When I started this section of the newsletter last month, it was my hope that I would be able to write about two Egyptian films available to stream with subtitles in the hopes that perhaps more non-native speakers who haven’t been super exposed to Egyptian movies may be able to find and watch them. That went out the window faster than I expected when it dawned on me that I had grossly overestimated the variety of subtitled Egyptian films currently available to stream in the US. For the time being then, this will be a space for some quick takes on two of the movies I’ve caught over the last month. My apologies if you need subtitles to watch these! Hopefully we get more than 2010s comedies and a handful of Chahine’s restored films on Netflix soon.
Dreams of Hind & Camilia (1989) | source: Behind the Scene
“Realism” is a fraught term in the Egyptian film context, especially if you try and link the movies that get that label with the global definition and sense of the term. More often than not, it just means a ceaseless barrage of trauma and a shallow observation that life, as in turns out, seems to be “bad” for impoverished and marginalized Egyptians, especially women. I’ve yet to exhaust Mohamed Khan’s filmography, but I keep coming back his understanding and commanding of “Realism,” as both mode and ethos, remain breathtakingly poignant and refreshing decades later. Aida Reyad’s Hind and Naglaa Fathi’s Camilia face their fair share of trauma, but they are never passive in the face of these harsh experiences. Unlike in many exploitative films that justify their trauma porn with the label “Realist,” Hind and Camilia’s story is not a mere vehicle for basic social commentary, but a genuine attempt at a believable and loving friendship (with a possible queer reading––think of how the name of the film is a pun for “their” daughter) in the midst of turbulent circumstances. Another Khan hallmark I adore here is the overwhelmingly bittersweet ending whereby the story ends on a moment of joy in a sea of otherwise unresolved conflict. In the hands of a less capable filmmaker, these moments might shoot to make you feel like numb to the heaviness you’ve just seen or to dismiss the hardships of working class and destitute Egyptians. Rather, these moments are love letters to their characters. They let us know that they will survive.
Silence…We’re Rolling (2001) | source: Eye on Cinema
We may never know for a fact whether or not Khaled Youssef did actually take over most of Youssef Chahine’s late-career projects, but with each one of these slogs I watch I find myself more and more convinced with the legend. There’s a striking similarity between the former’s particular brand of awfulness with the latter’s deeply upsetting late-stage decline. It’s all here: the robotic acting, haphazard dialogue, amateurish fusion of blockbuster and arthouse affect, cringeworthy social didacticism and pseudo-Nasserist nostalgia. Chahine was never perfect with gender, but you also see the younger women of these later films steadily get flatter and shallower. It’s painfully obvious here as well as in the disastrous Alexandria…New York (2004). It’s a shame because I was beyond excited at the prospect of seeing an Egyptian musical made in the last 20 years, and the prospect of a divorced Latifa navigating love, family and music seemed incapable of producing a boring film. To be fair, some sequences are dazzling. The metro number has a ridiculous and unabashed flamboyance to it––I wish that energy had been carried throughout the rest of the film. Musicals have tragically declined in Egyptian cinema––might even be extinct at this point?––and I hope we get to see more soon. I also hope we see less hokey nationalism that encapsulates “Egyptianness” in a handful of buzzwords, cheesy songs and dead national icons. I am forever reassessing Chahine’s legacy and am determined to find a late-stage film of his that I do not hate.
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