There’s an Algerian film called Papicha (2019) out in cinemas in the UK at the moment. I haven’t seen it yet, because I’m not exactly going out a lot, but I do mean to do so. Therefore, in honour of that I’m doing a North African cinema week, which will probably mostly be Tunisian and Egyptian films, because I’ve not seen many Algerian ones (and I covered one in my recent Global Cinema entry for the country). Turning to Egypt, I’ve covered Youssef Chahine’s films before, but he was responsible for bringing Omar Sharif to the screen. Sharif’s first two films for Chahine partnered him with Faten Hamama in the mid-1950s (though Chahine had made a few with Hamama before) and they have matching titles in the original, usually translated more literally as Struggle in the Valley and Struggle in the Pier. However, like many non-English language films in the period, distributors seem to have been fairly inconsistent and a variety of titles are attested. On Netflix they are The Blazing Sun and Dark Waters respectively (and that’s what I’ve used here), which have a more poetic ring perhaps, but either way both are full-blooded melodramas reminiscent of contemporary Hollywood productions.
As one of the world’s great cities (and most ancient), plenty of films have been made and set in Cairo. Aside from the film in the title of this post, a pseudo-documentary fiction about the city focused on a filmmaker (for Cairo is also a centre for Arabic language filmmaking), I’ve also included a short review of a short film directed by the great Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine.
Somehow I’d got it into my head before going to see it that this was a documentary — a poetic documentary perhaps, a city symphony of sorts, but a documentary nonetheless. It’s not, but it does hover somewhere on a border that makes the fiction it tells somehow more imbued with melancholy and a sort of immediacy, even if it’s been over six years since the scenes were filmed. It also serves as an effective love letter to Cairo, a city in flux even as it was filmed, with buildings crumbling and disappearing. It uses the character of a filmmaker (Khalid Abdalla), making its fiction endlessly metatextual, as we see him manipulate the image, discuss the project with filmmaker friends, even commission the calligraphy which appears as this film’s title card in the end credits. There’s no grand plot besides his own work to finish the film, but there are threads of a life in turmoil: looking for a flat, nursing his mother, pining after his girlfriend, and fearing for friends in other war-torn Middle Eastern countries. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cairo the filmmaker captures is such a beautiful place, and plenty of the shots hardly need to do more than frame a sunset or a city skyline.
Director Tamer El Said تامر السعيد; Writers El Said and Rasha Salti رشا سلطي; Cinematographer Bassem Fayad باسم فياض; Starring Khalid Abdalla خالد عبد الله; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 27 September 2017.
I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.
There’s a potent, heady sense of melodrama at work here in this foundational Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine, even if it does turn on a rather creepy obsessive guy (played by the director himself). In its location shooting and heightened drama, it reminds me of the Italians of the period (it could stand alongside any early Fellini such as the ones I’ve been watching on the Criterion Collection recently). There’s a vibrancy to the filmmaking and a knowingness to the acting, and the black-and-white cinematography is striking. That all said — and I do recognise this film is 60 years old — I am certainly weary of scripts which use a disability (here a lame foot leading to a small limp) as a metaphor for some deeper existential malaise.
2019 UPDATE: Watching this film again on the big screen this time, I still see its continuity with Italian neorealism (which always did shade over into melodrama), and remain conflicted about the way it conflates its anti-hero’s criminality (he’s a proto-incel in many ways) with mental health issues and physical disfigurement, but you can see too a lot of the barbed commentary Chahine had for religious intolerance and the role of women in this society. However what struck me most, aside from the luminous cinematography, was the attentiveness that Chahine shows to the economics of this station: all the layers of people trying to earn money in various legal and sub-legal ways, whose jobs conflict and intersect, how they try to organise unionisation for the workers, the dirty tactics employed by the bosses. All of this vibrant detail plays out against a backdrop of obsession, madness and murder, but its the detail that makes it so vibrant.
Director Youssef Chahine يوسف شاهين; Writers Mohamed Abu Youssef محمد أبو يوسف and Abdel Hay Adib عبد الحي أديب; Cinematographer Alevise Orfanelli
ألفيزي أورفانيللي; Starring Farid Shawqi فريد شوقي, Hind Rostom هند رستم, Youssef Chahine; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 March 2017, and since then at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.