Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Mustafa Darwish
Front Page

Mustafa Darwish:

Dream maker

The bell tolls for cinema's liberal sibling

Profile by Youssef Rakha

If Egyptian cinema had a goddess to itself, Mustafa Darwish would be her human manifestation. In his person freedom of expression in the cinema has found a steadfast, unrelenting champion: to his words countless Egyptian film lovers tune the receptors in their ears; and through his deeds, whenever he gets a chance to perform any, they experience momentary bursts of relief from the sordid reality of their ever-suppressed world.

Such epithets can only be attached to a man who is not himself part of the film industry in Egypt, Egyptian or otherwise. A filmmaker or actor, a producer, a distributor, even the average critic (and Darwish is well aware of this) is more likely than not to have a vested interest in the way things go; he will probably be too wrapped up in his own career to make a balanced judgement. Someone who has so freely immersed himself in the cinema that he becomes its authoritative, if hitherto uncanonised historian, on the other hand, is better equipped for the role.

Darwish had a successful, almost uninterrupted career in the judiciary. Indeed, he seems to suggest through complex reiterations, only an amateur whose livelihood does not depend on the cinema can survive. Survive what? The intrigues and disputes. The power games, the popularity games. The incessant, inescapable drive to appease, if not actively perpetuate, the status quo. Through a labyrinth of invariably interesting narratives, recounted with cinematic precision, the elegant intellectual discusses these, and other, pitfalls that he has seen and known. His charming wit, his human warmth are unfailing.

Born within a year of each other, the film industry and this man grew up like siblings, their destinies indissolubly chained. Cinema ceased to be silent on 6 October 1927. All eyes and ears, Darwish tumbled into the world on 1 March 1928. "A fortunate coincidence," he explained, since by the end of the month the modest civil servant's family might have been running too low on cash to afford the expenses of his birth. (The first fully Egyptian film, too, produced by actress Aziza Amir, was released in 1927.)

Since then a very unusual movie has unfolded, in which Darwish as Informed and Impartial Film Lover among the bureaucratic "wolves" remains perfect and convincing. (The bureaucratic wolves he identifies with the authoritarianism of the July 1952 revolutionary regime, which by the 1960s had fully permeated the cultural ether.) His entire "amateur" career in the cinema as censor (1962; 1966-'67) and film critic (since 1963) is a statement -- about the way we live our lives, the freedoms we allow ourselves, our willingness to depart from the status quo. Terms like "progressive" and "enlightened," elsewhere so often erroneously attributed, find a true, living, though mostly un-verbalised exemplar in this soulful witness and commentator.

Ordinary is the adjective with which Darwish qualifies his early life course. With emphasis, he mentions that he was born in the Cairo district of Manial, "between two rivers;" that he grew up listening indiscriminately to Umm Kulthoum ("the radio in the house supplied the aural side" of an otherwise average middle-class upbringing); that, "like seasonal fruit, as a very special treat," the Mounira Primary School sometimes set up a film theatre in one of the classrooms -- "the visual," he intones, "the overriding side."

With reference to the latter, he remembers that, growing up in Manial in the early 1940s, he was the only person on the entire island who was not a staunch supporter of Hitler. The whole neighbourhood, young and old, conceptualised Hitler as the saviour who would end British occupation. Darwish, having seen, among other cinematic portrayals, Charlie Chaplin's humorous version of the Führer, could quite sensibly (and prophetically) conclude that Hitler was actually a madman. His demeanour and mannerisms, the teenager tried to tell his family and neighbours, betrayed a blatant insanity. "Nobody listened."

Garrulous, giggly, Darwish elaborates on this theme of ordinariness.

After the Ibrahimiya Secondary School: law school, the destiny to which most middle-class secondary school graduates of that time aspired. "On graduation," though "I had no inclination for practicing law, my only concern being how much they would pay me. So I chose the easiest route and accepted the first position that came my way."

