Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
Issue No.398
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Field Marshal Ahmed Ismail A still from Al-Rossassa La Tazal fi Gaibi (The Bullet is Still in my Pocket), directed by Hossameddin Mustafa in 1974

Victory at the box office

By Hani Mustafa

Field Marshal Abdel-Ghani El-Gamassi, who was chief of operations and later chief of staff during the October War, once said: "I wish we had had a film crew there when the Egyptian troops were crossing the Suez Canal. Since secrecy was essential, this wasn't possible. Had it been within my powers, I would have brought in press and cinema photographers, 72 hours ahead of the outbreak of war, and kept them under guard, releasing them only when the troops began crossing the Canal. But this was not possible. And I continue to regret it."

Several feature films on the Arab-Israeli conflict had been produced during the 1950s and '60s, but producers only began to show an active interest in the subject following the 1973 victory. Most of these later films were simply an attempt to cash in on the psychological impact of victory on the people. The result was a number of commercial productions which ranged from the artistically modest to the insultingly simplistic.

Films dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict can be divided into three categories, each focusing on a particular phase of the conflict. The first deals with the 1948 Palestine War. An example of this category is the film Nadia, directed by Fatteen Abdel-Wahab. It recounts the story of a poor girl whose brother, fresh out of military academy, is martyred in the war. The film focuses on the sacrifices made by Egyptian families and fails to address any other aspect of the Palestine problem.

Many of the films produced after the 1952 Revolution attempted to expose political corruption under the monarchy. In these, the Palestine War was simply one of the reasons behind the revolution, rather than an integral link in a continuing process of struggle. Ignoring the precept that a bad workman always blames his tools, several of these films mention the sub-standard weaponry supplied to the Egyptian army as one of the reasons for the defeat. An example of this approach is Allahu Ma'ana (God is with us), based on a story by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, and directed by Ahmed Badrakhan in 1955.

Only a limited number of these films about 1948, therefore, deal with the conflict as a battle between Israeli occupiers and Arab citizens. The exceptions include Ard El-Salaam (Land of Peace), which Kamal El-Sheikh directed in 1957, which recounts a commando operation inside the occupied territories.

The second category of films deals with the 1956 tripartite aggression, known in Western jargon as the Suez Campaign. One of the earliest films on this theme was Ezzeddin Zulfikar's Port Said, produced in 1957. Despite an extensive cast, the treatment of the war remains simplistic, avoiding any explicit mention of Israel's participation in the war and focusing instead on vaguer issues of imperialism.

The third category comprises those films that deal with the 1967 War, the War of Attrition and the 1973 War. Youssef Chahine's Al-Osfour (The Sparrow) suggests that domestic political corruption was the principal reason for Gamal Abdel-Nasser's defeat. One of the last scenes in the film shows actor Ali El-Sherif watching Nasser on television announcing his resignation following the 1967 defeat. El-Sherif weeps hysterically and mumbles: "We have been defeated" -- as if the defeat did not take place until Nasser announced his resignation. This is immediately followed by a scene in which demonstrators shout: "No to resignation; no to the defeat." Another film that sought to reject the moral dimension of the defeat was Oghnia ala'l-Mamar (A Song on the Passage), directed by Ali Abdel-Khalek in 1972.

Several films that deal with the 1973 War show society in the grips of a crisis, with the war offering the way out. One of these films is Al-Rossassa La Tazal fi Gaibi (The Bullet is Still in my Pocket), directed by Hossameddin Mustafa in 1974. The film follows a soldier, Mahmoud Yassin, who returns to his village following the 1967 defeat only to be met with contempt and derision. In the meantime, the girl whom he loves is raped by a high official, Youssef Shaaban. The soldier decides to seek revenge and kill the official. Conveniently the 1973 war breaks out, providing an outlet for the soldier's frustration. The next time he returns to his village, he is able to hold his head high, while the official's crime is exposed and he is reassigned to another area!

Mohamed Radi's 1974 production Abna' Al-Samt (Children of Silence) makes a brief allusion to the 1967 War, showing a depressed soldier who walked back from the Sinai on foot, and then moves on to the War of Attrition and the 1973 War. Once more, the films in this category do not deal with the Arab-Israeli wars as part of a larger and continuing struggle. Instead they reduce each war to its particular (and ultimately misleading) image: 1967 thus appears as a humiliating defeat, the War of Attrition as a series of skirmishes and the 1973 War as salvation itself.

Nor does any of these films seek to project an accurate image of the other side, the enemy. As a rule, the Israeli army is reduced to Hebrew music and conversation blowing along the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, or a rag-taggle group of soldiers shown fleeing in panic as the Egyptian troops crossed the waterway on 6 October 1973. Moreover, the scenes of the crossing and the battles that followed are almost identical from film to film, being all based on a single documentary that was shot following the ceasefire.

The Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979 seemed to have brought the Egyptian-Israeli struggle to an end, at least in its military dimension. Armed confrontation continued, however, on other Arab fronts, most significantly in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Only one Egyptian film dealt with the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, and that was Atef El-Tayeb's 1993 production Nagi El-Ali, which deals, among other aspects of the life and struggle of Palestinian cartoonist Nagi El-Ali, with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

While the guns remain silent on the Egyptian-Israeli borders, there is the occasional film that revives memories of past conflicts. Among these have been Mohamed Fadel's Nasser '56, produced by Egyptian television, and Inaam Mohamed Ali's Al-Tarik ila Eilat (The Road to Eilat).

Preparations, however, are presently underway for a major production on the 1973 War, this time with the active participation of the Egyptian armed forces.