“I haven’t the right to make films that people don’t understand or do not admit.”
“I’m deeply rooted in my own people. I keep to my own. It’s a feeling I’ve always had and will preserve. You must have national roots.”
Born: 25 January 1926, Alexandria, Egypt.
Died: 27 July 2008, Cairo, Egypt.
Directing career: 1950-2007.
Traits: Populist social realism; themes of Egyptian identity and history, deeply rooted in portraits of Egyptian political and social life; a desire to blend the mainstream genres of Arab cinema with more formally daring art cinema influences; an iconoclastic, often controversy-rousing, tendency to break taboos in his films.
Collaborators: Omar Sharif (actor), Faten Hamama (actress), Yahia Chahine (actor, Youssef’s brother), Khaled Youssef (screenwriter), Farid Shawqy (actor), Mohsen Nasr (cinematographer).
Egypt and Egyptians have a sacred relation to water, especially that of the Nile, and to earth, provider of the crops that has sustained this land for thousands of years. With his 1969 film The Land Youssef Chahine, patron saint of Egyptian cinema, makes a stirring film about that sacred bond and the dangers that threaten it, perhaps having already abolished it.
It is set in the Egypt of the 1930s. A village of farmers and peasants on the Nile delta, whose land is in the hands of a select elite few (here represented by their corrupt power-hungry mayor and the arrogant local governor, Mahmoud Bey, a remnant of Ottoman rule who plans to build a railroad over the villagers’ homes and farms). Their allocated days of irrigation is cut down from 10 to 5 days, when even 10 days of watering their crops had barely been enough to eke out subsistence. The overwhelming majority of Egyptians at this time were peasants like this representative bunch of villagers, but theirs is a way of life being strangled by those in power. Finally, the more determined among them, notably the effective village elder Abu Suelem and the young warrior-like Abdel Hadi, take it upon themselves to fight back against oppression and defend their rights and their land, in any way they can, even if (as the chorus of the song book-ending the movie warns us) it will have to be watered with blood.
This period of Egyptian history was one where politically a single issue towered over all others: gaining full independence and autonomy from the British, who had been a colonial presence in Egypt since 1882. Urban intellectuals, students and workers alike all engaged in an active political life, typically involving protests and demonstrations, against both the British and the monarchy, a leftover from the days of Ottoman rule. The nationalist Wafd party, whose primary political raison-d’etre was to seek independence (something they actually failed in but that is another story and another Chahine film), was the heartbeat of the nation in the 1930s. This led to the neglect of internal social matters, such as the sad but unsurprising truth that the large majority of the land was in the hands of a tiny minority of elites, mainly those once in favour with the Ottoman rulers who offered land as private property to their relatives and acolytes in the 19th century. The inequality only got worse during the inter-war economic depression, and the landowners got richer as the landless got poorer. Despite the active political life of urban Egyptians, not even the supposedly progressive Wafd party ever pushed for any kind of land reform, or policies to narrow the economic gap — despite the Egyptian economy being heavily dependent on the export of cotton which the peasants provided. The rural peasants and farmers, the community we see in Chahine’s film, were left high and dry, condemned to poverty, and marginalised from the political life of the nation, who had other dice to throw.
The film deftly illustrates this marginalisation in one central scene. At one point, the village teacher, a bookish, slightly cowardly and naive fellow known as Mohammed Effendi, believes he can convince the authorities to revoke the decree cutting the days of irrigation down to 5. He makes a trip to Cairo in order to plea his case, and as it happens he will only get betrayed and used as a pawn by the wily Mahmoud Bey. But the scenes of his brief interlude to the heart of Cairo, where he is a fish out of water amid the street protests against the British protectorate, highlight how forgotten the cause of the peasants was. The chaotic political hotbed of the time left no room for them. Mohammed Effendi comes to Cairo, witnesses and is shaken by a protest he doesn’t fully comprehend, and then leaves again, inept and totally impotent to help his village. The villagers are simply left out of this critical period of Egyptian history and Chahine shows that in this film, not just by the way they are exploited, but furthermore in the irony that the village elder Abu Suelem, alongside other village elders, previously fought the British in the 1919 revolution. Now they are neglected, oppressed, and relegated to fighting a losing battle against capital and progress, industrialisation and greed, fighting armed cavalry police with their antiquated farming tools.
Chahine was a bard of Egypt and Egyptian culture. The sacred bond the peasants felt to the land is one he himself feels to those peasants. This is in many ways a eulogy to that way of life, the traditional communities that once shaped and formed Egypt, produced its food and its main export, before being cast aside in the name of supposed better plans. Chahine gives us a portrait of an entire community, a collective chorus with many different voices and characters. In the rebellion attempt, this group at least come together, unify and make a stand, even if the death knell is sounding for them and their way of life. All this is tinged with Chahine’s unpretentious and often melodramatic style. He was an artist of and for the people, his formative years coming in the era of the golden age of classical Egyptian melodramas, and he remained a professional filmmaker determined to reach his audience. Hence the acting and emotions in his film are not exactly on the side of more rarefied art-house offerings. All the better for it, Chahine’s poem to the bygone peasantry and the land comes through loud and clear, and both Egyptian and World cinema are richer with him and his work in it. (April 2017)