Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Screen dissidents

Hani Mustafa gives an overview of the effect of the 1967 War on Egyptian cinema

#Detail from the poster of Miramar # Something Like Fear # Chitchat on the Nile # The Sparrow #Song on the Passageway
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Major political events that become turning points in the history of a given society provide a fertile ground for the narrative arts, especially cinema. For some, it was the Egyptian bourgeoisie’s failure in power following the 1919 Revolution that resulted in the 1952 Revolution; and it can likewise be said that the 1967 defeat put an end to the experiment in totalitarian rule and the project of Arab nationalism first adopted by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in second half of the 1950s, when the process of nationalising private companies was intensified so that political, economic and cultural life were all under airtight state control. This was an age of autocracy, and while the military and political leaders might shoulder the responsibility for defeat, cinema performs a somewhat deeper function than directing blame. Films that were made in the wake of the war tried to analyse or critique society, looking for the roots of the problem, or they employed symbolism to suggest that defeat is the inevitable result of autocracy even though the priority of the powers that be at the time was “removing the effects of the aggression.”

One such film was Kamal Al-Sheikh’s 1968 Miramar, based on the novel by Naguib Mahfouz, for even though the war plays no part in the plot, the viewer can easily discern the atmosphere that preceded and coincided with it. Al-Sheikh, who directed numerous detective thrillers, offers a political critique of Egyptian society in the 1960s. The action takes place in a 10-room hotel that occupies two floors of an old building in Alexandria. Owned by an Alexandrine Greek lady, the Miramar Hotel brings together a representative cast of characters who, happening to be there at the same time, turn the place into a hub for the complexities and contradictions of society. They include such secondary characters as the disillusioned Wafd Party politician (Emad Hamdi), who is opposed to the July 1952 Revolution, the former landowner (Youssef Wahbi), another monarchy era character whose properties were confiscated through land reform and who therefore tends to agree with the politician and the newly rich fellah (Abu Bakr Ezzat), who represents a new, gluttonous social class uninterested in any serious talk, and sees himself as the feudal class’s heir and whom Ezzat skilfully imbues with a sense of humour, counterbalancing the repulsiveness of the character.

Miramar’s main characters, on the other hand, are different. Zahra (Shadia), has fled her village in the countryside near Alexandria, where her repressive father had tried to marry her off to an elderly man, and now works at the hotel, while Sarhan (Youssef Shaaban), an ambitious accountant at one of the government companies and a member of the Socialist Union, the only party in Egypt, who becomes implicated in an embezzlement operation with his engineer colleague with a view to speedy upward mobility. Sarhan promises to marry Zahra even though he is only using her, and has plans to marry into the upper class. The third main character is a young intellectual and university student (Abdel-Rahman Ali) who always fails at everything he attempted; he has been exiled here by his elder brother, a police general, in order to keep him away from political acivity on campus. In love with the wife of his friend (Soheir Ramzi), he persuades her to divorce her husband while the latter is in prison, but fails to marry her when his brother says no. Mahfouz’s harsh critique of the hesitant intellectual appears to do something brave and decisive when he confesses to the murder of Sarhan in revenge for Zahra: The intellectual killing the corrupt government agent. But this turns out to be a lie when we find out that Sarhan, certain of arrest, decides to kill himself.

Filmmaker Hussein Kamal made two of the most controversial films in the wake of 1967: Shai min Al-khawf (or “Something Like Fear”) in 1969 and Chitchat on the Nile in 1971. In the first he provides a direct, tragic image of repression, violence and control exercised by the autocrat. The protagonist Atris (Mohamed Morsi), the chief of the Dahashna tribe in an Upper Egyptian village, becomes a terrifying strongman who collects tribute money and forces the family of his childhood sweetheart Fouada (Shadia) and the rest of the villagers to go ahead with their marriage even though Fouada refuses to marry him in public and in the presence of the maazoun who will effect the union, rendering her marriage to Atris null. The film ends with a popular revolt in which the villagers attack and burn Atris’s house after his henchmen escape. Based on a novel by Tharwat Abaza, the film seemed to be a direct comment on Nasser’s security apparatus of the 1960s, which resulted in the censors banning it. When Nasser himself saw the film, however, he overturned the censors’ decision; he reportedly said that, if he were like Atris, then he deserved the same fate.

