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Night of the Hunter (1955): A Blemished Gem

In the history of American cinema, rare films, perhaps no more than several, stand as inimitable singular works. Movies like Intolerance, 2001 Space Odyssey, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit qualify, as does Night of the Hunter. These movies boast not only a technical audacity, but also an admixture of quality source material and a marriage of talents whose synergy accounts for something that could not have been predicted, and as such could not have been planned for.

Released in 1955, Night of the Hunter was the directorial debut of venerated actor Charles Laughton, a movie vocational shift far less common in the days of classical Hollywood than it is today. Laughton's choice for lead also registered as unpredictable, since the film's sole star Robert Mitchum went against his cool, sleepy-eyed type in his portrayal therein. The movie's unsettling subject matter and grotesque milieu sealed the film's fate. It would flop commercially, denying Laughton a second directorial opportunity. Today, it is broadly acknowledged as a patent classic.

Night of the Hunter is quintessentially a Southern Gothic horror film, based on the 1953 novel of the same name, which had drawn from the actual case of a serial killer by the name of Harry Powers, who in 1932 was convicted of multiple murders of women and their children, women whose money he had been after and to whom he had connected through so called "lonely hearts" newspaper ads. The lead villain in the filmic adaptation does much of the same.

Harry Powell, played with potent reflexive, pungent menace by Robert Mitchum, is a psychopathic, sexually frustrated, false preacher who speaks to God about his plans to assail women in the name of the lord, so as to strip the world of their temptation. Harry understates in his one-sided chats with God his interest in these wicked women’s money. Thus, when early in the picture Harry is jailed for a month for stealing a car, with Ben Harper, a man sentenced to death for having murdered and robbed a bank, he decides to visit Ben's would-be widow and two children upon his release, since Harry’s cellmate had refused to cough up the location of the loot before being executed.
Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, notoriously brandishing "LOVE" and "HATE" on the knuckles of either handOnly that the secret has not died with Ben, as we have earlier seen him entrust the money to his tween boy John, as well as the caretaking of John's preschool sister Pearl, before being arrested in his children's presence. Thus, when we later see Harry through John’s eyes, after his release, in the ice cream parlor where John’s mother has been compelled to work, we can smell the blood before it has been shed.

Shelley Winters as Willa Harper in a most chilling post mortem shot

Harry ingratiates himself to everybody in the town, it seems, what with his charged scripture inspired proclamations and pontifications, except for John, who appears reticent toward the preacher at first then suspectful once Harry asks John about the money. Harry marries John and Pearl’s mother Willa (performed hauntingly by Shelley Winters), whom he spellbinds with fire and brimstone, before murdering her, once he realizes that she is of no use to him. All the while, Harry admonishes then, upon realizing that the children know of the money’s location, terrorizes them into divulging its location.

Only fate and John’s ingenuity intervene to temporarily protect the children as they escape their hometown, by taking a boat downriver. Temporary, as John notes, upon seeing and hearing Harry in their pursuit, in the horizon, ambling on his horse and singing his hymnal refrain as wont throughout the picture. Having been forsaken by every adult in their hometown--including trusted Uncle Birdie, who had promised John protection--an adult finally intervenes on the children's behalf, a farmer named Rachel (silent film star Lilian Gish), who lives downriver and who shelters John and Pearl (as she is doing already for three other children) from the sinister forces that have arisen during the Great Depression as she does from Harry once the preacher finally catches up to them.

At their best, Southern Gothic works embed their depravity in depravation, not through facile causality, but in illustrating the immorality that coincides indignity, an indignity born out of poverty. It is no coincidence, therefore, that genre exemplifiers written by O’Conner and Faulkner, as with Night of the Hunter, are set against the socioeconomic milieu of the Great Depression. Yet, Hunter aims for more, by framing itself as a theological morality tale—literally, since the film opens and closes with scenes in which Rachel looks into the camera as if telling the film’s cautionary tale. Rachel and John embody Hunter’s championing of behavior, not merely dogma, which rises above self-centeredness, into the realm of clemency and empathy.

Stylistically, the film seems most influenced by German expressionistic techniques (which the American noir subgenre absorbed), as evidenced by vivid chiaroscuro and constrained, distorted interiors. Hunter even deploys the iris shot, ubiquitous in 1920s cinema, but near-extinct by the 50s, evidently in homage to the silent era. One scene magnificently weds all such influence, the one in which Harry ritualistically murders Willa in their attic bedroom. The gloomy lighting within the room shaped like a Gothic church steeple (whose design originally meant to evoke passage to heaven), as Harry “exposes” himself by brandishing his knife, his substitute penis, in the direction of the room’s peak, looks as if inspired directly by the German expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), also about a serial murderer.

