Cairo Station was the 11th film directed by Youssef Chahine. He was still only 32 and he also played the central character in the film. Although he was established and had already shown films at Cannes, it was this film that announced him as a major director in global cinema. He managed to cram a great deal into 77 minutes and to make a film both thoroughly Egyptian but also remarkably contemporary in an international setting.
The film’s plot involves a recognisable romantic triangle but its presentation of characters and location, already dramatic, is further enhanced by Chahine’s performance as Qinawi the lame man with a dangerous obsession. I showed the film recently as part of an event on Egyptian Cinema and one colleague remarked that the rapid dialogue was reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. Someone else noted the neo-realist aspects and other suggestions linked the film to work by Fellini and Sergio Leone and to film noir melodramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s from the US or UK (the latter invoked particularly by the railway scenes).
As the title suggests, the setting is Egypt’s main railway station built in the late 19th century on the site of the first station in Africa dating from 1856. Over the opening images of the station some narration gives us an impression of the large numbers of trains arriving and departing the station. The narrator turns out to be the operator of the newspaper stand on the station who has taken pity on Qinawi, offering him a job as a news vendor and finding him a shack by the railway tracks in which to live. Qinawi’s background remains a mystery, although like most Cairenes he has a village to go back to. We soon learn that he is obsessed with images of attractive women which he cuts from pin-up magazines and pastes on the walls of his shack. He has further become obsessed with Hamouna (Hind Rostom), one of a number of women who (illegally) carry buckets with bottles of soft drinks down the tracks, selling them to thirsty passengers (angering the official supplier on the station concourse). But Hamouna is expected to marry Abu Seri (Farid Chawki) the would-be leader of the railway porters who is attempting to form a trade union. Added to this by scriptwriters Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hai Adib (both seemingly writing their first feature) is a third narrative strand about a young couple. A young woman (only a teenager?) waits around the station for her lover – who can’t acknowledge her in public because he knows his parents won’t approve of their liaison.
I got the feeling that the film starts like a neo-realist melodrama – something like a de Sica film – but as director Chahine gets into his stride, we tend to lose a little of the sense of the ‘everyday’ in a busy railway station and the narrative slides into film noir thriller territory. Chahine was that interesting combination of an Egyptian committed to the socialism of Nasser, but also an international film artist. In Cairo Station, the political issue does get sidelined but in Chahine’s later films different ‘national’ political stories are prominent. In this film Chahine worked with two of the biggest stars of Egypt’s ‘Golden Age’ of studio production. Hind Rostom was sometimes called the ‘Marilyn Monroe of the East’ and Farid Chawki was dubbed the ‘John Wayne’ or ‘Anthony Quinn’ of Egyptian cinema (he certainly has the physical presence). Both are very good in their roles, but, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that the popular audience in Egypt at the time didn’t respond to seeing their heroes playing ‘harder’ roles than they might do in popular comedies, melodramas or action films.
The strengths of this film are partly in the photography and editing and the action by the railway tracks with the dangers associated with so many moving trains. The action in the narrative is compressed into a single day and in the last section, as night falls, the noirish elements begin to dominate, not just with the dark shadows and single light sources, but also the mise en scène of windows, doorways and other ways of disturbing the balance of the compositions. Without spoiling the narrative too much, the closing scenes offer a chase across the tracks. The photography is by ‘Alvise’ (Alevise) Orfanelli a film veteran who also wrote and directed films. His start was in 1919 and Cairo Station was his penultimate film. He died aged 59 in 1961. Orfanelli was part of the Italian community in Alexandria and was an important mentor and guide for Chahine in the late 1940s/early 1950s (see the excellent website of the Alexandria Cinema website http://www.bibalex.org/AlexCinema/cinematographers/Alvise_Orfanelli.html). The film’s music by Fouad El-Zahry is equally effective and carries motifs that remind me of American studio pictures – another trait associated with Chahine’s later films.
There are several interesting social observations in the film. After our screening we noted that only one woman in the whole film wore a headscarf (and this became a short comedy sequence when her husband tried to stop someone looking at her). Two rather supercilious men are identified as religious observers tut-tutting young people in Western clothes, but otherwise Cairo appears to be a secular city, at least on the surface. How different to modern filmic representations. The sub-plot of the two young lovers is particularly interesting. The young woman is a passive character whose life involves a great deal of waiting. At one point she asks Qinawi for a telephone token and on receiving it she says “Merci” rather than “Shukran”. She may be a character representing Chahine’s own biography. He grew up in a tri-lingual household speaking French (like many Alexandrines) and married a French-Egyptian woman. Some of his later films became much more auto-biographical.
The general critical response to Cairo Station saw the film as presenting the marginalisation of Cairo’s poorer characters and how this sense of exclusion in this case pushed Qinawi into sexual violence and a tragic ending. What is just as important is the social realism and humanism of the film in which characters are equally likely to help each other as well as to display prejudice towards one another (so Qinawi is mocked because his limp makes him less likely to marry the girl of his dreams.
