Tag Archives: Egyptian Film

al-Ard (The Land, Egypt 1969)

The villagers Abdel Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili) and Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim) in 'al-Ard'

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.

Outline

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.

Commentary

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!

Marcides (Mercedes, Egypt/France 1993)

Gamel (centre) with his partner (left) in the gay community at the cinema in Marcides

To Liverpool for the ‘Arabic Film Festival’ at FACT (part of the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival). The ‘Arab Spring’ has increased interest in all aspects of Arab culture and this is a welcome event. I’m sure it is very difficult to get prints of Egyptian films into the UK, so I wasn’t too surprised that this particular film turned out to be on DVD. The quality was pretty ropey but quite watchable – better anyway than the experience of lolling about on squidgy sofas to watch a cinema screen which somebody thought was a good idea for patrons of ‘The Box’, the FACT space dedicated to more arty fare.

Marcides isn’t arty as such but it is a challenge for UK audiences. I think it is best described as a political and social satire presented in the format of popular melodrama. Written and directed by Yousry Nasrallah and starring one of Egypt’s major female icons, Yousra, the film was programmed because of the director’s links to the major Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine. Nasrallah (b. 1952) assisted Chahine and then had his own films produced by Chahine’s company, Misr Films. Nasrallah was first a journalist in Lebanon and then assisted Volker Schlöndorff in 1980. (See this Cannes posting)

Plot outline

Warda (Yousra) is first seen in flashback to 1956 at a VIP function interrupted by the British/French/Israeli attack on the Suez Canal. She is being put forward for marriage by her wealthy mother who doesn’t know that she is already pregnant after a liaison with an African diplomat. Quickly, we learn that she married a much older man who conveniently died soon after. Her first child, to her relief, is not visibly ‘African’ but she calls him Noubi (i.e. after ‘Nubian’). She later has another child she names Gamel (after Nasser) and who is passed off as her uncle’s boy. In 1990 these past events set up the melodrama when Noubi returns home after being incarcerated by his mother (under pressure) in an asylum – because he wanted to give money to the Communist Party! When his uncle marries and then collapses at the wedding, he tells Noubi that the family fortune is bequeathed to him and Gamel, who Noubi thinks is his cousin. All Noubi has to do is find Gamel and avoid the clutches of his new aunt Raifa (a lesbian with a drug problem).

Yousra as Afifa dances with Noubi (Zaki Abdel Wahab) on the streets

From this point on the melodrama develops at a frenetic pace. It involves all of the following – drugs, politics, corruption, people smuggling, Cairo’s underground gay community (in ‘slum cinemas’), street battles between the police and the Muslim Brotherhood, the fall of communist leaders in Eastern Europe and the 1990 World Cup in which Egypt played both Algeria and England. Yousra also appears as a second character, Afifa, a supposedly much younger woman making a living as a belly dancer who falls for Noubi and who in one scene performs for a night club audience. The star is thus fully utilised in twin roles separated by 34 years, looking little different. In fact Noubi is able to pass her off as his mother at one point. Noubi is played by an older actor with dyed blonde hair but none of this really matters. Scenes are underlined by musical cues and for melodrama fans this is a real treat. I enjoyed the film immensely even if there were aspects of the plot that puzzled me or that just whizzed by too quickly. (The title refers to the status symbol of ‘successful’ Egyptian life.)

Commentary

I was intrigued to discover more about Yousra who is famous in Egypt for her TV drama appearances, including in that Egyptian institution the ‘Ramadan Soap’ or musalsalat. These serials, rather like Latin American telenovelas, include historical dramas and thrillers as well as romances. Up to 50 a year are produced in Egypt currently and they obvious draw away potential cinema audiences during Ramadan. Marcides was presumably a model for the way in which some of these shows have developed.  A great beauty and a popular music star, Yousra (b. 1955) has been seen as a modern star who accepted playing the mother role in narratives at a time when she could still be a romantic lead. Her celebrity status is such that she has become a much quoted figure in the Egyptian media.

Marcides was produced during one of the low points for Egyptian Cinema when popular films were often seen as too formulaic. In this film, Nasrallah is possibly satirising the formula by offering title cards to head each ‘chapter’ of the film. Usually these introduce a new character perspective but the last one announced ‘The happy ending’ – which turns out to be just a little ironic. I’m not sure how effective Nasrallah’s satire is but it is interesting that the story links the oppression of gays, the Muslim Brotherhood and football supporters in seemingly a general critique of those in power. The overall narrative offers the ‘downward descent’ of a rich young man from a Christian élite who finds that the life ‘underground’ is more acceptable. There are quite a few laughs in the film but these are undercut by some of the more disturbing images – such as coffins returning from Iraq with the bodies of Egyptian contract labourers.

Marcides received a couple of American reviews which clearly have problems trying to understand the film. It perhaps acts as a good example of films that don’t travel easily – in this case beyond the Arab world. It’s available on DVD from Arab Film Distributors, but only for institutional screenings at $200 per show.

Here’s a 2008 interview with Yousra on Al Jazeera (in English):

LFF #3: Young women – causing trouble or getting what they want?

Day 3 of my LFF visit produced a more varied programme than the first two days. Again I chose three films out of a total of more than 30 screenings across eight screens. The link between them is that they each feature one or more young women who aren’t simply decorative or submissive to men.