He wears simply a sedate polo-neck and linen trousers. He doesn't smoke, nor do his fingers occupy themselves with anything except, occasionally, the telephone. And he promptly apologises for the latter's predominantly unsolicited interruptions, slipping back into narrative mode -- a click of some miraculous button whose action seems as effortless as a sparrow's take-off. Darwish is fond of quoting Ingmar Bergman: "Cinema is my wife, theatre my mistress." Three months spent in Upper Egypt as an employee of the Ministry of War were more desolation than he could bear. These, he explains, were the only three months of his life during which he was separated from his indispensable spouse for any sizable period.

M.Darwish I belong to the days of the silent movie -- Nicanor Parra
As a child he had spent his entire Eid money on the cinema, attending all the noon, afternoon and evening screenings straight through. Even at this stage, he asserts, "cinema had become the business of a lifetime." He returned to Cairo in 1954 to earn diplomas in political economy and the public sector, all that he needed to qualify for joining the State Council as a judge, a feat that he accomplished in the same year. "Then, by an incredible combination of incredible circumstances, I woke up one day to find myself the head censor. Eventually, initially through Rose El-Youssef [the popular weekly magazine to which Darwish contributed his first pieces], I also became a film critic." Laughing, Darwish leans forward to convey his amazement and disbelief.

The eventuality was not as extraordinary as he makes it sound. Less than a year later, at any rate, Darwish was back at his State Council office, after a bitter fight with the newly appointed culture minister, Abdel-Qader Hatem, who was intent on applying the unwritten rule of the government bureaucracy that high-brow civil service appointees must abandon their posts once the minister who appointed them (in this case Tharwat Okasha) is dismissed.

Darwish considers himself fortunate for three reasons.

First, he arrived in pre-television times and grew up free of that multifarious influence -- a sickness, he implies on many occasions, that infects eyes, ears and brain. "The time I have spent before a television screen in my entire life is less than 24 hours." Television, which in the popular media phrase "was born a giant," posed a dire threat to the future of cinema. As a censor, his challenge was to keep the audience interested, and this implied showing films that were both good and new, regardless of their supposed profanity or extravagance. His purpose was to make "freedom the rule, censorship the exception," and he sanctioned previously prohibited films. He was only 35 at the time, and he makes a point of mentioning that even the president of the republic was very young. It was, he explains, a genuinely young environment.

Detrimentally for his subsequent career in the official cultural apparatus, he assumed authority independent of the minister. "Films that he told me to ban, I passed. Films that I was supposed to pass, when I thought there was a strong enough reason for banning them, I did not make available." By the time he was finally dismissed, the search for freedom had become a mission that he was reluctant to let fall. What confirmed him in this belief was that the audience was delighted, cinema-going went up and the entire industry seemed to be heaving itself towards a new, thoroughly modern renaissance. He took up writing more forcefully, and published numerous articles, notably in Akher Sa'a, the magazine of which his friend the writer Saad Kamel was managing editor, continuing with the State Council as regularly as ever. He had made an impression; what was left was to follow it up.

By September 1966, Okasha was back in power. "According to that ancient and revolting rule, I was brought back. They attempted to place me away from censorship, because there was a feeling that I would make trouble. But I insisted." This time he was more careful, undertaking a more comprehensive revision of the laws in question, and working ingeniously to dodge the arbitrary dictates of the scissors. People were seeing the best of the 1960s world cinema, and they liked it. Filmmakers in Egypt "could hardly believe it, everyone thought this must be a brief spell that wouldn't last." Yet the period witnessed the rise of the likes of Shadi Abdel-Salam, whose masterpiece, The Night of Counting the Years (1968) "was for some reason bothering some people who used all that was in their power to prevent it from being approved by the censor prior to its being filmed" as a Ministry of Culture production. Darwish refused to comply -- there was nothing in the film to justify censorship -- and by the time they came up with an arbitrary complaint that might legally block the procedures, Darwish had already sanctioned it. "This is one thing I remain proud of -- to have saved such a film."

