‘Deprived of almost everything, they suffer from a heavy repression imposed by power. One need only observe the misery in which most of families live to understand that in all autocracies it is the people who pay the highest price’ (Youssef Chahine, Egyptian film director).

This article was published in Oasis 13. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:41:31

Images are not enough to make a film. And indeed, although we still do not have works that narrate the recent popular revolts in the Arab world we do have in our memories very many images of what happened in the streets of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, and the Yemen: tanks going down the streets of a town, a flag that flies amidst dust, a sniper shooting from roofs, columns of smoke that go up to the sky. But images on their own say little or nothing. If there was not the voice of television commentators to explain them, we would not even know how to place them geographically. After a little, they all seem the same. Images are not reality and do not explain reality: the question of films or documentaries is different – they try to decipher the present – or the past, but for the purposes of today – trying to give order, meaning, to events. In the Arab world as well there have been those who have tried to narrate what happened through cinema. But few people realised this. Such is the case of the great Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, the favoured target of censorship in his country. His most famous film is Destiny (1997) which was sharply criticised by the Egyptian authorities because of how it addressed the uncomfortable subject of terrorism through a history (in truth romanticised) of the philosopher Averroes. In 2007, a year before his death, Chahine presented Chaos at Venice, a melodrama on the abuses perpetrated by an Egyptian policeman. Not a good film, perhaps, but certainly a strong and prophetic one if reconsidered in the light of recent events. ‘I will try to put my finger on the destiny of my fellow countrymen who have such little voice in the affairs of the country’, this director declared. ‘Deprived of almost everything, they suffer from a heavy repression imposed by power. One need only observe the misery in which most of families live to understand that in all autocracies it is the people who pay the highest price.’ Going back in time, looking for that desire for freedom which it seems one can trace today in those confused sequences that mortgage the future of Arab peoples, one seems to encounter the paradoxes such as that portrayed in 1977 by The Message [al-Risâla] by the Syrian Moustapha Akkad, the favourite film director of Colonel Gheddafi who strongly wanted this film on the history of the Prophet of Islam, with Anthony Quinn in the part of the uncle of Muhammad who was strongly opposed by the Arab aristocracy. Anthony Quinn himself was the protagonist in 1980 of another film by Akkad, which was also encouraged by Gheddafi, The Lion of the Desert. Once again a partisan, once again a leader, one again a struggle for national liberation: this time Quinn is the Senussi leader ‘Omar al-Mukhtar who fights against the colonisation of Libya at the hands of Mussolini’s army. A last paradox also envelops the death of this Syrian film director, which took place in Amman in 2005. Akkad, who had sought to tell the world, to tell the West, that the Muslim religion had little to do with terrorism, died together with his daughter, ripped apart by bombs of a suicide attack the responsibility for which was then claimed by al-Qaida. What does cinema add to images as regards our understanding of reality? What is absent as regards achieving a complete portrayal? A return to the facts, an awareness that gives a complete meaning to images, which subjects them to reason: this is something that it is easier to discover in Europe where under the heading ‘revolutions’ we often encounter masterpieces. Take Danton by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. This film narrates an event which two centuries previously had marked European history, and not only European history, by exploring the relationship between Danton and Robespierre. From the film’s beginning, indeed in the first scene, Wajda captures the heart of the narration with an image: a guillotine wrapped in a large sheet. We see it through the eyes of an angry Danton who is returning to Paris in a carriage. Through pouring rain we see its blade whose caress Danton would experience at the end of the film, and which has the function of being a dark presentiment. With a single image Wajda foreshadows everything that is needed to introduce us to the subject. And he takes advantage of it to tell us many things about himself, about Poland, about the terrible year he directed this film, the year 1983, which marked the fall and the triumph of that movement of liberation to which he himself adhered: Solidarność. Is Wajda too partisan? Is the French Revolution too far off? So let’s take that manifesto of the Russian revolution, The Battleship Potemkin, which in 1925 narrated the first spark of the Bolshevik revolution which had broken out twenty years previously in Odessa. The most famous scene in the history of cinema, the photogram which even the history books which document the seizure of power of the Russian revolutionaries say is totally invented: there was no massacre on the famous steps of Odessa. This is not the only case where the images of Eisenstein altered history, rightly so, one may understand. When he arrived at the Winter Palace to shoot the scene of the assault for October, the film made in 1928 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution, the Soviet maestro realised that the steps which the Bolsheviks had gone up were too small for the action that he had in mind. He thus filmed the scene on the massive stairway used during the Tsarist epoch for state processions. And that became to all effects and purposes the pathway of the revolution of October. An enormous fiction as regards historical reality, with five thousand veterans of the civil war who made the few hundred sailors and red guards who in historical terms had taken part in the seizure of the palace into an army. The loaded rifles of the extras wounded the passersby and destroyed the Sèvres vases which had survived the revolution. In his memoirs Eisenstein recalled the words of the old porter who swept up the pieces: “your people were much more careful the first time that they took the palace.” Danton, October, The Battleship Potemkin, but also the films of Chahine, and Lawrence of Arabia by the Englishman David Lean which tells the story of the revolt of the Arabs under the Turks during the First World War led by lieutenant Thomas Edward Lawrence who was active in the British secret service, with Anthony Quinn (him again, and to think that he was a Mexican!) in the role of the Bedouin Awda Abu Tayy: these are films of fiction which use images to reconstruct, to amplify and to clarify the meaning of an event that really took place. We could go forward for many pages and cite, for example, the thousand faces of the Cuban revolution, recently exalted by the films of Steven Soderbergh on Che Guevara (Che the Argentianian and Che the Warrior), by Diarios de motocicleta by Walter Salles and by the documentary of Oliver Stone, Commander, or deprecated in The Lost City by the Americanised Cuban Andy Garcia. It is not to the faithfulness of the images, to reconstructions of varying degree of accuracy, that we entrust our judgements in a work and the reality that it portrays. Reality does not speak on its own, it needs the awareness, the outlook and the hands of an individual who orders it, organises it, and interprets it. To the author in the darkness of the theatre we entrust our emotions and our judgements , and this is even more the case if we are speaking about revolution which according to Raymond Aron, ‘is the expression of a nostalgia that will last as long as the intrinsic imperfection of human society and the desire of man to reform it.’ If it is the height of ambition, its quality, that provokes anthropological disasters or exalts man, we should not allow ourselves to be deceived when someone tells about is happening through a film: more than the faithfulness of the images, let us keep our eyes on the heart.