Expressionstic production design and lighting harken to German cinema of the 1920sIf Hunter is to be faulted for anything, it is for its over-richness within the constraint of a 92-minute movie, not surprising considering the abundant talents of the film’s principals: eminent critic and author James Agee as screenwriter, distinctive cinematographer Stanley Cortez, thespian prodigy turned director Laughton, and a superb cast. There are themes that are insufficiently explored: Is the second king about whom John asks Rachel Jesus or himself? What of the apples? John’s consuming them would make him into Adam, not Jesus. A few narrative strands are also unfulfilled: What of the prison warden’s family, abandoned after evoking a redolent comparison to the Harpers? What of the lynch mob at the end, which barley appears on screen before its being dispensed with? We may rightly suspect that footage relating had eventuated on the cutting room’s floor.

Nevertheless, as Pauline Kael once remarked, “Great movies are rarely perfect movies” and Night of the Hunter is an unforgettable, blemished gem.


Gone Girl (2014): Chilled Cynicism with a Dash of Misanthropy

Dear readers, the next few reviews will relate to non-Arab films, in fulfilling requiremments of a film criticism course that I am taking.

The truth is valuable only in so far as it is expedient, to our security then to our advancement. Otherwise, most people would have readily qualified as idealists and when was the last time you came across an adult who convincingly exuded idealism. In David Fincher’s Gone Girl only one could qualify; she’s a daft mother of triplets.

David Fincher himself is not an idealist; if he were he would be making microfinanced films about the imperative to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Instead, he makes polished, meticulously crafted commercial vehicles. He appears most comfortable working within the crime genre and is keen to position psychopathy/sociopathy as the propulsion to such films’ stories, as he has in six of the ten movies he has made: Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, now, Gone Girl. I would have counted as a psychopath the creature in Alien 3, had it been human.

Nick Dunne ensnared in Gone GirlBenjamin Van Orton ensnared in Fincher's The Game (1997)A monster that was, as is Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, the engineer of its locomotive of doom. It is a role realized vividly and fervently by Rosamund Pike. Her face alone shown in the scene that brackets the film, but not her voice, rather the voice of her spouse Nick Dunne, performed by Ben Affleck in an appropriately minor key. In this scene, as Nick strokes Amy’s hair, he shares with us his innermost thoughts; he is mooning of murder. As such, we appreciate why his townsfolk would suspect him of murdering his girl once she’s gone missing, especially after they and we discover that his wife is not his only girl.

Once it is determined that she has gone missing, the story becomes Amy’s, as she narrates mnemonic sequences, beginning with when they had met in a party. In the scene, Nick woos Amy and a couple of years later he moves themselves from her New York City to his small-town, Missouri. That is about all the agency that Nick exercises in their marriage before her going missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. We discover that his bar is hers, his house is hers, his toys are hers and even his ties are hers. His career as a writer would have been hers, were it not for the Great Recession.

Only that her narration is not credible, as we discover halfway through the picture, once her narrated remembrances, which she notes in a journal, and which Fincher intercuts with sequences of missing person procedurals, conclude in having caught up with the present. Amy’s journal is not entirely fabricated, as Amy informs us once her narration switches from describing the vicissitudes of her life with Nick to explaining how and why she had decided to stage her own disappearance with the purpose of framing her husband for murder, a crime punishable by execution in Missouri. Amy reveals to us her method for credibly implicating Nick: to write entries truthful in their depiction of the couple’s early days, but fraudulent and indicting in their depiction of what had gone wrong in their marriage.

"What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?"Amy is certainly psychopathic. She is not only willing to send her husband to the chair for having cheated on her, having already undercut her own potential, Amy murders an old possessive boyfriend (a campy turn by Neil Patrick Harris) to whom she had turned, after her escape plan is foiled. Yet, she is not a misandrist. She is a misanthrope, a hater of humans, but especially humans who get in her way, who most often turn up as men.

Nor am I entirely on board in describing Gone Girl as misogynistic. Indeed, the picture does centrally depict a criminally insane woman, a type well overrepresented in cinema, considering the well-established disproportionality of violence by women, compared to by men. Nevertheless, beyond Gone Girl’s assigning its female lead principal agency in its tale, it boasts two other equally complex and empowered female characters. A Hollywood crime picture with a female lead is uncommon enough; one with three independent and intelligent female characters is downright unprecedented.

Moreover, Fincher and Gillian Flynn (author of the antecedent novel and of the movie’s screenplay ) decidedly undercut the film’s own realism, not only by prodding us to question the veracity of what we had been told and what we had seen in the flashback sequences, but also by having camped up a couple of performances. Beside the mentioned performance by Harris, Amy affects before the other characters, expected considering her pathology, as well as to the camera. And then there’s the deputy played by Patrick Fugit, whose character sends up the wise-cracking sidekick as full-fledged jester, a contemporary harlequin.

Gone Girl’s misogyny is not what bothers me, nor is it the picture’s depiction of graphic violence. Rather it’s Gone Girl’s cynicism. None of the characters in the film is concerned with the truth in so far as it threatens their interest in self-preservation—not Nick, nor Amy’s parents, nor Nick’s sister, nor his paramour, nor his lawyer, not even the investigating officer. None but one—a neighbor mother of triplets who Amy describes as stupid, and who Fincher depicts as a suburban simpleton. It is in this depiction that the film veers into Kubrickian misanthropy.

The characters’ apathy to the truth notwithstanding, Fincher himself appears to call us out as amoral as well. It’s as if he is suggesting that since his film has given us the goods that we have paid to see in a Fincher film—the style, the craft, the mood, the violence—he needn’t tell us the truth about Amy and Nick, since Fincher figures the audience cares little about it.

Cynicism would have us suspect our capacity to motivate others, since it would have us distrust them. Thereby, Gone Girl raises the question, “Should art motivate?” I would think not, if I were a cynic.


Land of Fear (1999): Life Under Deep, Interminable Cover

Dear readers,

I had promised to review Land of Fear nearly two years ago, within my review of Daoud Abdel Sayed's Al-Kit Kat. Please refer to that review for more on Abdel Sayed's career. It remains inexplicable that Abdel Sayed's films, including Land of Fear, are not distributed widely. Perhaps I ought to do something about that...

There’s something about Daoud Abdel Sayed that gets to me. For years I thought it was his thoroughgoing, uncompromising approach to filmmaking or his films’ evident, grinning mischief. Now I realize that it’s more personal than that. I, like Abdel Sayed, have felt in my work an innate compulsion to prod, poke, and provoke as if to insist on disrupting conformity within nation-state societies that have left me—the eldest to Palestinian refugees—alienated, much like the characters that Abdel Sayed has continually depicted, characters whose lives represent society’s contradictions.

Could I also be alienated like Abdel Sayed himself? Abdel Sayed, who has never declared being Coptic (Mustafa) in anything I have read or heard, in October of last year remarked, “As far as I am concerned, what is frightening about the current condition is that I have terrorism. At the same time that I have terrorism in the sense of explosions and murder and so on, from the other side I have intellectual terrorism, as in McCarthyism … And this is what is frightening me, that we have found ourselves, that I have found myself between two forces: one that wants to kill me and one that wants to silence me. “ (Abdel Sayed)

For years, I have felt a guilty pleasure in relishing crime pictures. There are vociferous anti-genre voices in cinephile circles, voices that suggest that genre films are commercial, that genre films are lowbrow and that genre films target the undiscerning, unless, of course, they happen to be made by Hitchcock or Ford or a French New Wave director. Only that I’m not bonkers about westerns or war films or romantic comedies or sci-fi films the same way I am about crime films. For years, I thought this had to do with the high moral stakes of their stories and charged emotional states of their characters, but I now know that there’s more. As Palestinian American poet would put it:

“i have always loved

criminals and not only the thugged

out bravado of rap videos and champagne

popping hustlers but my father

born an arab baby boy

on the forced way out

of his homeland his mother exiled

and pregnant gave birth in a camp” (Hammad)

Land of Fear (أرض الخوف) observes what its criminals do intently and keenly, but it stands out because it so handily explores what being a criminal means, not only for oneself, but for society. If I’ve made Land of Fear sound like a lofty treatise, well, that’s because it is. But it is also a suspenseful mood piece of a high order, the greatest Egyptian crime picture of all.

Russel (Lawrence Fishburn) is assigned to Deep Cover (1992)Yahya is assigned to Land of Fear

Land of Fear stands for the title of the indefinite investigative operation to which a bright and incorruptible police officer Yahya al-Manqabawi (Ahmed Zaki) agrees to be assigned. Land of Fear is not your typical detail. It would position Officer Yahya to accept a bribe so that he may be arrested, convicted, dishonorably discharged then imprisoned, wherein he transforms into Yaha Abu-Dabbourah. Upon release, Yahya may begin his assignment to infiltrate the “underworld” (literal translation of the term used by Yahya--العالم السفلي) first as a smalltime hustler and drug dealer. Land of Fear is a lifetime assignment Yahya is told at the outset. He is to ambitiously pursue a career as a drug dealer with full immunity against any illegal actions he may take in pursuit of such a career; he is to operate with minimal oversight. The only proof of service being the reports he is to regularly submit, under the nom de plume Adam. Otherwise, a safety deposit box bound, failsafe document, signed by “people at the very top” guarantees the noted immunity, if his cover is ever blown or if Land of Fear unravels. He is told that nothing about Land of Fear is to be recorded other than in the failsafe document and that knowledge of the operation’s existence is to be passed orally from ministers of interior and justice and chief of intelligence onto their successors.

