Al-ard (The Land, Youssef Chahine, 1970) begins and ends in the dirt. In its opening sequence, a hand is seen patting the soil around a young cotton plant before gently plucking a few leaves. In the final shot, the same hand, now bloodied, grasps at the earth of the soon-to-be-razed field as its owner is dragged away to his death. These potent images signal both the central theme of the film – land ownership as identity, means of survival and fraught political battleground – and Chahine’s penchant for masterful composition, the latter of which is on glorious display.1
From the earth created, and into it returned.2 But what if that life cycle becomes disconnected from its (traditionally designated) essence? This question – of the relationship between soul and soil, and the purgatory that is seen to lie beyond it – is central to Chahine’s revolutionary parable, adapted from Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi’s partially autobiographical socialist-realist 1954 novel of the same name.
Set in the not-quite-postcolonial Egypt of the early 1930s – nominally independent following the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, but still in essence a puppet state under British military control – the book and the film alike take place in a Nile Delta settlement mostly populated by serfs, or fellahin, who sit near the bottom of a hierarchy populated by a matryoshka doll of despots: from the vain and malicious Mayor (Abdulwareth Asar) who exercises immediate control; to the foppish, veritably Bond villain–esque feudal lord Mahmoud Bey (Ashraf El Selehdar); to the prime minister who serves the whims of the off-screen occupiers.
The narrative’s inciting incident is a phone call to the Mayor demanding that the irrigation period for the village’s upcoming harvest be halved from ten to five days – a likely fatal amount of time for the local corn and cotton plantations. The villagers first gather to send a petition to the prime minister, but the draft is switched out at the last moment by the Bey, who – notably, with the aid of the village’s chief religious authority, Sheikh Shenawi (Hussein Ismail) – convinces the mostly illiterate peasants to sign his own document, which replaces the plea for water with his own pet project, a proposal to build a road through the farmland. This double blow is, eventually, met with a series of escalating acts of collective dissent from the villages, responded to in turn with increasingly brutal reprisals from the authorities.
None of this is exactly subtle: caricatures abound, and the film wears its socialist politics on its sleeve. But what is striking about Chahine’s depiction of the village is just how multifaceted its own dynamics are, a quality that is most immediately made apparent by the film’s dizzying array of characters. While three protagonists soon come to the fore – village elder Mohamed Abu Sweilem (Mahmoud El-Meliguy), to whom the hands of the bookending sequences belong; his daughter Wassifa (Nagra Ibrahim); and her would-be fiancé, hot-headed rebel Abdel Hady (Ezzat El Alaili) – there are several key subplots involving supporting characters, and the film even wrong-foots the audience by easing into a coming-of-age narrative of an unnamed boy (Muhammad Al Saqqa), who soon thereafter disappears from the film without explanation.
The inclusion of this character, who is seen in the pre-credit sequence returning from Cairo with his father (Hussein Asar) on horse-drawn carriage, is far from random. In the book (in which he is also mostly absent), he plays the role of sometime narrator, acting as a stand-in for al-Sharqawi’s own childhood experiences.3 In the film, he serves to embody one of the film’s central preoccupations: the stark divide between rural and urban life. Smitten – like nearly every man in the village, seemingly – with Wassifa, he is the only suitor whose affections she reciprocates,4 her central romance (more ostensible than actual) with Abdel Hady notwithstanding. Clearly, to her, the awkward preteen symbolises hope, in the form of escape from oppressive village life. Elsewhere, she is more assertive agent than passive object of desire: she plays an active role in acts of collective rebellion, and, in a rigorously patriarchal society, shows little deference to male authority figures: not least her father, whose repeated appeals to patriarchy, otherwise played straight, are at the very least thrown into relief by his daughter’s proto-feminism.