I started back in the Vue West End in the largest screen but with only a 70% audience for The Princess of Montpensier (France/Germany 2010) from Bernard Tavernier, the only big name director on my schedule. This has got UK distribution so I hope it is widely shown. It’s a 16th century swashbuckler combining political intrigues with a fascinating love story in an adaptation of a Madame de Lafayette short story. The setting is the struggles of the 1560s between the Catholic Monarchy and the Huguenot Protestant Reform group led by the Comte de Condé. The Comte de Chabannes is fighting for the Reform but gives up the struggle and turns his back on the war after a particularly brutal skirmish. Fate then places him back with his ex-pupil, Phillipe, Prince de Montpensier, whose father has arranged his marriage to Marie (an outstanding Mélanie Thierry). Unfortunately Marie is in love with Henri, Duc de Guise, Philippe’s rival at the French court. Chabannes finds himself torn between loyalty to Philippe and attraction to the ‘brash innocence’ of Marie as he tries to keep his head.

Mélanie Thierry as Marie when she is told by her mother to 'submit' and marry Philippe

The film is sumptuously shot in CinemaScope with glorious scenery – but it is also violent and bloody when necessary. It’s long at 139 mins, but I was enjoyably engaged throughout and I could have taken more. The performances are all good and it is a very skilfully confected film all round. The reviews following its Cannes screening this year were mixed, but I would go with the positive ones which praised the re-invention of the costume drama with realism, wit and intelligence. If you like costume dramas with just the beautiful images and a sense of dreamy romance, be warned. This will make you think.

The French trailer (it’s due out in France on November 3rd) gives you a good idea of the look of the film and hints at the violence. The young woman at the centre may be forced by convention to ‘submit’ to the men in society, but she’s more than capable of behaving as she wants when it comes to provoking love and desire as well as jealousy – though she doesn’t necessarily get what she wants.

The Mascara Band – women who can't be identified for fear of reprisal

Microphone (Egypt 2010) is undoubtedly the film that I have enjoyed most so far. Billed as an independent film about the underground art scene in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, it boasts some wonderful music director and some inventive ideas about telling its story. The director, Ahmad Abdalla, was present for a post-screening Q&A and he proved to be highly enthusiastic with an infectious personality. He explained that initially he had imagined a documentary about a single graffiti artist, but gradually the film just grew and grew. It’s now 120 mins but that represents a cut with much more material still available.Abdalla explained that making it a fiction feature helped it get distribution in Egypt since documentaries have never received a cinema release. (He hopes for 15 prints in Egypt which though still far behind the commercial films on 50 prints is still good for an independent – but the film still has to get past the censors.

Microphone never had a formal script and most of the musicians and artists play versions of themselves. The fictional story concerns Khaled (played by a major star of Egyptian Cinema, Khaled Abol Naga) who has returned to Alexandria after working for seven years in New York as an engineer. His old friend finds him a job in an organisation that manages projects for art and community work in the city. Khaled finds that the city has changed. On the one hand, there is a vibrant underground art scene that he slowly discovers and comes to appreciate very much. On the other, the authorities and other social pressures mean that it is very difficult to organise/promote the scene. The central narrative involves Khaled’s attempt to put on a concert featuring independent music acts, including hip-hop, metal and traditional music. At the same time he tries to communicate with his father and in a scene with his ex-girlfriend (which is chopped up and played intermittently out of sequence) he learns that she is now leaving to do a PhD in London. Khaled says that he will always carry a little bit of sadness with him after he realises that he has lost her.

The film includes many performance scenes as well as skateboarding, graffiti art and an enjoyable narrative strand about a filmschool (in the Jesuit college) in which a film professor tries to explain the difference between documentary and reportage and fiction. There is a useful website and the film’s soundtrack is being prepared for international release. I’m seriously considering buying it. I’ve thought in the past about visiting Alexandria and now I’ve seen the art (and the trams) and heard the music, I think it might be time to give it a go. Perhaps Alexandria could become the next Havana for music lovers?

Samira Maas is Joy

Joy (Netherlands 2010) directed by Mijke de Jong has a strong central performance by Samira Maas, a law student who had never acted before. She flew over to be at the screening and arrived in time to give an equally impressive performance in a Q&A.

The narrative for the film is very slight (and the film is only 78 mins long). Joy was abandoned by her mother as a baby and brought up in care. Now out of the hostel and working in a menial job she has persuaded the local authorities to show her the file on her mother. Will she meet her mother after all these years? If she does how will it affect her relationship with her Serbian boyfriend who invites her to his family celebrations and her relationship with her younger friend from the hostel who is heavily pregnant and wants her to be her birthing partner? Both these relationships with their strong emotional pulls cause cracks in Joy’s otherwise protective carapace. Is she really the hardbitten shoplifter and tough woman of the streets?

I thought at first this was going to be a slice of social realism, but although it does use its subject matter in that mode, the look and feel of the film is more expressionistic with a colour palette of mainly blues and greens and a sense of focusing on a single character who is somehow isolated from her environment. It is shot on HD in ‘Scope which gives it a different feel as well. In her statements after the screening. Samira Maas implied that the director manipulated her into dramatic situations, not so much directing her as forcing her to react to what the script set up. Maas is clearly an intelligent young woman who accepted this treatment in order to produce the required performance without being affected by it. She told us that she is interested in legal work on behalf of children and this no doubt influenced her decision to take the role. The flavour of the film is perhaps available via the trailer. Overall I was impressed by the performance and for this reason I thought that the film was worth seeing. I’m not sure that there was enough in the narrative otherwise but I’m intrigued enough to wonder what the earlier two films in de Jong’s loose trilogy about young women were actually like. All three were also written by women.

Press notes (in English) are available to download here.

The Dutch trailer gives an indication of the style: