AL-ARD/THE LAND (1969, Egypt, 130 min.), directed by Youssef Chahine; screenplay by Hassan Fuad from the novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi's; cinematography by Abdelhalim Nasr; music by Ali Ismail; edited by Rashida Abdel Salam; with Mahmoud El Miligui (Abou Swelem), Nagwa Ibrahim (Wassifa); Hamdi Ahmad (Mohammed Effendi), Ali El Scherif (Diab), Yehia Chahine (Hassouna), Ezzat El Alaili (Sgt. Abdallah). In Arabic with English subtitles.
The people need land, land needs water, the water needs connections, connections mean a palace, the palace wants a road and the road has its victims, and we always are the ones to pay. That's the story of our lives with Mahmoud Bey and the story of our forefathers with his. --Abou Swelem in The Land
Set in the cotton-growing countryside alongside the Nile, The Land is a celebration of the land (and water) that has provided the basis for life and the life cycle in the Nile Valley for millenium after millenium. It is simultaneously a moral outcry and a call to action. Though eminently Egyptian, there is much in this story that speaks to all of the African continent.
The film is an epic story of two generations coming together to resist the expropriation of their land and their traditional values. As epics do, this film revolves around a large set of individuals. The older generation is represented by Abou Swelem, Sheikh Youssef, and Sheikh Hassouna, all of whom participated in the struggle for independence in 1919 and spent hard time in prison. Since then, Sheikh Youssef has gone on to become a bitter, exploitive shopkeeper. Sheikh Hassouna has become a politician, abandoned the land, and moved to Cairo. Only Abou Swelem--unlike his educated comrades--has remained a peasant, working his land in the traditional manner.
The younger generation is represented by Abou Swelem's lovely daughter, Wassifa; the two men who are rivals for her hand--the educated Mohammed Effendi and the peasant Abdel Hadi; Diab, the crude workhorse brother of Mohammed Effendi; Elwani, a landless, foolish young man (those without land are rootless, irresponsible, cut off from the sources of tradition); and Khadra, a high-spirited, tragic woman without husband, family, or land.
In addition, there are the lords and their lackeys. Chief among them is Mahmoud Bey, wealthy, effete, and influential. We also have the corrupt mayor and his toady sidekick, Abdel Ati, as well as the government officials, police, and soldiers who come to help in the repression of the villagers.
The first image of the film is a close-up of Abou Swelem's work-toughened fingers caressing a young cotton plant and the earth from which it grows. He is tough, hard-headed, with a proud, belligerent moustache, eyes that can flash in anger or melt in sentiment and yearning, particularly when he gazes at the plot of land that is like a living thing for him. A widower, he lives in simple self-sufficiency with his sister and beautiful daughter. He is visited by an absentee landlord from the city who has returned to the village for the mayor's wedding (the mayor has of course chosen a young girl as his latest bride). Abou Swelem complains about the government policy of giving the peasants access to river water for irrigation only ten days per month. Little does he know that the wheels are already turning to reduce the irrigation time to five days per month, in order to divert it to wealthy magnates such as Mahmoud Bey.
A parallel plot strand has to do with the question of who will win the love of Wassifa, who in a sense represents the future. Will it be the handsome, awkward, powerful Abdel Hadi, almost a reincarnation of her father as a young man, a strong link to the past? Or will it be Mohammed Effendi, wealthy, educated, boyish, slightly ridiculous, and naive? Early on, we see her toying with the spoiled, immature son of the wealthy absentee landowner, but this goes nowhere and the boy quickly vanishes from the story.
Word of the change in irrigation policy comes down in the middle of the wedding celebration, and the men try to figure out the appropriate course of action. The fiery young Abdel Hadi wants to defy the government and irrigate anyway, and Abou Swelem agrees. Hadi's rival, Mohammed Effendi, wants to petition the government to change the plan, and they agree on this course. However, they naively decide to enlist the aid of Mahmoud Bey, who has good connections in Cairo. Mahmoud Bey, of course, has his own agenda. As a result of their petition, not only will they not gain more access to water, but many of them will lose their land entirely, to make room for a paved road leading up to Mahmoud Bey's new mansion.
