Back to the Future
Eventually Egyptian filmmakers reestablished their links with the earlier traditions of commercial cinema. The much-maligned star system returned, and so too did the potential for clever directors to exploit the intertextuality of actors and previous films.
Shortly after the Centennial festival I became involved in planning another film festival, this time for Egyptian films exclusively. I was fascinated to see that one of the films we chose for our festival was full of references to earlier films. The film is Ya dunya ya gharami (O Life, My Passion; Ahmad 1996), the debut film of Majdi ‘Ali Ahmad.
The title comes from a song in Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s third film, Yahya al-hubb (Long Live Love; Karim 1938). Long Live Love, as mentioned above, was also Layla Murad’s first film. It is a cheery story in which ‘Abd al-Wahhab plays an aristocrat who works as a bank clerk, hiding his true identity so that people will judge him on personal merit rather than by his social station. In the course of the film he marries an aristocratic woman (Murad), and of course when his true identity is revealed everybody lives happily ever after.
O Life, My Passion, by contrast, is about three single women with no male guardians. In the film the three struggle to find mates in a social system that has allotted them few assets. Their potential husbands range from an exuberant con man to a prudish hypocrite. As in Long Live Love, hidden identities play a role in several characters, but in O Life, My Passion, secrets revealed always lead to a reality that is less than the appearance rather than more. The ending is neither happy nor sad; rather it is filled with ambiguity, as two of the three women are forced to marry men who are less than perfect.
O Life, My Passion has enough visual presence to do very well on the film festival circuit. Furthermore, it sensitively and humanely portrays the lives of women in a Middle Eastern society, a topic that preoccupies Americans both in and outside of academia. The film is well acted and intelligently directed and was also extremely popular in Egypt. But what fascinated me most was the final scene. The story ends with one of the three women getting knifed by an angry fundamentalist. Fortunately she survives. We see her waking up in the hospital with her two friends by her side. Of course, they ask her, “How do you feel?” The stricken woman replies, “I feel like I’m headed for a disaster” (Hasis bi-musiba gayya-li). Then she says, “Oh God, oh God” (Ya latif, ya latif). The women in the scene express their concern for each other and their relief that the worst had not happened in “commercial filmese.” The exchange is from a film, and the film happens to be none other than The Flirtation of Girls. In the original Layla Murad and Najib al-Rihani are in her jeep. Al-Rihani does not yet know it, but they are going to Layla’s tryst with her nightclub lover. On the way they sing a delightful duet in which Layla asks al-Rihani, “How do you feel?” His reply: “I feel like I’m headed for a disaster.” And Layla replies, “Ya latif, ya latif.” From the title almost to the last line—these are just two of many examples, and there are doubtless many that I, as an outsider, missed—O Life, My Passion lives through other works, just as The Flirtation of Girls had in 1949. It portrays a social world that is also defined partly through works of popular culture.
Bourdieu describes the “autonomy of artistic production” as one of the conventional diacritica of pure taste. But the autonomy of art, he says, obscures its social embeddedness: “An art which ever increasingly contains reference to its own history demands to be perceived historically; it asks to be referred not to an external referent, the represented or designated ‘reality’, but to the universe of past and present works of art” (1984, 3). The Flirtation of Girls was born within just such a universe, but of course it was driven very much by the historically developed canons not of elite sensibilities but of popular taste. One of the hallmarks of a modern sensibility is that producers of art concede Bourdieu’s point: they produce works that foreground the universe of past and present works of art rather than attempt to obscure it beneath the “pure intention of the artist…who aims to be autonomous” (Bourdieu 1984, 3). We tend to call this “postmodern,” but perhaps the same dynamics are at work in other places and at other times.
What the director of O Life, My Passion has done is to find a way to make creative use of his own filmmaking tradition, and at the same time to make the film appealing to a foreign audience. It is an acknowledgment that there is, after all, some value in those three thousand films that came before. One hopes this is a sign that the Egyptian cinema will both survive and retain its unique character. Like all Third World film industries, Egypt will have to market its films in metropolitan markets in order to survive, because the economics of the local market will not sustain the industry. The omnipresence of the dreaded Hollywood global juggernaut is only one of the threats faced by the beleaguered Egyptian national film industry. The inability of the Egyptian government to exert any effective pressure on Arab governments to pay a fair price for Egyptian entertainment product is another. Furthermore, no Arab government, Egyptian or otherwise, has shown the slightest interest in policing video piracy. The American government too has turned a blind eye to piracy of Egyptian films on American soil, thereby rendering a potentially lucrative expatriate Arab market null and void as far as the film producers are concerned.
Making films for exhibition in the United States, even if only in the limited circuit of universities and art houses, forces nonmetropolitan filmmakers to choose between making films with general appeal in their countries of origin and making films oriented primarily toward interpreting their culture to foreign audiences. Sometimes filmmakers can have their cake and eat it too. At the Centennial festival Ferid Boughedir emphasized that his films are shown in Tunisia and do quite well there. Summer in La Goulette will not, however, be shown widely in the Arabic-speaking world outside of Tunisia because it features a number of scenes with nudity. Ultimately the multicultural world elaborated in the film works better in New York than anywhere else.
More often the choice between specialist metropolitan and general national audiences is cast in terms favorable to the metropole—as between art and commerce. Films from other national film traditions shown here are shown because we think they are art. As the Cineaste editorial put it, they are “at least the best of them.” By default the Egyptian cinema, as the only significant commercial film industry of the Arabic-speaking world, is given the role of the villain in this artistic economy. Egyptian and Arab intellectuals are full partners in casting this drama. Boughedir, Salih, and all the other filmmakers and critics at the festival were eager to proclaim their distance from the conventions of Egyptian cinema, but in doing so they perhaps inadvertently withheld the tools a metropolitan audience needed to appreciate one of the most strikingly different films shown in the festival.
Metropolitan film festivals sell themselves as glimpses into worlds of difference. And yet films like The Flirtation of Girls were dismissed as nothing more than Hollywood clones, leaving the audience to question, like the man in the lobby between The Flirtation of Girls and Summer in La Goulette, why it was subjected to what was essentially, by the standards of the festival’s expert opinion, a bad film. The answer is that the organizers of the festival were wiser than their experts. The Flirtation of Girls is a great film, if not a film that a metropolitan audience can easily view without mediation.