In 1967 he went to Cannes and came back to find the country at war -- defeated. "This was something I had not banked on," he confesses. Many excellent films were then showing, among them Antonioni's Blow up, for which Darwish, upon Okasha's advice, had issued a statement to be distributed in theatres explaining why the film was being shown despite the possibility that some of its content might offend some people. The first time it was shown, at Cinema Metro, silence reigned throughout the auditorium for the entire duration of the film, and as soon as it was over "people applauded, unable to contain their joy." The war -- more precisely, the bureaucrats' response to the war -- was about to put an end to that joy. The country was in a state of mourning, all theatres must be closed. Some even went so far as to say that it was the likes of Mustafa Darwish who had brought about defeat by drawing people away from their national duties and dirtying minds with Western profanity.

Things fell apart from then on.

On one occasion, Darwish was called to the prosecutor general's office and interrogated for the same number of hours that novelist Ibrahim Aslan was recently subjected to over the publication of Haydar Haydar's A Banquet for Seaweed: eight. On another, a meeting was held, attended by "all the pillars of the Ministry of Culture," to determine whether or not to ban American films following the war. Only Darwish, Kamel and Ahmed Rushdi Saleh voted against it. "This would mean depriving people of something they'd got used to. It would mean closing down movie theatres and having to do it all over again."

On another still -- and this is a painful memory for Darwish -- Okasha turned to members of parliament who were protesting certain films and said curtly, "You want us to remove these films? Okay, the films are to be removed as of tomorrow."

But what about those who worked in the cinema? Directors, producers, actors -- did they ever have a say, did they ever attempt to exercise any pressure or stand up for their rights?

This brings us to the second reason Darwish considers himself fortunate -- that he did not attend the Cinema Institute as a student: "Looking at the way things are now, I feel the institute could only have messed up my understanding of cinema." Cinema people, most of whom were nurtured on the institute's education, were invariably missing in action. "They care nothing for freedom, except when it comes to their own freedom. And they want to eliminate competition so they don't oppose the banning of foreign films, they might even support it." Darwish left his post followed, he says, by a letter, "any of whose 11 or so accusations, taken seriously, could've sent me to prison for half a century", sent by the minister of culture to three different authorities. Since he resigned himself to being dismissed for the second time in 1967, conditions, he believes, have deteriorated so much that he is thankful for having survived with his vision intact.

This in turn brings us to the third reason: "Had I taken up my plans of earning a PhD in law, I would have ended up a mere 'doctor,' one of those countless, worthless doctors who have spread like the plague. Better not be a doctor at all."

Now in his seventies, a retired judge with an expensive, all-absorbing hobby, he is in constant demand for screenings, conferences, television interviews. Through no fault of his own he has become an authority. Though he has not published books (with the exception of the playful English text for a picture book on early Egyptian cinema, Dream Makers on the Nile: A Portrait of Egyptian Cinema), he is referenced (notably in The Economist) as "Egypt's leading film critic;" his uncollected articles of the past 37 years make up, according to a recent issue of the American University in Cairo's Alif, a "splendid corpus."

Working within the restricted arena of film criticism and "special programme" screenings, Darwish has continued to pursue his dream. Yet the bell tolls for him too with the hubbub over Haydar's novel. He has had to replace completely a programme of screenings he had arranged for the Supreme Council for Culture in which, having been dismissed from his post as the head of the film committee, he founded an independent association within the council through which to hold screenings and seminars. He jokes about it -- he is proud -- but the sense of disappointment inevitably seeps through. "I was planning on screening Almodovar," he says. "We had already shown a series of biography films, if only to demonstrate, after the utter ugliness of that horrid television series on Umm Kulthoum, how biographies might be dealt with cinematically. Now [the council's secretary-general] Gaber Asfour tells me the new programme, which we'd already advertised, will not do the way it is..."

In his charming high voice, he has frequently tried to point out to them the craziness, the insanity of what they say and do. But nobody listens.

photos: Randa Shaath

   Top of page
Front Page