11 December 2012

'The Choice' in Egyptian Cinema

Any discussion on the adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz's body of work to cinema needs to mention the film that represents the cooperation of two giants of the international and Arabic art scenes: Mahfouz and Youssef Chahine. The film in question is 'The Choice,' respectively written and directed by the two, and is a riposte to the defeat of the Egyptian army and the Arab states in the face of the Israeli military onslaught of 1967. But 'The Choice' stands alone in Mahfouz’s cinematic contributions in that it is not an adaptation of any text or novel. Rather, it is clearly a text written with the intention of being shot as a film, a collaborative effort between Mahfouz and Chahine, which took place during the war. Like many intellectuals, at the end of the war both tried to rationalize the reasons behind the Arab defeat and were we to take the message in 'The Choice' at face value we will find that the Egyptian intellectual and his schizophrenia is the main (though perhaps hidden) cause of the defeat.

In his previous film The Land (al-Ard, 1969) Chahine had already hinted at this idea in the face-off between Muhammad Abu Suwailem (the militant maverick farmer who at the end is defeated in the face of a totalitarian regime and its army) and Sheikh Hassouna the intellectual activist who fought alongside Abu Suwailem at the time of the revolution in 1919. But now, because of his hesitation to take any sort of action towards engagement against the authorities, he becomes irrelevant in the rebuilding of his country's future, a responsibility which now rests on the shoulders of the farmer who fights without his 'other half.' Sheikh Hassouna is criticized for his inaction and his hesitation, as he lets down those around him with his inability to meet expectations.

It is as if we were looking into Kamal's hesitations in Mahfouz's 'Cairo Trilogy,' which prevented him from living his life and made him live for others. The criticism of the intellectual class became increasingly staunch and accusatory, in The Road (AKA The Search; at-Tariq, 1964), Quail and Autumn (as-Saman wal-Kharif, 1962), and The Thief and The Dogs (al-Liss wal-Kilab, 1961). Chahine went quite a bit further in the script of The Choice (al-Ikhtyar, 1970), where there is an outright conviction of the intellectuals: Chahine's filmmaking was clearly up to par in traveling this distance, Mahfouz's literature was what provided the groundwork for it. Therefore, we may be entitled to assume that this film owes its ideas more to Mahfouz than to Chahine: not an unfair assessment of Chahine since he fully adopted the conviction to then package it cinematically in a manner that unlocked for him a new and more contemporary approach which would from then on distinguish his filmmaking from the more classical The Land onwards. And in this way, the collaboration with Mahfouz marks the second stage of Chahine's genius, on the formal level at least. But the form is linked to the core of the film and its objectivity. In other words what was deemed experimental in The Land, and deemed European in The Dawn of a New Day (Fajr Yawm Jadid, 1964) became in The Choice the very essence and the subject of the film. How can it be otherwise when a movie that made schizophrenia its subject, a crisis of ideas its essence, and the relationship of the intellectual to authority and to himself its main question? In terms of cinema, Chahine followed his ideas faithfully at the risk of, producing a film that might not be a mainstream success,  and at the risk of being viewed as someone who opposes intellectuals. He went so far as to trigger the anger of Youssef Al Siba'i (the renowned writer and minister of culture at the end of the Nasser and the beginning of the Sadat eras) with his inclusion of a character that was viewed as being strongly based on him.

Of course, neither Youssef Chahine nor Naguib Mahfouz intended to criticize Youssef Al Siba'i directly, despite a few jabs at the beginning of the picture, but the schizophrenia of the intellectual came from the true state of the intellectual class and therefore, many intellectuals might have recognized themselves in the film, and perhaps Youssef Al Siba'i was simply one of them.

The main protagonist of the film is named Sayed, and is a successful playwright who has close relations in the government. His plays are on the best stages in the country and he travels as he pleases on governmental missions. His wife, Hasnaa, seems to be at ease in her husband's world, surrounded by the political and intellectual elite. At the start of the film Sayed is with the minister of culture before travelling to a literary convention, as he knows that he is on the verge of being assigned to a post as a cultural attaché in a European country. Everything seems to be working to his advantage: power, status, money, wife, and a bright future. But in the midst of all of this, police find the murdered body of a certain Mahmoud, who turns out to be the twin brother of Sayed. He is physically Sayed's exact match, but is otherwise his exact opposite: a sailor, who chose to live as he pleased without financial needs, and without making any concessions.

