My second film at the Liverpool Arabic Film Festival was a beautiful print (supposedly the only viewing print available and hired at considerable cost) of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 adaptation of a novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi. The novel was written in the 1950s about events in the 1930s but the film’s appearance in the late 1960s still resonated, especially after the trauma of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war against Israel.
The focus is on a small village in the Nile Delta region. The peasant farmers rely on Nile water to irrigate their crops, especially cotton as a cash crop. The authorities (in the 1930s Egypt was a semi-autonomous monarchy but still ultimately under British control) allow the fellaheen (peasants) 10 days of water (per year?). This is barely enough but then news filters through that the ration is to be reduced to 5 days. The villagers must organise themselves to protest and to put their case. However, there are different interests for the Mayor, the wealthier landowners and the local bey (noble rank) and they conspire to maintain their own status so that the main burden falls on the fellaheen. The central conflict focuses on Abou Swelem the most respected of the fellaheen, who has remained on the land while his two former comrades in the 1919 rising against the British have ‘progressed’ to positions in the town or in business and now carry the honorary title ‘sheikh‘. Abou Swelem (Mahmoud El Miligui) has a beautiful daughter Wassifa who is courted by a peasant farmer and by the educated son of one of the sheikhs. Eventually the villagers will have to fight for their land and their crops.
This long (130 minutes) film is beautifully directed and wonderfully acted by all concerned. The 35 mm print looked stunning – in Technicolor I assume? The film was shown in competition at Cannes in 1970 and this perhaps explains the quality of the subtitles.
In her book on Arab Cinema, Viola Shafik (American University in Cairo Press, 2007: 137) cites al-Ard as an example of ‘socialist realism’ but suggests that the ideology in the script is derived from the novel whose author expressed “an uncompromising Marxism” – rather than from the director, who she points out was from the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The only other Chahine film I’ve seen up to now is the 1958 Cairo Station. Shafik describes that title as ‘commercial realism’ using the generic conventions of the crime film. I think I need to revisit that film.
‘Socialist realism’ was the realist form developed in the Soviet Union after Stalin repressed the more experimental work of the 1920s. In many ways it mirrored the ‘Hollywood realism’ of the 1930s and 1940s except that it focused on the collectivist ideology of the workers’ state rather than the individualism of Hollywood. It was the form taken up by Chinese Cinema post 1949 and up to the mid 1960s. al-Ard, however, made me think not about Soviet or Chinese films but about Indian Cinema. The scenes of village life are reminiscent of Hindi ‘social films’ going back to Mehboob and Bimal Roy, though al-Ard being ten years later is more polished. The politics of the film suggest Indian parallel cinema, especially some of the films of Mrnal Sen. Although the film is essentially realist in its presentation, there are moments when short sequences of montage are used for emphasis. The narrative is ‘bookended’ by close-ups of the central character’s hands running the soil through his fingers at the beginning and being literally torn through the soil at the end. There are scenes of song and dance at a wedding and an almost erotic scene of a village woman bathing. The references to Indian Cinema are not too surprising given that the theme of struggles over land are universal. This specific narrative involving careful gradations of social class operating within a colonial framework is certainly very similar to conditions in much of India where British policy left in place feudal arrangements which allowed exploitation by larger landlords (cf the zamindar system in British India).
al-Ard is not a simplistic tale by any means. The various plot lines are brought together very carefully and we learn that the bey, while pretending to help the villagers is in fact using the potential dispute to make it easier to build himself a new road (using land taken from the peasants). To enforce this theft, troops are brought in. The sergeant in charge of these camel soldiers is himself a displaced peasant and he and Abou Swelem have an uneasy bond. But if I remember correctly, the soldier was displaced in order to build a dam – which aids everybody. The bey‘s road is also ‘modernisation’, but designed primarily to boost his private enterprise. Abou Swelem recognises this like any good socialist. Abou Swelem’s daughter must choose between the brave and strong man who is seemingly a younger version of her father and the weak but educated man who represents the possibility of economic progress. The fair distribution of land has proved to be the major issue for many states following decolonisation. (Zimbabwe for instance?) It remains an issue to fuel political discourse. I hope that this wonderful film gets many more screenings.
The festival screening was introduced by Brian Whitaker, former Guardian Middle East Editor (and current online editor). I found this useful in picking out some of the interesting aspects of the narrative. Viewing the film in 2011 it’s salutary to note that the recent ‘revolution’ in Cairo was largely a middle-class affair amongst the educated youth. Millions of fellaheen still toil on the land for little reward as far as I can see.
al-Ard also played at Cornerhouse Manchester this week alongside Cairo Station so thanks to whoever secured the bookings. More please!