Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

All the world’s a truck

Samir Farid’s letter from Cannes

All the world’s a truck
All the world’s a truck
Al-Ahram Weekly

Opening the Un Certain Regard programme at the Cannes Festival this year was Eshtebak (Clash), by Mohamed Diab – who cowrote the script with his brother Khaled – which heralds the birth of a great Egyptian director. Born in 1977, Diab made his first film, 876, in 2012. He belongs to the January revolution generation. He lived through neither Nasser’s war nor Sadat’s peace, nor was he much aware of the start of the Mubarak era but only witnessed that era’s corruption. It was only natural that Diab should participate in the revolution against Mubarak, and it makes sense for that revolution to be the theme of his second film, made nearly five years after the revolution forced Mubarak to step down and hand over power to the army. The film is set against the struggle to bring back democracy 60 years after the constitutional monarchy was overthrown by the army and a one-party republic established, and its position is clearly pro-liberal democracy and anti-violence whatever its source, be it political Islam or the state.

Titles at the start offer a brief history of the circumstances leading up to the time in which it is set in summer 2013, when mass demonstrations  trying to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood prompted counter-demonstrations and — eventually — the support of the army. The film expresses the division between Islamists and non-Islamists in Egypt, which persists to this day. It takes no sides but warns of the consequences and shows how the democratic aims of the revolution have not been realised yet. A police truck with rails like those of a prison cell is transporting demonstrators and vandals arrested on the street. As it turns out they include all generations, classes, religions and political orientations as well as uninvolved parties. For the duration of the film (97 minutes), the viewer never exits this police truck, watching what’s happening outside only through the iron rails. The passengers go from demanding that the doors should be opened to demanding to stay inside for fear of the violence escalating on the streets. The film ends with the truck upended and everyone struggling to stay alive.  

This is a correct use of symbolism, in which reality evokes what goes beyond its material limits. The truck is a realistic jail, and the characters are realistic, but at the same time they are an expression of an imprisoned Egypt keen on freedom, and shows how everyone will pay the price of conflict between pro-civil and pro-religious state. The artist manages to express a genuine human and nationalist vision. The dramatic structure that restricts the action to a confined setting in the course of a single day is not new — apart from numerous examples in world cinema, there is Salah Abu Seif’s 1959 Bayna al-Sama wal-Ard (Between Heaven and Earth), set inside a broken lift — but here as elsewhere it is the distinctive treatment, and the degree of organic integration between form and content, that sets Eshtebak apart. This particular form remains a test of the director’s abilities nonetheless, and Diab together with an excellent cast and crew — cameraman Ahmed Gabr, editor Ahmed Hafez, sound engineer Ahmed Adnan and especially producer Mohamed Hefzi — passes with flying colours. 

The careful, tightly controlled use of music — a melancholy theme by Khaled Dagher — lives up to the excellent casting, which leads to appropriate, simple and deep performances that manage to eschew melodrama entirely. The nurse Nagwa, for example (played by Nelly Karim), is the character most insistent on fighting for justice; she expresses the role of the Egyptian woman in the revolution. Her husband, the humble employee Hossam (Tarek Abdel-Aziz) admires her attitude but fears for her and their little son. The Egyptian-American journalist Adam (Hani Adel) speaks of his father who, having been tortured under Nasser, emigrated to America but still asked to be buried in Egypt. The photographer Zain (Mohamed Al-Sebai) disagrees with Adam, though they are both defending the freedom of the press. 

There is also the Upper Egyptian conscript Awad (Ahmed Abdel-Hamid) who disobeys orders to let the arrested drink and urinate — only to die at the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another conscript, Uwais (Mohamed Al-Suweissi) — we find out he is Christian through a long shot of his arm that shows the tiny tattoo of a cross on his wrist — ends up trapped inside the truck with the prisoners. A Brotherhood-sympathetic little girl Aisha (Mai Al-Ghaiti) loses her elderly father in the crossfire, while the mobile phone shop owner Salah (Gamil Barsoum), who is out looking for his student son Tarek, is reluctantly told by his sickly employee Radwan (Mohamed Abdel-Azim) that Tarek has joined the Brotherhood. The fascism of the Brotherhood characters, especially their leader — who differentiates between members and sympathisers and between Brotherhood and the rest in a truly disturbing way — is horrifying, while the homeless man Khaisha (Khaled Kamal), who pretends he is a thug in order to survive and grieves for his dog Garban whom he loses in the violence, is a truly poignant experience. The actors are expert musicians in a skilfully conducted orchestra. And the screening of this film at Cannes is clearly among 2016’s cinematic events.