As Yahya’s station rises, from pool hall manager, to bodyguard, to cabaret manager—erstwhile moving increasing product—so does his star in the underworld. Yet, on the way to becoming one of Cario’s kingpins, spanning the decade of the 1970s, Yahya reports with increasing distress about the dissonance he experiences in leading a double life, especially with the passing and resigning of successive ministers and intelligence chiefs, who would have been privy to the Land of Fear operation. Such is his torment that he visits the location of the safety deposit box of note, more than to assure himself that the failsafe contract exists, but to assure himself that Land of Fear had not been a fabrication of his memory. He sends in a report beseeching his overseers to set up a meeting with him and when a decidedly reticent Mousa meets him, Yahya laments: “Memories have fused with dreams, with illusions, with facts, so that I no longer know anything.” The irony is that Mousa turns out not to know anything either… By the end of the picture, hunted by operatives of the underworld and repudiated by the law, though perfunctorily intromitted into the “above-world,” Yahya finds himself longing for his life in the Land of Fear, despite its having led him to rape, murder and an evident psychic schism.

Yahya learns from Mousa that he has been living a lie within a lie: the mise en scène is fractured, as is the protagonist's psyche 

Land of Fear is a rich, relevant picture, despite its allegory and its determinedly embellished, seedy milieu. We all project multiple personae. We act differently at work than we do around our families. We act differently in public than in private. How many times have I wondered how it is that a person could act so respectfully toward a boss that he abhors, while treating with disdain a life partner. How many of us have laughed at a superior’s daft joke, forcing the grin and churning the chuckle. We are all false, to some degree. Land of Fear compels us to confront this falsehood.

Land of Fear is also a luxuriant picture. Its dialogue is streetwise and lucid, its characters complex and cohesive. The story and its characters draw upon Egyptian modern political history—the verisimilitudes of the successive regimes of Nasser, Sadat then Mubarak—upon monotheistic legend and upon American crime pictures. Abdel Sayed is not interested in realism; that is not to say that he is not interested in the truth—small t, for Abdel Sayed would intrinsically oppose any notion of Truth.

A subtitle declares the year of a pivotal scene in Land of Fear. The year is 1981, the year Mubarak succeeded Sadat as president. We see Yahya in the back of a luxurious car then we see it turning to park in a row of Mercedes S class sedans, an unmistakable sign of wealth in the Middle East, and we realize that he’s made the grade. Soon, a group of Cairo kingpins are meeting a representative from a non-local syndicate who proposes that they switch from selling hash to coke. He showcases a handheld parcel of boudrah (powder) and declares that it stands to earn a profit margin of 500%, against the 100% that the kingpins realize in selling es-sinf (literally the variety). He adds that the parcel once cut would deliver a return equivalent to a truckload of hash.

Vito Corleone says no to drugs in The Godfather (1972)

Hudhud says no to powder in Land of Fear

Two of the kingpins demur; one named al-Manzalawi earnestly protests, asserting that the two products are not the same, that the authorities would consider him a criminal if he started selling powder. The more vociferous protest, however, is issued by a most memorable movie criminal, one named Hudhud, played to potent poignancy by the marvelous Hamdi Gheith. He tells off the representative, alerting him that unlike himself the rep’s bosses will never know their customers and as such will never have to directly deal with the consequence of poisoning them. Hudhud later invites Yahya to his labyrinthine Old Cario home and confides in him that God has created and as such provides for kingpins like himself, that it is his divine duty to alleviate the struggle of the people by distributing god’s own creation. Hudhud asserts that he has nothing against the authorities, that they too serve a purpose, as do hashish dealers. Gheith imbues his part with an unmistakable sagacity and integrity, despite his criminality, which turns murderous when necessary.

HoopoeLand of Fear conspicuously draws on monotheistic scripture. Yahya’s codename is Adam, after all, a code name of which he learns when invited to a secret meeting wherein he is propositioned to undertake Land of Fear. To a backdrop of a stylized storm he bites into an apple. Hudhud, the wise kingpin, is also Arabic for hoopoe, a bird mentioned in the bible as abominable to eat (Leviticus), perhaps thence informing the Egyptian proverb, “It is not every bird whose flesh is edible” ("مش كل طير اللي يتاكل لحمه"), which may well paraphrase the threat that Hudhud issues to Ragab, the syndicate representative. Then there is Mousa (Arabic for Moses), the postal officer who unsuccessfully attempts to deliver Adam’s letters to his principles, failing to convey messages between creator and created.

Cop confronts criminal in Heat (1995)Cop confronts "criminal" in Land of Fear

Most potently, however, is the influence of American crime cinema on Land of Fear. The kingpins’ refusal to get with the new and deal in cocaine recalls that of the Don Corelone’s (Marlon Brando) refusal to back Virgil Sollozzo’s (Al Lettieri) investment in smack, because he feels that it would be bad for neighborhoods and would undermine his relationships with politicians. A late scene in Land of Fear,  in which Yahya’s nemesis, a competent and incorruptible cop named Omar al-Asyuti asks to meet him in a café, riffs on the central scene involving cop and criminal (played by Al Pacino and Robert De Nero respectively) in Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat. Most notable, however, is the film’s borrowing from the underrated American crime film Deep Cover, including the mode of the investigative operation and the arch of the undercover protagonist played by Lawrence Fishburn.