Another post-1967 Mahfouz novel dramatised, Chitchat on the Nile is a cleverer and more sophisticated demonstration of the breakdown of a cross-section of Egyptian society who meet regularly at a Nile houseboat owned by a famous actor (Ahmed Ramzi): a journalist (Adel Adham), a lawyer (Ahmed Tawfik), a modest civil servant (Emad Hamdi), and three women including two ladies (Nemat Mukhtar and Soheir Ramzi) and a university student (Mervat Amin). The most impressive aspect of the film is the absurdist dialogue that takes place among these hedonistic, nihilistic, irresponsible characters while they smoke hashish and drink, reflecting their personal perspectives on their own private problems. It is evident that they are concerned only with pleasure as they go on a pleasure drive, stopping by a statue of Ramses II with which the women play around sensually, suggesting a reckless, superficial interest in their identity and nation. The film climaxes on the way back when they accidentally hit and kill a country girl – something that prompts the journalist finally to wake up and accompany a young colleague who had objected to the group’s lifestyle (Magda Al-Khatib) to the Canal, nearer the front, to investigate the area and support its residents – a direct indication of the gulf separating the professional class from the real national issues.

Though many of the films produced in the three years separating the war from Nasser’s death in 1970 critiqued society, none were censored, since such self-reflection was part of a new policy. But they culminated in the idea of perseverance – a persistent theme that seemed to obsess young filmmakers, notably those who called themselves the New Cinema Group: The director Ali Abdel-Khalek, the Palestinian director Ghaled Shaath, the producer Mohamed Radi, the editors Ahmed Metwalli and Rahma Muntasser, the set designer Salah Marie and the photographer Said Shimi, among others. Rejecting professional and artistic compromises, these artists set out to produce true art; and the first film to result from their efforts was Ali Abdel-Khalek’s 1972 Song on the Passageway, written by Mustafa Muharram, based on an eponymous play by Ali Salem.

The film deals with five soldiers charged with protecting a passageway in Sinai against the Israeli cavalry. The classical unities are maintained with the exception of a few flashbacks revealing the soldiers’ backgrounds: Lance Corporal Mohamed (Mahmoud Morsi), a fellah who, since 1956, has replaced his hoe with a gun in order to defend his country; Private Shawki (Mahmoud Yassin), a clever if unfortunate student who specialises in anti-tank artillery; Private Mossad (Salah Al-Saadani), the humorous presence who helps the group endure the lack of food and the harsh conditions; Private Mounir (Salah Qabil), a nightclub and casino employee who lies to the others about his background, making the plot more realistic; and Private Hamdi (Ahmed Marei), a composer who – with extreme artistic naiveté – wants to create patriotic rather than belly dance songs. He performs a rather more integral role in the storyline, since on falling dead he asks Shawki to carry the tune he has composed to the radio so that it can be produced and broadcast; he is not the only one who dies...  Despite the directness and simplicity of its message the film remains solid, communicating a strong sense of perseverance.

But perhaps the more important film to deal with 1967 – which famously struggled with censorship – was Youssef Chahine’s 1973 The Sparrow. In the film Chahine presents the essence of his view on the prevalence of corruption in Egyptian society. The main characters are all in conflict with unjust superiors, be they in the press like the boss of the journalist (Salah Qabil) or in the police like that of the young officer (Seif Abdel-Rahman). The journalist is investigating the case of a public sector factory whose construction was discontinued and whose machinery was being systematically stolen and sold to the private sector, while the officer has travelled to Upper Egypt to try and arrest a crime lord named Abu Khatwa. The two men together with other honourable characters gather in the house of a kindly lady named Baheya (Mohsena Tawfik) with a daughter at university.

Chahine tackles the feelings of all those characters as they listen to a series of radio broadcasts the morning of 5 June, which speak of Egyptian anti-aircraft missiles bringing down enemy planes. The journalist begins to feel the news doesn’t make sense, and then the tone of the broadcasts shifts and there is talk of a withdrawal to the second line of defence west of the Suez Canal. One of the film’s most important scenes shows everyone gathered around the television on 9 June while Nasser is making his famous standing-down speech. The left-wing Azhar sheikh (Ali Al-Sherif) then begins to weep, murmuring, “so we were defeated.” Baheya then steps out of the house yelling, “No, we’ll fight!” in a reference to the demonstrations that erupted in protest of Nasser standing down – the Egyptian people’s refusal to accept defeat. This scene is no less powerful than the quintessential resistance scene of that time, which takes place in Chahine’s 1970 The Land, and in which Ahmed Abu Sweilam (Mahmoud Al-Meligi) the old fellah holds onto his cotton harvest and the land in which it is planted while being dragged along by a tractor, his feet and hands tied, on the orders of the police commissioner. The scene ends with a close-up of Abu Sweilam’s bloodied hands.

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