Current political unrest is a drama foretold by African filmmakers

Intelligence experts thought there was only a 20% chance Egyptians would rise up following Tunisia’s example — obviously these experts weren’t going to the movies.

Anyone paying attention to Arab cinema of the past decade couldn’t be surprised by the current unrest sweeping that part of world, where disaffection, anger and soul-crushing malaise form a running current through their films. Some tackled it forthrightly, others with subtlety, but since cinema is a reflection of a culture — at times accurate, at times with all the distortions of a fun-house mirror — this darkly brewing zeitgeist inevitably seeped into the picture.

Nowhere is this more evident than Egypt, whose film community was, predictably, deeply involved in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The stage had been set for some time: 59 years after Nasser’s revolution, with its unfulfilled promises degenerating into entrenched power and cronyism, a spirit-changing wave of nostalgia for Egypt’s “golden years” had taken hold of the country.

Spearheading this nostalgia on the smallscreen was the enormously successful 2007 miniseries “King Farouk,” directed by the Syrian helmer Hatem Ali. Though the winds of historical revisionism were already being felt, this miniseries greatly contributed to a rehabilitation in the public mind of the image of Egypt as a vibrant society heading toward democracy until veering disastrously off-course.

“King Farouk” clearly showed how the country’s dissatisfaction with the status quo nourished populist fare as well as artier films.

In many ways 2007’s “Chaos,” directed by Youssef Chahine and Khaled Youssef, is typical of the over-the-top mellers regularly produced in Egypt that rarely find a market outside the Arab world. It was roundly criticized for lacking any of Chahine’s artistic touches, and it’s true the illness of the grand old man of Egyptian cinema meant that most of the film was directed by Youssef, a helmer with a reputation miles removed from Chahine’s reflective work. Yet the film, from its very title, is a prediction of civil unrest.

“Chaos” bursts with anger at an entire system, levelling devastating charges against the past half-century of autocratic rule whose grip destroyed civil society and made the average citizen either apathetic or afraid to protest. It was clear something had to give.

Far superior in inventiveness and mood is Yousry Nasrallah’s 2008 feature “The Aquarium.” Set among Cairo’s intelligentsia, the pic has a telling direct-to-camera monologue describing a well-off radio talkshow host, but really it speaks of an entire generation of privileged yet dissatisfied Egyptians: “Her father was a minister; her mother is friends with the wives of former presidents. Laila comes across as liberal and democratic but she is not into demonstrations and conferences.”

Yet Laila’s existential unease is palpable, and her stagnation is slowly choking her and her entire community. The last shot of the film is of protesters hemmed in by riot police; Laila isn’t among them, but there’s an inescapable feeling that all it will take is a small spark to finally get her out of hibernation and onto the streets.

News outlets mentioned with surprise the lack of sexual harassment in the mixed-sex crowds gathering daily in Tahrir Square — CBS news correspondent Lara Logan’s well-chronicled sustained sexual assault notwithstanding. Surely these reports were inspired by “678,” directed by Mohamed Diab, which opened less than two months before the uprisings (the pic was picked up by Fortissimo just before Berlin).

Though it’s the first Egyptian film to focus on sexual harassment, the theme has been touched on before in ways that incorporate sexism and misogyny into a more general picture of a corrupt and corrupting society, such as Kamla Abou Zekry’s terrific “One-Zero” (2009), which directly addresses the compromises and hypocrisies necessary to negotiate the class, religion and gender minefields of Egyptian life.

Egypt isn’t alone: Tunisia’s films have been dealing with the nation’s problems for years. Mohamed Damak’s “The Villa” (2004) is an angry condemnation of the distorted society that inevitably grew from decades of dictatorship. The lack of opportunities, with all its concomitant frustrations, is beautifully reflected in Mohamed Zran’s “The Prince” (also 2004), whose characters are trapped between dreams of normality and stultifying reality.

It’s difficult to think of even a handful of recent Tunisian pics that haven’t included people yearning to escape a life where the paucity of advancement seems like a life sentence, and the same is true of Moroccan and Algerian films.

Syria also needs to be mentioned, especially Hatem Ali’s haunting “The Long Night” (2009), in which a just-released political prisoner dies before reaching home. Like Moses expiring after glimpsing the Promised Land, the character knows that dawn will finally arrive after the long night, and clearly Ali uses this as a metaphor for the Arab world as a whole.

How these revolutions will play out in the long run is impossible to guess, and as history has shown, it’s a sobering reminder that revolutions leave as many delusions in their wake as promises. Yet, without lumping these disparate countries together, it’s impossible not to feel cautiously optimistic, especially when seen through the prescient productions of their talented filmmakers.

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