Those who scoff at the Land of Fear’s lack of originality must not realize how artistic influence works and must have not come around to reckoning that those who claim utter originality do so because they fear discovery of their fraudulence. All artists borrow; the best reimagine and re-illustrate, as has Abdel Sayed in Land of Fear.

Nevertheless, Land of Fear is not perfect. Makeup design underwhelms. Ahmed Zaki, despite his boyish face is not helped in passing for a 20-some-year-old man. Costume design is even worse. “Could they not corral some bellbottoms and wide lapels to depict action in the 1970s?” I wondered. Against these, however, are a number of standout facets. Beside Ahmed Zaki’s performance, among the best delivered by the actor who many rightly consider the leading Egyptian cinematic actor of his generation, Land of Fear presents us with Hudhud, as fascinating a screen villain as I have ever seen. Locations, from queries to cabarets to opulent villas to Nile delta marshes entrench the polemical state of luxury and decrepitude. The soundtrack, composed by regular Abdel Sayed collaborator Rajih Daoud, what with its tumbling angles and pleading chants, looped and electronically processed, immeasurably enhance the mood of falling and failing.

Abdel Sayed deploys a couple of distinct visual and auditory flourishes, but unlike his wont—and auteur beloved—sequence shots (plan-séquence) here they support the story. In a number of sequences, Abdel Sayed surveys the scene with an overhead shot, as if to deliberately distance audience from action, lest the audience regard what they see as realistic. Abdel Sayed’s interest in asserting allegory is even more pronounced in his blatant use of dissolves, which are rarely used today, but which in Hollywood classic films usually connoted a movement between a character’s lived and remembered states. In Land of Fear, dissolves serve the comingling of reality and memory in the mind of its disillusioned protagonist Yahya (literally meaning to live).

Such visual flourishes are enforced by the echoing of dialogue in pivotal scenes and especially by Yahya’s narration, which guides the film’s audience throughout, a narration which, as in Deep Cover, recalls an idiom of American film noir. Only here, Abdel Sayed has Yahya narrating in formal Arabic (لغة فصحى), unusual in non-historical Egyptian cinema, and not only when Yahya is voicing the letter of his reports. Abdel Sayed is unmistakably positioning the teleological tale in the land of fable, in the land of fear.

I have convinced myself that Daoud Abdel Sayed deserves to take the time he does to work on his films and am delighted to read of an impending conclusion to principal production on his most recent Abnormal Abilities (my translation) ("قدرات غير عادية") (Ma'moun). Yet, I fear for him as I do for all who express critically in Egypt at the moment, considering the alarming, reprehensible crackdown on journalists and activists. Abdel Sayed not only has the right to express as he wishes but should be celebrated for his unshakeable integrity and unmitigated ambition. Abdel Sayed does not wish to become an auteur; he always was one. He does not make independent films. He makes films independently--as independently as a filmmaker can work and live in the land of fear.

Works Cited

Abdel Sayed, Daoud. "Cinematic Censorship of Egyptian Selections." The Full Picture. Lilian Daoud. Cairo, 27 October 2013. Video. <>.

Hammad, Suheir. "Letter to anthony (critical resistance)." Hammad, Suheir. Za'atar Diva. New York: Cypher Books, 2005. 67. Document.

"Leviticus." Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica, 2011. 11:13-19. Document. <>.

Ma'moun, Asma'. "Daoud Abdel Sayed: I Will not Realease Abnormal Abilities During the Eid Becauuse of a Clamour ." Al-Youm As-Sabi' 14 April 2014. Document. <>.

Mustafa, Tariq. Coptic Artists ... Integrated with the Strength of Their Talent. 13 March 2010. Document. 10 April 2014. <>.



Guest Review: Mars at Sunrise (2014)

Dear readers, below is a guest review of Mars at Sunrise by essayist and film enthusiast Ali Hazzah (whose byline links to his own review of The Dupes). Hazzah's views do not necessarily reflect my own, but I am sure that you will enjoy his perspicatious review.

Mars at Sunrise is a poetic yet engagé meditation by director Jessica Habie on the refusal by its main protagonist, Khaled (Ali Suleiman), to become an Israeli informant—despite intense external pressures exerted upon him in captivity.

This is Habie's first feature-length film, for which she also wrote the screenplay.  It was produced by Baher Agbariya and Nirah Shirazipour.  Habie is a Jewish-American graduate of NYU's Tisch school of the Arts, with several award-winning documentaries already to her name, including the Best Documentary Short award winner at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Mandatory Service.

Habie explores how the West Bank has become a social incubator in which certain forms of perversion have flourished, but does so without the didacticism and agenda-driven plot developments one often finds in less sophisticated examples of the genre.

Inspired by the life story of Hani Zurob, many of the scenes in Mars were drawn from Zurob's testimony as to the torture he endured at the hands of Israeli intelligence.  It also drew on supplementary accounts of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, such as that of Wajee Tameise, who personally experienced one of the key opening scenes in the film.