Here we are in the middle of the police investigation that uncovers the secret hidden side of Sayed's life, and makes us travel between the past and the present. Furthermore, we discover that due to the loneliness she was experiencing and the indifference of her husband, Hasnaa had thrown herself into the arms of Mahmoud. All of this combines to create an element of an eventful police mystery in the film. However, there is another more internal and profound aspect of the film that, at least on the surface, has nothing to do with the aspects we have been discussing, which is that Sayed and Mahmoud are in fact one person, and this is where the schizophrenia occurs. It could be said that Naguib Mahfouz--and not Youssef Chahine--had began to develop this idea in The Beggar (ash-Shahaz, 1965) where instead of the twins, we have the hero and his militant friend whom he betrayed and left imprisoned. Here, the hero escapes prison and goes on to live a life of luxury until he has to face his own crisis represented through his relationship with his estranged daughter. This relationship slowly reveals to him her beauty, and the level to which he and his wife had stooped. She also reveals herself to be pure and innocent. Realizing the error of his ways he offers her to his friend in marriage, perhaps in his wish to return to the innocence of being an activist on the one hand, and to repair the damage done to his daughter on the other. In the end, the mirroring between the hero and his friend lies in sharing the hero's daughter while Mahmoud and Sayed's occurs in the sharing of Sayed's wife. But what was an act of purification in 'the beggar' becomes here a moral struggle between the twins that ends with the death of one of them.

It's clear that the mirroring between Sayed and Mahmoud is like Mahfouz's views regarding the mirroring of the intellectual and his relationship to society, which was for Chahine the answer to questions that he had on his mind for a long time, but which he treated with the spontaneity of an artist.

He poses these questions as a series of encounters, the moral connotations of which remain unresolved. We have on the one hand a character like Kenawy the newspaper publisher and the trade union man who is an alert student of the world, with ambitions to travel to Germany (in The Iron Gate; Bab al-Hadid, 1958), and on the other, a woman of social standing acquiring a revolutionary awareness (in The Dawn of a New Day). And then there are the encounters between Muhammad Abu Suwailem and the cultured Sheikh Hassouna (in The Land). The dilemma in most of these encounters is largely a moral one. The Choice, however, is a different matter altogether, where we are faced with an internal psychological chasm, one which in the end is explained politically and is interpreted as 'the betrayal of the intellectuals,' to borrow the words of French philosopher Julien Benda. The epitome of this in The Choice is that from the halfway point of the movie, we are no longer concerned with the investigation and the police-related aspect of the film, but rather we are immersed in what may be happening in the mind of the character we have before us. We even find ourselves wondering from time to time whether the person in front of us is Mahmoud or Sayed. This is not because Sayed is taking on Mahmoud’s personality, but rather because they are the same being. Here the defeat is a reality upon which the entire plot line rests, unlike what happened in The Land where the text preceded the actual occurrence of the defeat, since the events being told take place in the 30's. It is Youssef Chahine and not Abdel Rahman Al Sherkawy that gave the events a consciousness of the present moment, which posed the question of whether the intellectual had contributed negatively to the defeat by his mere hesitation. This accusation had become increasingly common, especially since the intellectuals had become such a part of the establishment and the state, which had been viewed as being responsible for the defeat.

Let us briefly look back on Egyptian history here, at least towards the 50's and 60's when we know that the intellectuals have in fact become an integral part of the state, not just as advisers to the leaders of the revolution (such as Mohammad Hassanein Haykal, for example) and not simply for being artists, creative individuals or novelists out of the revolution and who use their trade to justify all of the actions of the revolution, but rather, they have quite literally become ministers and have taken leadership positions. We can go so far as to say that most of the so-called 'free officers' who conducted the 1952 revolution prided themselves on being readers and writers of books. Even the biggest among them, the late Abdel Nasser, would regularly use literary references in his speeches. He even published a novel entitled The Price Of Freedom (1959), said to be based on Tewfik Al Hakim's novel The Return of the Spirit (1933). While all of this may seem like a tangent here, we are simply looking to contextualize the extent and more importantly the reasons for Youssef Chahine's dismantling of the intellectual from the inside as well as from the outside (under the auspices of Naguib Mahfouz). This will be a recurring theme for the filmmaker to varying degrees of clarity throughout the remainder of his career.

The times following the 1967 defeat were still grappling with the issues of accountability and responsibility. Chahine would later say that 'while The Land blamed the feudal class structure, which was supported by the intellectual class as well as the clergy, for the defeat; The Choice accused the intellectuals directly and blamed their schizophrenia for the defeat.'

As for us, we do not need to think very hard before coming to the realization that Naguib Mahfouz, even more than Youssef Chahine, was responsible for raising this critical awareness in the film that can quite simply be considered among cinema's most important compliments to Mahfouz's literature.

[This review was extracted from 'Cinema in the Life and Work of Naguib Mahfouz,' written by Ibrahim Al-Ariss and originally published by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in observance of the centenary of Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2011). It was adapted by the author from his 2009 book Youssef Chahine: The Eye of the Child and the Capture of the Rebel, and has been slightly edited for presentation on TV Multiversity to commemorate Mahfouz's birthday on 11 October 2012.]

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