I enjoyed Cairo Station very much and I was very impressed by Chahine’s handling of his actors and the choreography of action in the film. The film is thrilling and visually inventive and as others have noted, there is plenty of evidence that Chahine had learned from other directors, but also that he probably influenced many others. And the film felt so contemporary for 1958. When the hip young people of Cairo board the train and an impromptu session from ‘Mike and the Skyrockets’ starts, as my colleague suggested, it was almost like Expresso Bongo (UK 1959).
Sheikh Jackson is a mainstream popular Egyptian film that entertains and has something to say. For its LFF screening on a Saturday lunchtime, the Mayfair in Curzon was the perfect choice because of the area’s long-term status as important for London’s Arab population. I arrived just in time as the director and his crew were introduced. There were plenty of empty seats but they all got filled in the next few minutes. The audience obviously enjoyed the film and the Q&A revealed that there were indeed many Egyptian groups present.
As the film’s title implies, the narrative involves a fascination with Michael Jackson as experienced by someone who has the honorific title ‘sheikh’ which in this case has a religious connotation as a title for a young man leading prayers in his mosque and training to become an imam. The narrative begins with the family life of a devout young father discovering his daughter’s fascination with music videos on YouTube and then crashing his car when he hears about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. This appears to trigger a crisis of identity and the narrative reveals itself as a fascinating mix of interior psychological fantasy and more conventional family melodrama. The first strand is developed through a series of hallucinations and disturbances, some of which directly reference Michael Jackson and lead the young man (played by Ahmad El-Fishawi) to eventually consult a psychiatrist, an attractive and confident woman who unnerves the sheikh. The second strand, the family melodrama takes us back to the boyhood and adolescence of Khaled, the sheikh, through a series of extended flashbacks. We see the teenage Khaled (Ahmed Malek) defy his macho father (Maged El Kedwany), a former bodybuilder and now the owner of a gym. Money for music lessons is used instead to secretly enable Khaled to be the coolest kid in school with his Jackson cassettes and original posters. How he gets from Michael Jackson dancing to leading the prayers in the mosque is via familiar tropes of the family melodrama narrative which I won’t spoil.
There are important female characters in the story – Khaled’s mother, his first girlfriend, his wife, his daughter and the psychiatrist – but this is a male-centred melodrama as directed by Amr Salama and co-written by the director and Omar Khaled. Salama (born 1982) has several features to his name already and has attracted major talents in Egyptian cinema to this production which is generating a lot of interest. (It has been chosen as the Egyptian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition.) The film is ‘personal’ since the director was a teenager when Jackson was still a global figure and he says it is “almost autobiographical”. During the Q&A there were questions about how the film had been received by Egyptian censors and Salama assured us all was well and no-one was offended when the censors actually saw the film. He suggested that in Egypt audience responses have been positive in the majority of cases.
Western reactions to the film after its Toronto screenings seem to me a little bemused by the central issue of identity and the film is judged to stand or fall on its Michael Jackson sequences. Salama answered a question about this, saying that initially they had tried to get permission for genuine Jackson material but they had only negative responses. In the end he thinks this was good for the film. It meant that they only used their own re-workings of materials. Although this means the sequences aren’t as slick as they might be, they don’t overwhelm the central issue about identity and the personal issues about how important a global icon might be in a relatively ‘closed’ society like Egypt. (It was also interesting to hear how strongly Egyptians in the audience at the Curzon Mayfair identified with Khaled, especially post recent events in the region.) I was very grateful to get this chance to see Sheikh Jackson. I think it is unlikely to get a UK release, but since Clash eventually made it from last year’s LFF, I live in hope.
Clash was in the Official Competition at LFF and the good news is that it has been picked up for UK distribution by Arrow Films. If it comes your way, don’t miss it. Director Mohamed Diab is a scriptwriter whose first feature as a director was 678 in 2010. That film caused quite a storm in Egypt, dealing with the whole issue of sexual abuse of passengers on public transport (the title refers to a bus route). Three different women decide that they can no longer put up with the groping and touching they experience daily. Diab takes the brave approach of aiming for a popular audience by casting well-known Egyptian performers and including comedy and action in his dramas. I’d only seen extracts from 678 (which wasn’t released in the UK to my knowledge) so I was looking forward to Clash. I wasn’t disappointed.