The screenplay was considerably influenced by an original soundtrack by Tamir Muskat, which was recorded prior to filming. According to the director, the fluid interplay between Khaled and Eyal, the film's protagonist-antagonists, grew out of "the guitar and oud performances of Mohsen Subhi (Ramallah) and Itamar Zeigler (Tel Aviv)" during various recording sessions.

Khaled and Eyal--slacked and clenched

The plot is straightforward, although the narrative is recounted in a highly allusive, fragmented, montage-driven, flashback-heavy style.  It portrays a man finding refuge in his art, when confronted by vicious oppression.

Khaled is a talented and influential Gaza-born Palestinian artist, a painter now living in Ramallah who is arrested because he has chosen to remain in his studio.  The studio has suddenly and arbitrarily become a target of Israel's ever encroaching land assimilation policy.

Jailed, he refuses to submit to repetitive and prolonged questioning by Eyal (Guy El Hanan), a conflicted artiste-manqué Israeli soldier who serves as his prison interrogator when not manning checkpoints.

Mars is structured as frame story.  Azzdeh (Haale Gafori) is a young Jewish American poet with an Iranian name.  She does not know Arabic and is curiously unfamiliar with the methods Israelis employ to keep the Palestinian population in the West Bank under subjugation.

At a checkpoint in Jenin, she is approached by Khaled, who is attracted to her.  With her taxi broken down, she accepts an offer by Khaled to give her a ride. They arrive at the next checkpoint and are stuck behind a long line of Palestinians waiting in the hot sun.

Things have come to a standstill by a soldier's decision to take a nap.

It is Eyal.

As they wait, Azzdeh hears Khaled's stark but ultimately inspiring story, which took place several years earlier.

Mars is not just a facile movie with a naive, uplifting message.

Dominance and submission are often a necessary subtext in films about the West Bank.  Mars is no different in this regard.  It offers a textbook visual example of the Foucauldian conception of the strategic use of power to conceptualize and justify the physical and emotional disfigurement of marginalized Palestinians.

Moreover, a homoerotic subtext strengthens this association.    If Eyal is an artiste manqué, then it is finally his willingness, if not desire, to be treated as a model, both in actuality and within the context of the imprisoned artist's imagination, that seals the deal.

Habie seems to be telling us that the failure of pervasive Israeli reductionism, its zoomorphism, if you will, vis-à-vis Arabs, is driven both by subliminal desire and a disorienting recognition of increasing creative impotence, irrespective of internalized claims of ethnic superiority.

As things start to come apart for Eyal, the film seems to float as we watch a series of dream sequences that portray (with gorgeously liquid camera work by DP Xavier J. Cunilleras) the psychological impact of the Occupation on both parties to the conflict.

Can art triumph in the end against an implacable foe?

Yes, says Habie.  But it's worth keeping in mind that Hani Zurob was compelled to leave Palestine and live in France in order to regain his personal and artistic freedom.

This visual treat of a film is well worth seeing, particularly by movie lovers who may already be emotionally invested in some historical interpretation of the Palestinian-Israeli narrative.

A promising start by a fearless young director.

~ ali hazzah


Mars at Sunrise is being shown at the Quad Cinema in New York starting on Feb 7th.

Mars at Sunrise Trailer HD from Mars At Sunrise on Vimeo.



Chronicle of the Years of Embers (1975): Ample Splendor, not Enough Sedition

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground

“What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it.

                After a while, the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?”

                “In my own house.”

                “Then why are you looking here?”

                “There is more light here than inside my own house.”1

Nasruddin statue in Bukhara, UzbekhistaIt is said that at least seven Nasruddin tales are to be told consecutively, to lend enough time for the world’s best known wise fool tales to reduce listener resistance to the humor, long enough to open the heart to the tales’ wisdom.2 I think I ought to get around to the film’s review sooner than that!

The wise fool, the jester, or the savant fool has shown up in cultures aplenty, in the histories of their royal courts as well as in their literary and/or oral tradition. In the company of monarchs and magistrates—in societies European, Islamic and Asian—the fool's principle function was to remind such societies’ monarchs of their humanity3, to check against the excessively agreeable advise conveyed by royal court sycophants, the monarchs' yes-men.

Nasrudin (also Nasruddine) if he existed at all was born in modern day Turkey it seems, around eight centuries ago. His archetype appears in a variety of cultures under a miscellany of guises, including in the Arab World as Juha.4

Mohammed Lakhdar-HaminaMohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (محمد الأخضر حمينة) who must have known about Juha and was likely also exposed to wise fools deployed by Western European novelists and playwrights for centuries for their utility in varying the discourse and in enhancing the moral and dramatic stakes of such works. After all, what would King Lear be without its Fool. So impressed was Hamina with the wise fool that he decided to make one such character a lead and to play him himself, in Hamina’s most highly regarded film, the only African or Arab film to ever win Cannes’s top prize, the Palme d’Or—Chronicle of the Years of Embers.

