“Egyptians will always dance, no matter how poor or hungry they are,” says one character in Reem Saleh’s WHAT COMES AROUND (Al Gam’iya, Egypt), as she watches two neighborhood girls joyously dance on the street. This sentence, which comes off more than a little contrived, captures the director’s intention throughout the film, and also the underlying problem in its premise: Poverty doesn’t necessarily have to stand in the way of happiness. The 79-minute documentary, which plays in Panorama at this year’s Berlinale, is set in Rod El Farag, one of Cairo’s poorest and most populous residential areas. It follows a group of the neighborhood’s inhabitants as they organise a credit union, or “gami’ya,” whereby each of them contributes an amount of money, and each week one of them gets the aggregated sum, according to who needs it most.

The gami’ya is used as a window that allows us into the lives of five characters that Saleh followed over the course of seven years, as they struggle to make ends meet. They laugh, argue, marry, divorce, give birth and undergo spiritual transformations, but the narrative style is often inconsistent, reaching near-climactic notes in the film’s third act without proper build-up. Saleh attempts to paint a pleasant picture of that community, banding together despite the hardships they face.

Yet the film’s questionable approach stands out when one girl insists to use the money her mother gets from the union on an FGM operation. In one scene, she describes the process in harrowing detail, with a hint of pride, and – even more disturbing – humour. It is shocking how lightly the whole thing is dealt with.

In the Q&A after the film, Saleh gushes at how “beautiful” Rod El Farag is, the cramped slum nestled against the railway where people constantly fight for their basic needs. But there is nothing charming about poverty, and trying to tell a feel-good story within such a setting, stripped of anger and politics, renders WHAT COMES AROUND an impotent work, and an insensitive one at that.