Effendi goes to Cairo to plead their case, but eventually realizes Mahmoud Bey's treachery. Though tempted by Mahmoud Bey's offer to make him his partner, Effendi instead goes to his uncle Hassouna, now a legislator, to secure his help. Hassouna declares that their only means of resistance is to unite the villagers: unless the village acts as one, nothing can be done. Hassouna returns to the village to find that most of the peasants have already been locked up for violating the irrigation policy. The men are tortured, and even forced to endure the company of Sheikh Shaban, a religious fanatic who will turn out to be a government agent (and eventually, the murderer of Khadra). Abou Swelem must even face the supreme indignity of having his moustache shaved off. The women, led by Wassifa, fearlessly protest, and help to secure their release. However, the respite is only temporary, for the government still insists upon enforcing its predatory policies. Even the mayor's dismissal and death (worn out by his new wife) changes nothing; the problem is clearly systemic.
Buoyed by Hassouna's inspiring presence, the villagers continue to resist, even when a camel-mounted brigade of soldiers is sent to occupy the town. However, despite his blandishments to the villagers to forget their own interests and maintain their solidarity, even Hassouna himself finally falls prey to the narrower interests of his family and sinks into betrayal. Ultimately, only Abou Swelem remains true to their original vision. The various betrayals are also offset by courageous acts of contrition and solidarity by Abdel Ati and the soldiers' commanding officer, Sergeant Abdallah, and in the end, villagers and even landless laborers come to help Swelem in a fruitless attempt to harvest his crop before he is stripped of his land. But inevitably Abou Swelem will pay for his stubborn resistance, just as was predicted in the beginning of the film.
As the film began with Abou Swelem's hands caressing his beloved earth, so it ends with him being literally dragged from it, fingers clutching and clawing in an impossible attempt to hold onto that which the inexorable forces of corruption and privilege are stealing from him. It is an extraordinarily powerful ending.
Most Americans don't realize that Egypt has long been a great center of film production, exporting movies all over the Arab-speaking world. Although output appears to be dropping (in part because of the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, in part from American competition), as recently as 1993, 76 feature films were made in Egypt. Most are action films or melodramas, but there are also a number of serious film artists. Chief among these is Youssef Chahine.
Chahine was born in 1926 in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria to a well-to-do Catholic family. After studies at Alexandria University, he spent two years studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles, then returned to Egypt to enter the film industry. He has been making films since 1950, when he made the comedy Baba Amine/Papa Amine. Since then, he has made 32 features and 6 shorts. He has worked in nearly every genre, and most of his films have been popular, entertaining, and never seen outside the Arab world.
Chahine discovered a number of the Egyptian cinema's top stars, including Omar Sharif (whose first film was Chahine's 1954 Sera Fi El-Wadi/Sky of Hell), and frequently collaborated with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz.
Many Chahine films have garnered top prizes at international film festivals, including Central Station (1958), The Land, Alexandria, Why? (1978), Farewell, Bonaparte (1985), and, most recently Destiny (1997). The Land was recently named best Egyptian film ever made in a recent poll by Egyptian film critics. The 1996 Locarno Film Festival did a complete retrospective of films by Chahine, and the release of Destiny led to a Lifetime Achievement award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. (Destiny has just become available to us, and we will be showing it at next year's Cascade Festival of African Films.)
Youssef Chahine has managed to blend his international perspective and outsider status (religious and sexual), with a deep love for his country and its traditionally humanistic, tolerant tendencies. The epic Al-Ard/The Land is a paean to the women and men of Egypt, and to the land with which they have a deep, abiding relationship. The music (especially the male choruses), the long, lingering shots of the fields, all speak to his profound feelings. At the same time, Chahine is an intellectual and a student of film who locates his films within the larger perspective of world cinema; his films often include references to other filmmakers. For example, those familiar with film history will recognize explicit stylistic references in The Land to the great Soviet filmmakers of the Twenties and Thirties, which is quite appropriate for a film about struggle and resistance.
Chahine's duality (both traditional and cosmopolitan) is perhaps emblematic of Egypt itself and more specifically the culture of the Nile, flowing as it does from the heartland of Africa into the great expanses of the Mediterranean Sea, nourishing (physically, culturally, spiritually) those who live close to its banks, as well as those of us who live far away.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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