Friday, May 30, 2014

Al-makhdu'un (THE DUPES) by Tewfik Saleh

This 1973 film, originally screened in the summer of that year in Moscow, is both a classic and also a fitting encapsulation of the sorts of nuances between art and political ideology.  The film follows three men who have paid a driver, himself a wounded veteran of the 1967 war, to smuggle them through Kuwait in a large water buffalo on the back of his truck.  Of course, in the baking sun, time is of the essence, and so this driver must race against time in a film with truly some gripping suspense sequences.
Saleh himself was Egyptian, the film was funded by Syria, but it is still a film that is critical of pan-Arabism and truly any bureaucracy that can be abused by those craven for power.  This perspective is re-enforced by how Saleh represents the struggle of the Palestinians.  Each character is an effective representation of the various life cycle stages of a typical Palestinian man, and the invocation of castration in the film is used to underline a larger existential delegitimization of both a sense of identity and nationality tied with patriotic emancipation.  The Palestinians are the play-things of cruel fate and even crasser men, both Zionist and Arab, who expropriate cheap labor from these most vulnerable of people.
There are certain elements in this film that are certainly reminiscent of Italian neo-realism, but the film is also filled with shots that seem to blatantly appropriate imagery and camera set-ups from David Lean's LAWRENCE OR ARABIA, which would make sense since the film maker was trained in Paris and had read English Literature in university.  Saleh's water buffalo pick-up truck speeds across the barren and sun-bleached horizons like the Arab Revolt's armies under 'El-Awrence', here underlining and circumventing the legacy of British and French imperial designs under the auspices of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.  Several times in the film, indeed, this intersection of political and storytelling is highlighted with the intercutting of footage of refugee camps and the life of contemporary Palestinians, a subversion from narrative to documentary and back again which adds a unique textuality to the story.
Also, it is rather haunting, in the wake of modern events, to realize the film is a road-trip set between Basra, Iraq and the Kuwaiti border.  A decade after the ouster of the Iraqi Ba'athist Party, and the correlating American war, the simple reality of social order portrayed in Iraqi society in the film is now a powerful reminder of a certain kind of reality broken apart by the American war machine.

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