If Wassifa is an interesting subversion of the Madonna archetype,5 then her friend Khadra (Fatma Omara) – a landless orphan who barters sex for food – is an even bolder variant on the other half of that dichotomy. The film is both surprisingly frank about her profession and openly sympathetic to her plight; that she is repeatedly referred to as “dirty” by villagers who literally spend their own working hours arm-deep in soil seems symbolic of the way she is used as a scapegoat for their shame over their powerlessness. Her murder, the film’s cruellest moment – it is even shot like a slasher film, with the camera adopting the perspective of the at-first-unidentified assailant sneaking up on the half-naked victim – brutally reinforces the hierarchy of village life, and how oppression can recur down different vectors of power.
That Khadra’s killer, the charlatan Sheikh Shaban (Tawfik El Deken), is the film’s only other religious authority figure reinforces the film’s pointedly anticlerical stance.6 While not demonising faith, per se – all of the film’s heroes are shown to be at least ostensibly observant – the film depicts religious instructors as being hypocritical handmaidens of corrupt power. This also points to one of the village’s many fault lines and barriers to unified action: the unquestioning submission to authority of some versus the patriotic fervour of others. Only through unified action and willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests, Chahine argues, can oppression be overcome.
In an interview on the Chapo Trap House podcast, nearly half a century after the release of The Land, documentary maker Adam Curtis described some of the biggest psychological barriers to progress in the 21st century:
Political change is frightening […] because it can change things in ways where nothing is secure. It’s like being in an earthquake. Even the solid ground beneath you begins to move […]
In confronting those powers, and trying to transform the world, you might lose a lot. This is a sort of forgotten idea: that, actually, you surrender yourself up to a big idea, and, in the process, you might lose something. But you’d actually gain in a bigger sense, because you change the world for the better.”7
In The Land, Abu Sweilem’s sacrifice is ultimate: he dies as the village unites in a final act of solidarity, collecting the cotton from his ruined field. Once-central political battles like this, over land and self-determination, may have long since faded from memory in the West. Yet the capitalist corruption and political stasis that we see in Chahine’s film have lost none of their potency; and neither has The Land – a tale both specific to a certain time and place in Egyptian history and yet strangely universal – lost any of its revolutionary charge.
. . .
Al-ard (The Land, 1970 Egypt 130 mins)
Prod. Co: General Egyptian Cinema Organisation Dir: Youssef Chahine Scr: Hassan Fuad Phot: Abdelhalim Nasr Ed: Rashida Abdel Salam Mus: Ali Ismail
Cast: Mahmoud El-Meliguy, Nagra Ibrahim, Ezzat El Alaili, Ali El Sharif, Fatma Omara, Hamdy Ahmed, Yehia Chahine, Muhammad Al Saqqa, Salah El-Saadany, Abdel Rahman El Khamesy, Hussein Ismail, Tawfik El Deken, Ashraf El Selehdar
- Striking uses of tracking, dollying, frames-in-frames and deep focus abound in the film; other shots, perhaps most memorably one of dust blowing through the empty village, are mesmerising in terms of mise en scène alone. ↩
- “From the (earth) did We create you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you out once again.” The Qur’an, 20:55, Yusuf Ali Translation. ↩
- See Malek Khouri, The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema (Cairo & New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2010), pp. 75–6. ↩
- This culminates, somewhat alarmingly, in her initiating him behind a waterwheel. The film is not coy about implying sexual debauchery, elsewhere featuring suggestions of prostitution, rape and even bestiality. ↩
- In his book on Chahine, Ibrahim Fawal points out: “She exudes beauty and sexuality, but she knows her limits. She desires romance (…) but would do nothing to tarnish her father’s good name.” See Fawal, Youssef Chahine (London: British Film Institute, 1991), p. 78. ↩
- Born to Christian middle-class parents from Greece and Lebanon respectively, he was perhaps ideally placed to approach religion with some critical distance; so it’s little surprise that Sunni pieties and accounts of Coptic persecution are, from what I can gather, entirely absent from his work. See Sheila Whitaker, ‘Youssef Chahine’, The Guardian, 28 July 2008. ↩
- Adam Curtis, in “No Future”, Chapo Trap House, episode 65, 12 December 2016. ↩