The film begins with titles that quickly set the scene in Cairo following the ‘Arab Spring’ moment, the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and his subsequent fall when the Army take over. Now it is 2013 and we are inside a police truck – what in the UK would be a ‘Black Maria’ and in the US a ‘paddy wagon’. In this case the wagon is a steel box with high barred windows that is mounted on a standard truck chassis. This ‘cell on wheels’ has no facilities and is likely to get extremely uncomfortable in Cairo during the heat of the day. It’s important to sketch out these details since the whole film narrative is seen from within this cell. First we see two journalist thrown into the cell in the midst of a police action to clear crowds from the street. Soon the truck is attacked by demonstrators who believe the journalists are Muslim Brotherhood supporters and several of these protestors are then bundled into the cell. The truck moves on and is in turn caught up with Brotherhood supporters, some of whom are arrested and join the occupants of the cell. At this point we realise that Diab (or rather his brother, who had the original idea) has latched on to the idea of exploring a complex situation via a drama involving people of different backgrounds trapped in a confined space. Here he has not just pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood supporters but also a wide range of other ‘differences’ to explore such as old and young, men and women, affluent and poor, Christians and Muslims. One of the journalists has dual Egyptian-American nationality. A police officer is also forced into the cell. Within the separate groups there are individual conflicts.
The power of the film lies in the two types of constraint. The camera can only look out of the windows – or occasionally out through the back door. One reviewer likens the film to Lebanon (Israel 2009) in which we see action through the viewfinder of a tank. There are certainly similarities, but the constraint of the trapped mix of people is just as important – as in films like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (US 1944). I was reminded of The Waiting List (Cuba 2000) in which a group of people are marooned in a country bus station, unable to get home or to Havana. They represent a society looking for a way forward. Clash is a similar film in which the group acts as a metaphor for Egyptian society – fragmented, antagonistic towards each other – but also potentially capable of finding their humanity and the things they have in common.
At just under 100 minutes, Clash is a riveting watch. The script is inventive and no avenue is unexplored in ratcheting up the tension and finding new ways to discomfort the unfortunate people trapped inside the truck. Once again, Diab uses faces well-known to Egyptian audiences, led by Nelly Karim (also a lead in 678). He manages to juggle the use of character types and genre conventions and the portrayal of ’rounded characters’ more associated with social realist dramas. There are comic vignettes and personal tragedies. Diab treads carefully in not obviously supporting one group over another. He has been and will be criticised inside Egypt, but he manages to place himself in between the escapism of mainstream popular cinema and the kind of art cinema that struggles to find an audience. I hope that the film finds audiences around the Arab world as well as in the international marketplace.
In this interview, Mohamed Diab talks about his film in English (but the interview questions are in French):
The first of two Egyptian films in my selection, In the Last Days of the City proved to be fascinating – perhaps not the easiest start to my festival viewing but certainly a film I’ve thought about a lot since. Produced, written and directed by Tamer El Said, it’s an independent film that has taken several years to make and now emerges as an almost documentary record of a particular district of Cairo before the Arab Spring of 2011. In the Q&A after the screening, the director and his lead actor Khalid Abdalla referred to a film that was “made with foresight” and “edited in hindsight” – preparations began in 2009 with shooting spread over 30 months and a long period of editing.
Khalid (the actor uses his own name) is a thirty-something filmmaker in Cairo attempting to complete a film. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what kind of film it is intended to be, but it includes footage of people he knows and it is inspired by material sent to him by filmmaker friends who are in Baghdad, Berlin and Beirut. At one point he meets these friends in Cairo. At other times he finds himself looking around the city and coming across isolated incidents – police beating demonstrators, a man assaulting a woman. At these moments we feel a sense of unease at Khalid’s seeming voyeurism.
The film draws on the repertoire of films about filmmaking. Khalid has several problems. He falls out with the editor who is trying to complete post production in his flat. Khalid is also being forced out of the flat and must pack his books and household goods and search for a new place to live, not helped by a ‘useless’ estate agent. One of his subjects for his film is his ex-girlfriend who seems increasingly reluctant to help him out. Khalid’s mother is in hospital and he tries to see her on a regular basis.
The filmmaking process for Tamer El Said began with the intent to create a fiction and then slid into reality. The director used his own flat as one of the film’s locations and did then find himself forced to move. The scenes on the street did pick up the tension in Cairo before 2011. The status of the film now before us is uncertain, fiction bleeds into reality and vice versa. What is most striking are the formal properties of the filmic image. So, with an image on the computer screen, the camera zooms in and we are taken into the ‘fictional world’ on screen – but this is revealed to be the ‘real world’ of Khalid’s friends. The same can happen in reverse of course. ‘What is real?’ is an age-old question in cinema. Here though it takes on a new urgency as major changes are taking place in Egyptian society. Two observations are important. First, we are seeing only a small part of the city from a middle-class perspective (i.e. not necessarily wealthy but educated/artistic/cultured) and secondly the beautifully composed images by Bassem Fayad seem to convey the sadness of a city approaching turmoil implied by the title. This is certainly a festival film that will be a difficult sell for cinema distribution. It’s important though that this kind of Egyptian independent film gets seen internationally and broadens the perspective offered by different forms of Egyptian popular cinema.
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!
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)
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).
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.)
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):