Film: a Common Language

To study a culture through film is a unique experience. It gives the viewer a qualitative insight into the mindset of the people of a certain place and time – encapsulating the zeitgeist of this moment in history. This zeitgeist is not only captured through the lens of the movie camera (the visual representations of this specific reality), but also in the substance of the story, an episode from a day in the life of a representative citizen of that nation. The characters who make up these stories are allegorical, meant to represent a summative portion of the society. They represent the hopes and dreams and fears of a culture, an overwhelmingly complex social system distilled and personified into relatable characters that are simultaneously fictional and representative of unavoidable social truths. These stories and the characters they contain both hold a mirror up to a culture, allowing its people to reflect upon who they really are, and reveal to the rest of the world the essence of what it means to be from that place and time. Cultural stories work toward the better understanding of the people who produce them, and the films produced by a culture enhance this understanding to a visceral experience where the exogenous viewer can see the landscape, hear the voices, and feel the emotions of the people it represents.

This artform is especially meaningful to me as an American studying the cinema of a country like Egypt. Both Egypt and the United States have rich cinematic histories. We are both nations of storytellers and film is a medium we have in common. The contemporary generations of Egypt and the United States have grown up in a world were film is prevalent and pervasive – if not in theaters or on DVDs, then in the world of television which is broadcast to even the remotest regions of both countries. We are moviegoers at heart and, as such, are accustomed to living these vicarious experiences. Film is a language that both of our cultures understand and, even though some nuances may get lost in translation or the context may reveal stark contrasts between our societies, the existence of this common medium remains a conduit for the transmission of cultural understanding for anyone who should be so inclined to watch.

In order to delve deeper into understanding Egyptian culture, I chose to study the film “Prince of Darkness,” which was released in Egypt in 2002. What immediately drew me to this film was the presence of its lead actor, Adel Imam, who is nothing short of an icon of Egyptian cinema. This is also the first film directed by Adel Imam’s son, Ramy. Imam has starred in more than a hundred feature films in Egypt and is one of the most successful actors the country has ever produced. I believe that the success of this actor must hold some relevance to Egyptian culture at large. In understanding his success, I feel that we must look at that which he represents. The archetypal character that he usually plays is that of an everyday, average man who is down on his luck and suddenly finds himself in a situation where he must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. This role defines the body of his work and I believe his success as an actor is in large part because of the relatability of this role to the Egyptian people.

Since the literal dawn of civilization, life in Egypt has been about overcoming insurmountable odds, especially in the more rural areas of upper Egypt where people are faced with survival in harsh desert climates. Couple this with the political turmoil in the region following Nasser’s rebellion in 1952 (and the faltering governmental infrastructure in the subsequent decades) and it is no wonder that Egyptians can so easily relate to a character who is down on his luck trying to survive against all odds. Adel Imam’s great success is in finding the humor in these struggles and presenting them in such a way that provides some comic relief to the Egyptian people. His film Terrorism & Kebab is a perfect example of this, showing the ridiculous bureaucracy of Egypt’s inefficient government. Imam’s character in the film is a simple man who needs to get a form signed for his children’s school but is given the runaround for so long that he is forced to take matters into his own hands and hold the government building hostage in order to get results.

While Prince of Darkness is not so blatant a metaphor for the frustrations of Egyptian people in the face of an inefficient government, its protagonist does follow a similar archetype. In this film, Adel Imam plays the role of Saeed El Masry, a former hero of Egypt’s October War who has lost his eyesight in a tragic accident (by slipping on a banana peel after the war had ended). Saeed, in the years since, has taken up residence in a home for the blind, the only option for a man in his predicament. The home is populated by other blind residents who are referred to as “inmates” and are essentially trapped in the mansion by the power-hungry manager, Zelfy. These blind residents can be seen as a metaphor for the powerlessness of the Egyptian people under the rule of the oppressive government. Under the guise of “increasing security,” Zelfy locks all of the residents inside as prisoners and physically punishes them for any disobedience. Saeed El Masry (literally, Saeed “of Egypt”) is the only resident with the strength to stand up to this abuse. He has devised an escape route which he uses nightly in order to roam the surrounding city and perform acts in defiance of his blindness. He plays piano, courts women, and at one point even flies an airplane despite his inability to see (it is not a smooth landing). During one of these excursions, he meets Alia, a beautiful divorcee who is impressed by his piano playing skills. Once she learns that he is blind, she is even more impressed at his ability to use his handicap to his advantage, rather than letting it dictate his life.

