Intelligent nostalgia is rarer than intelligent comedy, yet Wael Omar and Philippe Dib beautifully succeed in resurrecting the teetering glamour of Egypt’s late monarchy in their evocative “In Search of ‘Oil and Sand.’ ” Their subject couldn’t be more perfect: Urbane Mahmoud Sabit, a distant cousin of King Farouk, discovered outtakes of an amateur film his parents shot with society friends in the heady days before the 1952 revolution. The kind of docu that sends auds into their imaginations as well as their history books, “In Search” will be sought out by nonfiction sidebars, and is ideal for smallscreen rotation.
Neither the helmers nor Sabit are interested in whitewashing the problems of the era, and while they investigate the past, they aren’t attempting to live in some inaccurate replica of a bygone world. Their aim is to illuminate a society, one that suffered deeply in the years after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power, not only in terms of finances and position, but also in the way the new regime propagandized history. That they manage this with gentility, devoid of snobbishness, is a tribute to the personalities involved as well as the directors’ own sensitivity.
Much as European high society seemed to waltz on the brink of World War I’s maelstrom, so Egypt’s upper crust literally danced on the eve of its downfall. Life in Cairo and Alexandria on that elevated plane was a Golden Age of international sophistication, with the world’s most beautiful royal family at its center, and Sabit’s Egyptian father, Adel, and American mother, actress Frances Ramsden (also Preston Sturges’ ex-g.f.), among its members.
Now living in the family’s decaying manse (Miss Havisham would feel at home in some rooms), Sabit recently discovered reels of black-and-white film mentioned in his mother’s unpublished memoir, in which she described how a group of friends decided to make a movie called “Oil and Sand.” The plot, about British and American spies looking to bring an Arab oil kingdom into their orbit, was certainly timely then and now, even if the aim of the pic was to have fun (it also revels in tongue-in-cheek Orientalism). The film is at the docu’s heart as Sabit uncovers its history, and heads to Alexandria to speak with the last surviving cast member, Princess Nevine Abbas Halim.
It’s difficult to judge “Oil and Sand” itself; the 16mm color footage is lost, and only black-and-white outtakes remain. What survives doesn’t impress cinematically, to put it mildly, yet acts as a bittersweet window to the past; there’s something indescribably moving about watching Princess Nevine’s face viewing the projected images for the first time. “I don’t believe in sad memories,” she says toward the end. “You can ruin your life with sad memories. When it’s over, it’s over.”
Auds tied to the narrative of Nasser’s revolution of the people may consider these recollections mere nostalgia from the formerly privileged classes, but there’s much more here: “In Search” views Egypt pre- and post-1952 (and by implication, the Arab Spring) with eyes informed by history rather than doctrine. The docu is a journey of discovery, to a family, a time and a place, and it performs its role handsomely; the Abu Dhabi docu jury awarded it the prize for best director from the Arab world.
Music accompanies many scenes, but is underplayed, conjuring mood without prominence. Sound is used to excellent effect.