Said Marzouk, who died this September 13 at the age of 73, made his second film in 1972: Makan lil Hub (A Place for Love), an off-beat, 70-minute movie about love and war that was originally set to be called Al-Khof (Fear).
The film charts the courtship between a young photojournalist called Ahmed and a sad, lost young woman from Suez, whose name we don’t know until the last scene.
“Where is Tahrir Square, please?” asks the woman (Souad Hosni) of the photojournalist, after he approaches her in a busy café hosting his photo exhibition about the aftermath of the 1967 war in Suez.
Artist Hala ElKoussy, in her book The Circle of س , describes that “heavy” question as precisely expressing the protagonist’s sense of loss. And in the first frontal shot of Hosni, in the background there’s a mural showing a woman with tears pouring out of her eyes. The anguish continues in Hosni’s sad face.
Her character lived the real bombing of Suez and barely survived, having lost her entire family, as we see from flashbacks: footage of bodies among burning rubble in that city. Does she think it’s a bad dream, that these photos may help put the war and her life in perspective? Or does she constantly need reminders, so she doesn’t lose herself to happiness by mistake?
The typical downtown Cairo art scene of the café is seen through the eyes of Ahmed (Nour al-Sherif), who’s outwardly jolly yet conflicted between his rural origins and the temptations of the city and its women. He’s a mess, a distorted mess, mirrored in the film’s frenetic visuals.
The dialogue is sparse, and Abdel Halim Nasr’s cinematography is progressive and resourceful. We see Ahmed’s face through a glass window, from behind a transparent green dress that is reflected, warped, onto a big coffee machine.
As they depart to Tahrir, the opening credits roll over collages of images of war, protests, a Swastika, Che Guevara, rock musicians, pin-up girls, Golda Meir and hippies, to the sound of screams and rock music. As if Tahrir, which we never actually see, could make all these things live at once.
Soon after, Abdel Halim Hafez’s Mawood plays in the hostel where Hosni’s character is staying, suggesting the start of a love story. Indeed, Marzouk gives it away quickly and easily: She leaves her bed and heads to the phone. Ahmed tells her about the strange place where he lives.
“Everything in this pension is taxidermied, including the owner,” he says of the aristocratic grey old Greek lady who lives off memories of her late husband and a time when life made more sense to her.
As the two young people grow close, her fear expands like the fire that destroyed her house and family. She sees ruins everywhere he takes her. She’s tormented and scared of love, life, hope and happiness. Their normal everyday meetings are interspersed with stranger, breathless scenes shot with a hand-held camera and set to a wild, eerie soundtrack by Tarek Sharara.
During one stroll, they reach a tall building under construction overlooking the Nile in Giza. They go in and sit to enjoy the view from among the dusty building materials.
They daydream about living in one of these fancy apartments, and we see a furniture-less pink haven where they eat on the floor and live happily ever after — the film is not afraid to address both war and love as cinematic clichés. But this is interrupted by the arrival of the site’s security guard, a large man with a moustache and a gallabiya. A dramatic, starkly lit chase ensues through the staircases of the skeletal building.
“You ran,” she reprimands him during a pause.
“Because of the surprise — but at the right time I will do many things,” he answers.
But their fear is not of an old guard from Upper Egypt whom they can easily take on. Their fear is embedded deep within them since the Naksa of 1967, in the ruins by the Nile. Perhaps Souad Hosni is Egypt, a disorientated, beautiful woman who’s seen too much.
She and Nour al-Sherif would next appear together three years later in Aly Badrakhan’s bold and harrowing Al-Karnak, which opens with October 6, 1973 as the radio announces that the Egyptian army is crossing the Suez Canal.