Meanwhile, as Saeed is proving to the audience his ability to overcome his blindness, there is a plot unfolding by a group of international terrorists. Unbeknownst to Saeed, there is an important dignitary (who remains unidentified) coming to visit the president. As part of this official visit, there will be a parade that will pass right by the front gate of the mansion. The leader of the terrorist group poses as a journalist taking pictures of the home for the blind for a news article, but he is instead scoping out the location as their base of operations from which to assassinate this dignitary during the parade. While Saeed is out visiting with Alia, the terrorists take control of the mansion and hold its residents hostage, including the manager, Zelfy, who finds himself powerless in the hands of these gunmen despite his efforts to increase “security.” While they are waiting for the parade to commence, one of the men rapes a young blind woman, killing her boyfriend when he tries to stop it. Zelfy’s inability to prevent this rape and murder is perhaps a metaphor for the Egyptian government’s inability to protect its citizens from the encroachment of international terrorism.

Saeed at last returns to the mansion to find the boy dead, discovering that the residents are being held captive. He knows it is up to him to fight back and save everyone from certain death. To do so, he uses his blindness to lay traps for the terrorists, picking them off one by one until his final showdown with the leader. In the end, he kills the terrorists, saves the day, wins the woman of his dreams, and is awarded with a presidential Medal of Valour for his bravery, showing that no amount of oppression is insurmountable as long as one possesses the courage and bravery to do something about it.

Aside from this inspirational plot about self-empowerment, the film provides several revelations about the differences between US and Egyptian culture. What is most immediately apparent to me, as an American, is the almost complete lack of political correctness. Early in the film, Saeed and several of the residents sneak out to see a soccer game. Because of their blindness, they wind up sitting in the visitors section surrounded by fans from some central African country. When Saeed remarks that they must be in “the dark section,” the surrounding fans engulf him like savages with spears pointed at his head. He then mumbles some gibberish and they all bow down to pray to him, alleging that he has accidentally uttered some magic incantation in their native tongue. Contrast this with the heightened awareness of racial sensitivity and political correctness in the US today, and it would be difficult to imagine this scene in an American film of the same time. In addition to this, despite being a film centered around the empowerment of the handicapped and the struggle for blind people to achieve equal rights, the film takes any and every opportunity to make fun of blind people, using their disability as a constant source of comic relief. For example, about midway through the film (and without any context) we find the residents of the home for the blind suddenly competing in a soccer game against a rival house. This sequence seems to serve no purpose other than to show the apparent hilarity of blind people tripping over one another.

The film also reveals several differences in the ways in which American and Egyptian cultures handle gender. At one point, Saeed, in his blindness, steps onto a train that is reserved for women only. He is immediately met with screams and harassment from the women onboard. There is also a scene where Saeed is visiting Alia at her house. Alia, thinking that Saeed cannot see him, dresses in a silken bathrobe in order to simply make herself comfortable. However, Saeed, in his ability to see beyond his blindness, is aware of what she has done and admonishes her for not covering herself up in his presence. This scene surprised me because at this point in the film Saeed and Alia had been on several dates and, as an American, I thought nothing of her wearing something mildly provocative, especially in the company of a blind man. But for Saeed this was forbidden despite their relationship. I actually felt his harsh reaction to be more inappropriate than her outfit but, after he had scolded her, Alia immediately apologized, knowing that she had broken the social taboo.

Initially, I had wanted to watch this film because of the possible relevance of its political plot: the assassination attempt by the terrorists and the treatment of handicapped people in Egyptian society. But in the characters of the film I have found these subtler revelations about the Egyptian people: their sense of powerless blindness at the hands of authority, their devotions to religious rules and mores, and their cherishing of hope, bravery, virtue, and (above all) love. While Prince of Darkness revolves around this plot of a blind man foiling a terrorist assassination, beneath the surface is that zeitgeist of the Egyptian people apart from politics –  their desire for love and fairness and a happy life. And these are feelings which people of all cultures share regardless of place and time.

In studying this and other Egyptian films like Shore of Love, Everything is Fine, The Yacoubian Building and even Sheherazade… Tell Me A Story, what I have found is that beneath the superficial trappings of our different societies there remains some elemental human concepts that we all share. This is important because I believe this to be the starting point toward people of different cultures learning to understand one another. Instead of an American looking at an Arab country and thinking that they are all so different and that their religion is oppressive and their methods are all backwards, and instead of an Arab looking at America and thinking that we are all greedy infidels, what we need is for our cultures to look at each other and see that, at the core, we’re really not so different at all. And it’s from this place that we begin to see each other with open minds and without cultural biases but as fellow humans who all just want to live in peace and happiness. Film can be a powerful tool toward this understanding, as it is capable of showing the emotions of a culture, the things people hold dear, the things they fear, the way they are and the way they want to be.