MAGA hat, goes to a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky along with his film crew, to interview working-class Trumpers, who express fearful and hostile attitudes toward Muslims, citing the usual demented Fox News and internet-fueled conspiracy theories.

At the rally, though, Mounib meets his first recruit, a muscular former marine named Brian Kopilec, who says he was attending the rally out of curiosity. Later, they’re joined by two of Brian’s friends – Christian singer and actress, Jenna Day, and born-again evangelist, Jason Reynolds, the latter of whom sees a chance “to spread Jesus’s love into the Middle East.”

The next recruitment attempt is a goofy Michael Moore-style bit, where Mounib sends a man in traditional Egyptian robe and headscarf into Manhattan’s Union Square holding a cardboard sign saying, “Free Trip to Egypt,” which, predictably, draws zero interest. It takes a radio interview on a SiriusXM Radio to get national attention and some serious applicants. 

Mounib and his team choose a retired schoolteacher, Ellen Decker, a one-time liberal who says 9/11 changed her.  (“I’m so racist now,” she says, “I can’t stand myself.”) Her husband, Terry, a former General Motors quality control manager, joins her on the trip.

The final two travellers are Marc Spalding from Louisville, an African-American policeman and father of two adult children, and Katie Appeldorn, a former marine corporal and single mother of two adolescent boys. Each of them is set up with an Egyptian host-companion for the duration of their trip, while the group convenes in the evening for group activities and a chance to compare notes.

Though there’s not much attention given to the handpicked Egyptian hosts, they are, broadly speaking, better educated and more media-savvy than their American guests. Ellen and Terry’s host is cinematographer Ahmed Hassan, who was in the Oscar-nominated film The Square.  Ex-Marine Brian is paired with Salma Salem, a dancer, bar-owner and cinematographer. 

Marc is placed with Mohamed Ragab, a journalist and YouTube personality; Katie with a photo journalist named Asmaa Gamal.

Potentially the most provocative pairing is that of Christians Jason and Jenna, with the orthodox Muslim Madkor family, although, in fact, the religious hosts and guests are birds of the same pious feather.

When they are collectively taken to a Cairo cultural centre to see a performance of music and dance traditionally associated with demonic exorcism, everyone gets offended.  The Muslims leave the hall in protest. Jenna, after dancing up a storm, repents, offering a prayer of “supernatural protection in Jesus's name.”

Back in the United States, Mounib’s follow-ups with the Americans confirm his premise that exposure vanquishes bigotry (though his sample size is small). Perhaps a weekly reality television series “Free Trip To …” would test the idea in more useful ways – and it might be useful to hear what the hosts had to say.

For anyone who has endured a long bus journey with strangers, it will be no surprise that there was more conflict among the Americans than between them and the Egyptians. At one point, there’s an emergency meeting when seniors Ellen and Terry lose patience with the “clowning” of the younger travelers at the back of the bus. As Jenna notes: “In order to add peace to the world we don't have to go to Egypt.”

Free Trip to Egypt. Directed by Ingrid Serban. With Tarek Mounib, Ellen and Terry Decker, Katie Appeldorn, Marc  Spalding, Jason Reynolds and Jenna Dey. Opens August 2 at Toronto’s Imagine Cinemas Carlton Cinema; August 4 at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre; and across Canada in subsequent weeks.