So what does it take for a film to win arguably the most prestigious award in all of cinema in any given year? Well, presumably singular cinematic excellence in vision and in execution, though this has not held true every year. Consider the case of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, winner of the Palme d’Or in 2004, one of only three documentary films to be admitted into the competition for the top prize. It would be naïve to think the film deserving of it on artistic merit alone. How could one explain its receiving the longest standing ovation of any film in the festival’s history? Political persuasion. Half of the jury members for that year’s competition were American, Americans who probably couldn’t escape the avalanche of anti-Bush sentiment expressed at the time of the festival’s holding that year, what with the evident failure to locate WMDs in Iraq. How better to distance oneself from Bush and his doctrine than to vote for the propagandist anti-Bush cinematic tirade Fahrenheit 9/11.

Not to say that that Chronicle of the Years of Embers (also Chronicle of the Years of Fire, Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, Chronique des Années de Braise, وقائع سنين الجمر) is on par cinematically with Farenheit 9/11, only that it well stands to reason that the ten-member competition jury that year—comprising three French, including jury president Jeanne Moreau, as well as Russian director Yuliya Solntseva who had won the Best Director award in 1961 for her film (ready?) The Chronicle of the Flaming Years—would have been persuaded to award the festival’s top prize to the Algerian film. Do I merely speculate that the jury was politically motivated? Yes, but I have watched four other films in that year’s competition and would readily opine that Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger and especially Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Casper Houser are superior cinematic works.

Chronicle of the Years of Embers like most films selected for that year’s Cannes competition and like all others by the director—he made seven of them—are exceedingly difficult to find (hearty thanks to Bob Anant for the VHS copy), though having watched two other works of his I feel that his films deserve remastering and reissuing. Not only was Hamina one of few Algerian filmmakers to produce narrative features in the 60s and 70s, but he has obviously influenced other filmmakers stylistically and conceptually, including plainly Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khmer in his notable and noted Desert Trilogy, not least in their tactile and transportive desert photography.


Chronicle is presented in six chapters, introduced by poorly descriptive titles: 1. The Ash Years; 2. The Ambers Years; 3. The Fire Years; 4. The Cart Years; 5. The Charging Years; 6. November 11th, 1954. As a whole, these rhapsodize about the Algerian national experience between the break out of World War II and November 11th, 1954 ten days after the launch of the Algerian Revolution, a brutal war of independence from a France that considered Algeria part of its integral territory, a revolution that would end in 1962 with the attainment of national independence.

The film's plot elides a historical narrative, naming little and few, preferring a theatrically vivified account of two Algerians, mostly occurring in an unnamed provincial town. Both figures take on mythical dimensions, both embody heroism: one speaks the Truth; the other fights for it. The former—the wise fool named Miloud (مولود), played with grandiose gusto by director Hamina—introduces the latter—the beleaguered, brawny Ahmed, played with precise control by Greek star Yorgo Voyagis—to politics of a broader scope, upon Ahmed’s arrival in the town nearest his village, thereby triggering within Ahmed a consciousness keener than had informed his struggle, his and his tribe’s, to secure water against a competing tribe in his home village. Even though Ahmed becomes a revolutionary in earnest when joining another, a leader named ‘L’arabi (العربي) upon the latter’s banished arrival in the Ahmed’s adoptive town, it is Miloud’s invocation, entreaty and, incitement that have awakened Ahmed. By film’s end, the two heroes, who will have grown close enough that Miloud is caring for the by then full-fledged revolutionary Ahmed’s son, give birth to the revolution.

Yorgo VoyagisIt would seem suspect that such a well-funded, national production telling such a patriotic story would hire a non-Algerian actor in the role of the phoenix Ahmed. Yet it is a credit to actor and director that Vaoyagis’s performace is credible as well as creditable. Perhaps I glommed a single line of dialogue in which the actor’s lips don’t sink with his words—impressive despite the paucity of lines uttered by the laconic Ahmed, if one were to consider the obviousness of lip sinking by such superb actors as Lars Rudolph and Tilda Swinton in Werkmeister Harmonies and The Man from London respectively, as directed by the great Bela Tarr. Whereas normally I would scoff at such “ethnically workable” casting of an internationally recognized actor for the purpose of enhancing critical and commercial interest in a film, I herewith acquiesced.

Other aspects of film strike me as more problematical than the casting of a Greek to play a fictional Arab. Hamina’s decision to cast not only himself but his three sons in the film reeks of nepotism, especially when considering that one’s performance as Ahmed’s son, the one that Miloud takes care of while his father is imprisoned then on the run, underwhelms, especially in the closing moments of the film. (The child actor could also have used with some darkening makeup, since he is quite lighter in complexion and hair color than any of the other Arab characters.)

