In the bottom of my memory can, I remember sitting in our living room in Khamis Mushait, Saudi Arabia, five years old, watching a weird movie about a very expensive car being driven by a grumpy guy with a funny moustache and an insane pair of sunglasses. I remember the guy getting lost in the middle of the countryside and meeting people, things getting nasty, and lots of other stuff I didn’t understand at the time. But what I remember most is how impressed by the car everybody in the film was. On several occasions it was even referred to as an airplane.
My father — an Egyptian translator and short story writer who fled to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s to make a living, before coming back to Egypt to invest all his money in a failing publishing house — told me Mohamed Khan’s movie Omar’s Journey (1986) was probably a commissioned BMW commercial. The whole thing revolves around the car and how magnificent it is.
The movie also seemed to talk about my father. I’ll tell you more about that after the next paragraph or two, to add suspense.
In that era, Khan (b. 1942) and a bunch of other filmmakers were put in a new category called the neo-realist wave. These were filmmakers who grew up in an Egypt that used to be at war but now had to be at peace, that used to be socialist but now — for some reason — had to be capitalist, where everybody had been going one way but now had to go in a different direction, one that they didn’t know anything about. Society was living in a state of denial and confusion. So movies set in cheap rooftop rooms, slums, the countryside, and dirty government offices, rather than nightclubs and giant fancy flats, were strange enough that a whole new genre had to be created.
There was a strong need for films that were aware of how society was changing, how new feelings and concerns and dreams were being shoved into our reality without introduction. Khan was the director with the most sensual take on these changes. In his early, no-frills movies like Gone and Never Came Back (1984), The Artful (1983), The Wife of an Important Man (1987), or even in Days of Sadat (2001), he tells the story of people’s existence during this neglectful time through their very basic physical feelings. Watching Khan’s movies, you spend most of your time dealing with food and how it tastes, objects you own and how you use them, and the very basic dynamics of human relationships.
I’ll tell you about how the movie talked about my father in a bit.
In Omar’s Journey, which starts by specially thanking Egypt’s official BMW distributor by name for facilitating the movie, Omar — played by Farouq al-Fishawy in one of his best roles ever — is the spoiled, bored son of a gold merchant reluctantly sent on a mission to deliver a package to someone in the delta town of Tanta. Driving around in his fancy BMW, the rich man meets poor people. That is pretty much what the movie is all about.
Coming from a poor family that made its way up pretty quickly, he’s all about thinking about poverty, looking at it, talking to it, tipping it and letting it ride with him in the car. He keeps himself and his fears covered by car’s metal body and his giant sunglasses, safe from the scary poverty out there, but is constantly tempted to let this poverty infiltrate him, smudge him with its stains, call him names and make fun of him. It’s a trip of protected self-conscious self-destruction within an apparently safe parameter. No wonder problems start as soon as the car runs out of gas.
Omar infects everybody he meets with his burden, promising them things and letting them down, driven by restlessness and boredom. He meets people pure and leaves them rabid. It starts with the poor man he picks up and offers a ride, then leaves in the middle of nowhere after a reckless, unnecessary police chase. It ends with the two ambitious losers from the countryside who join his insane trip and follow his temptations until he leads them to the edge of nothingness. As one scene in the film makes completely clear, such an expensive BMW is worth nothing if you fill it with kerosene instead of gas (a worker, also called Omar (Mamdouh Abdel Alim), had unsuccessfuly to help Omar refuel).
The film emphasizes isolation and protection. Right from the opening shot, there is always a screen between you and what’s going on. The car’s body and glass are always in the way. An amazing scene near the end where the three travelers get drunk and funny and keep locking each other out of the car is the climax of this symbolism.
The fact that BMW appears to be happy about this movie’s existence despite its very anti-capitalistic nature is a very confusing thing. I still don’t know if the special thanks at the beginning of the movie was a part of a sponsorship deal or just an apology. The film uses the same techniques that would be used to make you love a car to make you hate the car. That’s what makes it so interesting.
Khan is prolific. His films make up a significant part of very important period in Egyptian filmmaking history and have often been innovative. He was one of the first filmmakers in Egypt to make a digital film, for example. He’s still making important films, although lately they are much less gritty and rather smooth-looking. His most recent production, Factory Girl, written by his wife, Wessam Soliman, just won two awards at the Dubai Film Festival and is about to be released.
This week Khan was told that interim President Adly Mansour has agreed to grant him Egyptian nationality after at least 40 years of making films in Egypt as a foreigner. Khan was born in Egypt, but his mother was Italian and father Pakistani. He has been trying to get an Egyptian passport for a very long time and only now, when he is over 70 years old, does it seem to be happening.
Yeah, and about how the movie talked about my father. One character has lived abroad for a while but only came back with two pullovers, a bottle of whiskey, and stories about the beautiful girls of London. That part was clearly inspired by my father.
* This is the first in a weekly series of reviews of interesting Egyptian films from all eras.