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Images of revolution
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 03 - 2011

Hani Mustafa looks beyond the enthusiasm of filmmakers
Contemporary political events have driven many filmmakers to contribute their talent to depicting such happenings if not to the evolution of such incidents themselves. As time passes, however, many such works of art acquire additional value thanks to the events they depict, and critics find it hard to evaluate the work as a result. The study and critique of such films can rarely go beyond the historical developments that inspired them.
In the last few weeks many filmmakers have expressed interest in documenting the Egyptian revolution or dealing with it in film format -- something to which critics have responded with concern, since it is possible that such films will reduce the glory of the revolution to art of little value. Among the filmmakers in question is Ahmed Maher, who mentioned that he has received an offer of production from Europe to make a film about the revolution; he already has completed a treatment and sent it to the producers for approval. Likewise the duo Ahmed Abdallah and Sameh Abdel-Aziz (the scriptwriter and director, respectively) are preparing a film on the revolution with the provisional title Curfew. For his part the script writer Nasser Abdel-Rahman ( Hina Mayssarah, Heyya Fawda, Dukkan Shehata ) is working on a screenplay called Al-Shari' Lena (The Street is Ours, an expression written by Salah Jahin which featured in one of the songs of The Return of the Lost Son by the late Youssef Chahine), which was graffiti-ed onto the walls of Cairo on Friday of Anger, 28 January, following the withdrawal of the police and the victory of the protesters. Filmmaker Marwan Hamed has also called for a film on Tahrir Square by 10 directors, with each contributing a 10-minute piece -- similar to 11 September, which premiered in the 2002 Venice Film Festival and was made by 11 directors from all over the world including Youssef Chahine. Youssri Nassrallah, Hani Khalifa, Kamla Abu Zikri, Mariam Abu Ouf, Amr Salama and others are reportedly eager to take part in the present film.
Much artistic information has been making the rounds since the triumph of the revolution about films and projects depicting it. But the bulk of this information reflects little beyond the enthusiasm of artists who were part of the revolution since its first day (25 January) and the failure of other artists to support the revolution; there are those who supported the Mubarak regime and those who aided the official media in their campaign against the revolution. The latter, anti-revolution artists have had no way to brush up their image except announcing that they would take part in projects celebrating the revolution.
Egyptian cinema is full of films about revolution; perhaps the most important of these was the German-Egyptian filmmaker Fritz Kramp's 1938 Lachine, the People's Hope, which was banned by the authorities since it depicted a weak monarch, a corrupt prime minister, and a people suffering injustice. It is the army general Lachine who feels the pulse of the people and confronts the prime minister; no sooner is Lachine arrested than the people rise up until he is released and the prime minister is forced to resign. Later in the history of Egyptian film, revolution against injustice is a perennial theme even where it does not refer to any particular revolution. At the start of the 1980s, when Mubarak came to power, there rose a huge wave of films based on Naguib Mahfouz's epic, Al-Harafish (The Rabble). Many followed the fates of the futuwwah or popular strongman, the security leader of a given neighbourhood, and his treatment of the modest small-time merchants known as harafish. Sooner or later, a revolution on the part of those normally docile people replaces an unjust futuwwah with another. These films include, among others, Ashraf Fahmi's 1981 Al-Shaytan Ya'idh (The Devil Preaching), Samir Seif's 1985 Al-Mutarad (The Followed), Al-Gou' (Hunger) and Al-Harafish by Ali Badrakhan and Hossameddin Mustafa in 1986.
Films about actual revolutions in Egyptian history are very few. They can be classified into three categories. The first are films that deal with the 1919 Revolution, which due to Egyptian cinema being at a very early stage of its development at the time have not managed to document this important juncture very well. Only Mohamed Bayoumi's 1923 documentary on the return of the great Statesman Saad Zaghloul from his second exile in Seychelles, the first episode of the cine-magazine Amoun. Films concerned with political and social history did not appear until much later, and only Hassan El-Imam's 1964 Bain Al-Qasrein (Palace Walk), the first part of Imam's version of Mahfouz's Trilogy, which deals with the life of a middle- class Cairo family one of whose children, the politicised Fahmi (Salah Qabil) dies in the course of anti-British demonstrations. He is among the least developed subplots in the film, but Imam's recreation of the demonstrations in question is the closest thing we have to actual footage of the 1919 Revolution and is still very widely used as such.
The July Revolution of 1952 has of course been much more fortunate with the cinema. This is partly the result of the change coming from above, with a military coup taking over power and the people eventually expressing support for its leaders. Film was one of the instruments of the Free Officers and a way for them to persuade the public of supporting the nascent republic, especially after Gamal Abdel-Nasser took over in March 1954. Ahmed Badrakhan's 1955 Allah Ma'na (God Be With Us), based on a book by Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous, tells the story of the revolution from the Palestine War until the coup. Better known is Ezzeddin Zulfiqar's 1957 Rudda Qalbi (Give Back My Heart), based on the novel by Youssef El-Sebaai. Rudda Qalbi has been broadcast so often by national television that much of its dialogue has entered, idiomatically, into the vernacular. Ironically, the slogan with which the film ends -- "Long live the Revolution", which many found forced and unconvincing in the film itself -- was universally adopted in Tahrir Square, having taken on the vitality of truth.
During the 1960s, when sociopolitical change began to crystallise, many more films were made about the revolution -- with many concentrating on the pre-revolution conflict with the British occupation: Henri Barakat's 1961 Fi Baytina Rajul (A Man In Our House), Salah Abu Seif's 1963 La Waqta lil-Hobb (No Time For Love), for example, which depicted the armed struggle against the occupation. Kamal El-Sheikh's 1970 Ghoroub wa Shorouq (Sunset And Sunrise), on the other hand, dealt with the oppression of anti-British activists by the "political police" as the secret service was called at the time.
The 18-19 January 1977 Intifada, for its part, has had no luck with the cinema, largely because the event -- deemed by president Anwar El-Sadat "the thieves' uprising" -- was felt by the censors to reflect the true will of the people. A very few films, of which Mohamed Khan's 1987 Zawjat Rajul Muhimm (An Important Man's Wife) is the most important by far, dealt with this period. Khan's film registers the disillusion in Egyptian society following the 1967 war and the cultural shifts incumbent on Sadat's consumerist Open-Door policy. It is the Intifada that explodes the status quo and results in the dismissal and eventual suicide of the protagonist, the intelligence officer Hisham (Ahmed Zaki).
The closest thing to a prophecy of the 25 January Revolution, on the other hand, was the 2007 Heyya Fawda (Chaos), Chahine's last, which despite the excessive directness in some of its details, ends with a popular uprising against a police station trying to get back at Hatem, the low-rank policeman whose oppression of the neighbourhood was not checked by any of his colleagues or superiors. A number of critics explained the lack of subtlety in the film by the fact that Chahine, his health failing, relied on the filmmaker Khaled Youssef (who was assisting him) to complete the film.
Right now the concern is that the 2011 revolution will result in numerous films made in a rush with no purpose beyond capitalising on the energy of the young people who were an essential part of the revolution, something that could be adopted by producers aware of the fact that young people are the principal component of the movie- going public, with their eyes on a box office that grossed very little last year. This being the greatest event in the 21st century and perhaps Egypt's first true revolution, the concern is that films made about it will turn it into a two- dimensional process lacking in human depth.

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