***

Un Certain Regard also features two films from Israel, and the Cannes administration saw it fit to screen one of them, Maha Haj’s Omor Shakhsiya (Personal Affairs) right after the opening film, Eshtebak. Though it might be legally an Israeli film — having received government support, it now has to be by Israeli law — Omor Shakhsiya is culturally Palestinian, not just because it is Arabic speaking but because it is about a Palestinian family from Nazareth who chose to remain following the Nakba in 1948 (and so became Arab Israelis). Had Arab funds been open to Palestinians with Israeli passports — which, due to misplaced opposition to Israel, they are not — perhaps Haj’s feature would have been classified as a Palestinian film. The film’s Israeli affiliation and Cannes’s focus on it might have been intended to present a positive picture of Israel as a democratic society that supports Arab as much as Hebrew cinema, but the film as it turns out has no cultural identity of any kind. It could be set anywhere, at any time, though it takes place now between Nazareth and Ramallah.

Written by Haj, the 90-minute feature was filmed by Elad Debi and edited by Véronique Lange. The family it depicts is made up of the father Saleh (Mahmoud Shawahdeh), the mother Nabila (Sana Shawahdeh) — both over seventy and living in their house in Nazareth — as well as their three sons and one daughter: Hesham, who is studying in Sweden; Tarek (Doraid Liddawi), a playwright, who is in love with a Birzeit University student Maissa (Maissa Abdel-Hadi); and Sarah, who is expecting her firstborn of her husband George (Amer Hlehel). The latter two live in Ramallah. The presence of the family between Nazareth, Ramallah and Sweden is no expression of the Palestinian diaspora; it could happen with an Israeli or any other family, anywhere. Nor does the fact that the elderly woman watch Asmahan singing on television — or the score including parts of songs by Sayed Darwish and Farid Al-Atrash — a sufficient expression of Palestinian culture; such songs are equally well-known among Israeli Jews. But such failure to achieve a Palestinian identity is not the film’s principal problem.

The failure of Omor Shakhsiya is the dramatic treatment, for none of the characters or situations is convincing. The father is absorbed in the screen of his laptop, uttering only instructions to his wife to serve food or coffee, do this or that. The mother, in turn absorbed in her knitting, obeys her husband’s instructions with such coolness a profound mutual hatred — utterly unjustified — comes through. Their love for each other is never hinted at except at the very end in Sweden, where they have gone to visit their son. Similarly we know nothing of Tarek except that he is a playwright, but what or for whom he writes remains a mystery; we never see him at a theatre. For her part Maissa is so incredibly conservative that, when Tarek tells the policeman she is his girlfriend at a checkpoint on their way to Jerusalem, she is so offended she steps out of the car and attempts to go through the checkpoint on foot — with the consequence that they are both arrested. 

It just happens to be the day Obama is visiting Israel, and when they are held together in the same cell the film reaches a ludicrous peak as they start dancing the tango. Here as elsewhere the photography gives the impression of a Scandinavian or north European setting. Likewise George’s dream of seeing and swimming in the sea — as if he does not live in a Mediterranean country! His dream comes true in a badly contrived way when an American filmmaker who happens to notice him on the street offers him the opportunity to act in her film in Haifa, and the next day on the way there he sees the sea and rushes to it to swim. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the film lacks unity of style, with outdoor and indoor scenes feeling as though they belong to two different films in terms of direction, photography and editing. Whether it is called Israel or Palestine,  Omor Shakhsiya is set in an entirely imaginary country.

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