Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Revolution’s screens

On its 66th anniversary, Hani Mustafa revisits some of the films made within a year of the July Revolution

Land of Heroes

Cinema often attempts to deal with political developments as they happen, even if this entails a lag of several years as a rule. It usually takes the screenwriter some time to absorb and process a given historical development and how it might affect the structure of the story they want to tell. Likewise, it takes producers some time to assess the market for a given historical focus and the angle from which to approach it. In some cases, driven by the desire to make the first movie about it, adventurous filmmakers will produce a fresh but probably substandard movie right after the event occurs, rushing their own vision as much as the filmmaking process. 

The 23 July Revolution of 1952 was not a spontaneous event unrelated to what went before it. It was the culmination of many events pointing to an imminent 180-degree turn. Since the end of World War II, the popular call for liberation had gained momentum, especially once, following the failure of bilateral negotiations about British presence in the Suez Canal region, the then prime minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas annulled the 1936 treaty with the British in 1951, which he had himself signed 15 years previously. On 25 January 1952, indeed, policemen holding out against a British siege of the Ismailia Police Station were massacred.

Juha’s Nail

One way or another, these conditions trickled into the films being made at the time. One symbolic take on the theme of the fight between a powerful oppressor and a crafty hero was Seifeddin Shawkat’s comedy Shamshon and Liblib (later changed to Antar and Liblib, with the result that the antagonist, played by Sirag Mounir, seems to have two names). Released in April 1952 but banned until after 23 July, it is the story of Liblib (Mahmoud Shokoko), the young owner of a modest restaurant-café whose hope is to marry Loza (Houriya Hassan), the girl with whom he’s in love. To this end, he has been paying the bride money required by Loza’s father, the local cobbler (Abdel-Wareth Asar), in monthly instalments. Liblib stands in for the Egyptian people, Loza for the contested Suez Canal, while the British are represented by Shamshon. Loza’s new suitor, a married man of herculean strength, is a newcomer in the neighbourhood. When he opens a large restaurant-nightclub, taking away Liblib’s business, Liblib doesn’t have enough money for the instalments and objects. After Shamshon humiliates Liblib and destroys his restaurant, Liblib has Shamshon’s word that if he manages to slap him on the face seven times on seven days in a row, Shamshon will leave the neighbourhood and hand his restaurant over to Liblib; if he fails, Liblib must leave himself, blessing Shamshon’s marriage to Loza. After the sixth slap, Shamshon invites Liblib into his restaurant for negotiations that mockingly recall the history of negotiations in which the British, like Shamshon, were simply stalling for time. Of course, it is Liblib who wins in the end.

Another comedy, Ibrahim Imara’s Juha’s Nail, screened in June 1952, is rather more direct. Centring on the Arab everyman Juha — an outspoken clown who performs heroic deeds unwittingly, here played by Abbas Fares — the film opens with the foreign military ruler (Zaki Rostom, who speaks a kind of Turkified classical Arabic) inspecting a popular neighbourhood. At the local mosque he is told the imam is foul-mouthed Juha, and he promptly arrests him for inciting the people against the occupier. But the sultan (Ibrahim Imara), a strong and fair character, not only has Juha released but, using him in his own fight against the military ruler, appoints him high judge (recalling nationalist statesmen like Saad Zaghloul who worked in the law). The traditional story-proverb after which the film is names is reenacted in one of the cases judged by Juha: a disagreement between his own daughter’s fiancé (Kamal Al-Shinnawi) and the man to whom he sold a house, leaving a large nail of his own unmentioned in the contract and thereby creating a pretext for returning to the house as often as he pleases for the sake of the nail he still owns (the nail being the Suez Canal for which the British insist on maintaining control of the country). The military ruler, who attends the trial, is visibly distressed. 

Shamshon and Liblib

In the few months after the revolution films attempted to depict the joy felt by large sectors of the population following the Free Officers’ success in taking control, especially after king Farouk’s abdication and departure on 26 July. They depicted aspects of what was then called “the army’s movement”: the Free Officers’ connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example (years before better known films like Ezzeddin Zulfuqar’s 1957 Rudda Qalbi — “Give Back My Heart”, Salah Abu Seif’s 1963 No Time for Love or Kamal Al-Sheikh’s 1970 A Sunset and a Sunrise). Films made in the second half of 1952 and the first half of 1953 were not as powerful or well-made as any of these classics, but they are worth returning to for the immediate picture they give of the pulse of the street at the time. Whether as an honest reflection of popular discontent with the monarchy or as propaganda to pave the way for declaring Egypt a republic on 18 June 1953, they are full of anti-monarchist sentiment.

Down with Colonialism, which was released in December 1952 — an artistic catastrophe on every score, down to the mawkish patriotic theme song — opens in 1919 with a teacher named Fahmi (Hussein Sedki) giving a lesson on the French Revolution at a primary school, in the course of which he instills in the students the idea of freedom. Fahmi is later killed by English soldiers trying to quell demonstrations in the course of the 1919 Revolution, and so doesn’t have the chance to see his son — whose name, Megahed, is the Egyptian pronunciation of mujahid and who just happens to be born on the same day. Megahed grows up to become an activist (also played by Hussein Sedki) eager to avenge his father’s death. He ends up jailed for spreading Nazi ideas in the course of World War II for five years. Melodramatic detail fails to give substance to what comes across as an exercise in audiovisual rhetoric, propaganda of the grossest kind: Megahed leaving his fiancée (Shadia) after he spots her in his boss’s car and so suspects her of immorality; Megahed’s mother dying when the house collapses during an air raid in the course of the war, while Megahed himself is in prison; Megahed objecting to his elder brother Hamdi (Mahmoud Al-Meligi) working in trade with the British army... On his release Megahed is alone without any income or prospects, and so he agrees to go along to Khartoum with his sister (Zahret Al-Ola) and her husband, an occasion for preaching the fraternity of the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples and the need to fight against foreign occupation. Megahed is sentenced to two years for agitating against the British in Sudan; he is deported back to Egypt... The film ends with Megahed discovering his fiancée’s innocence and the annulment of the 1936 Treaty, at which point Hamdi comes to his senses and joins his younger brother in the armed resistance.

Down with Colonialism

In Niazi Mustafa’s Land of Heroes, released in April, 1953, is the story of a well-to-do and carefree young man (Gamal Fares, the film’s producer) who on discovering that his lover, a dancer (Lola Sedki), is seeing his own father (Abbas Fares) at the same time, joins the army readying for the Palestine War of 1948. Thus the stage is set for dealing with the defective arms scandal: the news that defective weaponry given to the Egyptian army was the reason the Arabs were defeated. Though later believed to be part of the propaganda campaign paving the way to the July Revolution, this was a theme famously elaborated on by the popular journalist-novelist Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous in Rose Al-Youssef magazine, which he edited, in October 1950. While the young man turns into a loyal and valiant soldier and falls in love with a Palestinian girl (Koka), his father becomes increasingly corrupt, ending up involved in the same defective arms deal. When the war breaks out the young man loses his eyesight and his comrades in arms as a result of their own ammunition exploding in their faces, and he returns to Cairo to find out his father is responsible. Somewhat better than Down with Colonialism, it must be said, Land of Heroes — made in the same kind of hurry and with the same kind of motivation — is still a very bad film. 

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