More troublesome is the collusive relationship between Hamina and the Algerian government. Hamina had worked in the Information Minsitry of Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) in Tunis, before training with the Tunisian newsreel outfit Actualités Tunisiennes, in the late 50s. He then left for Prague where, after abandoning film studies, he wrote and co-directed three short films. Thus, upon returning to Algerian, following its declaration of independence in 1962, having surely been promoted by his connections in the exiled government, Hamina set up and took charge of Algeria’s own Newsreel Office (OAA) in 1963, which Hamina then deployed to produce his films, shorts early on then features, of which he made three by the time that the OAA had been shut down in 1974: The Wind from the Aures (ريح الأوراس from 1966—a compelling war drama and impressive first feature that garnered the award for best first feature in Cannes, setting the stage for the Chronicle’s winning of the very festival’s top prize),  Hassan Terro (حسان الإرهابي from 1968, a satirical politically charged comedy) and December (ديسمبر from 1972, a drama about torture and guilt, told from a French officer’s point of view—surprisingly)5.

Meanwhile, these same feature films were produced by the “official” state film production company named Office National Commerce Industrie Cinéma (ONCIC), which would produce Hamina’s next two films, after the dissolution of OAA, Chronicle and his 1982 episodic woman centered drama Sandstorm (رياح رملية). His last film The Last Image (الصورة الاخيره from 1986) would become his only non-Algerian state production.6

Houari BoumedieneHamina has described Chronicle of the Years of Embers as a purely personal work, not an historical one, which conveniently rebuts accusations of his having created a work to comport with the concurrent agenda of the Houari Boumedienne military dictatorship, including the government’s sanctioned version of Algerian modern history. Is it merely a coincidence that Hamina managed to produce/make his own feature narrative films after Boumedienne—who had led the “frontier army” in Tunisia during the revolution, while Hamina served there—had taken over in 1965?7  Yet, how could the film not be personal, when Hamina not only directed Chronicle and played one of its two protagonists; he also wrote the story upon which the screenplay was based, a screenplay which he co-wrote. Hamina is also credited as the picture’s sole producer and, rather comically, its camera operator! Moreover, the parallels between his own life and his character Ahmed’s experience are certainly evident.

Hamina’s rejective defensiveness notwithstanding,  I find myself unconvinced that Chronicle is a purely personal work, considering the overt historical references, the archival war footage and the publicized connection between the film’s production and the Algerian government’s celebration of the twenty year anniversary of the launch of the Algerian Revolution, which is the event that concludes the film.8

Chronicle also appears cautious about condemning France’s colonial role. Most of the depicted violence is at the hands of collaborators and apologists, particularly at the silent behest of the Caïd (سيد), the magistrate of the town to which Ahmed moves early on in the film, at the hands of his henchmen. Curiously, though we see Ahmed suddenly pick up a sword and straddle a horse (rather unconvincing, but then he is a mythical figure) in defense against a massacre perpetrated against himself and his comrades at the hands of an Algerian cavalry, a massacre that he survives, we do not see the perpetrators of a subsequent, sudden attack that brings Ahmed’s life to an end; they are neither shown nor identified in the script.

Chronicle has also been criticized for having enlisted many European technicians, including the cinematographer and composer. In the film’s defense, most medium or big budget Arab films made today still rely on non-Arab talent, including often in the two roles mentioned. Yet, considering Chronicle’s subject matter, I agree with the criticisms of the film’s having been scored by a European musical soundtrack.9

Reportedly, Algerian critics and filmmakers resented Chronicle’s cost, which would exhaust Algerian cinema’s state budget for three years.10 Nevertheless, Chronicle is an ambitious, stupendous, fitfully entrancing work, whose expense is born on the screen in splendid glory. The abundance of crane and aerial photography serves the expansive vistas, captured using 70mm Panavision from what I have gathered (recorded on 35mm film, not 70mm, as has been predominantly described, then printed onto the comparatively expensive 70mm stock for exhibition). The sizable budget in the case of Chronicle surely availed its stunning imagery, in a three-hour epic.

Considering the problems with Chronicle of the Years of Embers, it certainly deserves to be seen and discussed. Further, it deserves a thorough remastering job, one to vivify the film’s splendor. Any takers?

CHRONIQUE DES ANNEES DE BRAISE Eng sub by lakhdar-hamina


1.    Shah, Idries. The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. London: Octagon, 1983. Print. pp. 9

2.    Shapiro, Ann. Preface. The Uncommon Sense of the Immortal Mullah Nasruddin. Comp. Ron J. Suresha. Maple Shade: Lethe, 2011. 7. Print.

3.    Martin, Vanessa. "The Jester and the Shadow of God: Nasir al-Din Shah and His Fools." Iranian Studies 40.4 (2007): 467-81. EBSCO. Web. 29 Aug. <>. pp. 467

4.    See # 2. pp. 11

5.    Armes, Roy. "Cinema of the Maghreb." Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African Film. Ed. Oliver Leaman. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. 420-514. Print. pp. 464

6.    See # 5

7.    Armes, Roy. Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film. Bloomington: Indiana University, 2005. Print. pp. 96-104

8.    See # 7

9.    See # 7