Zaair al-Fagr (The Dawn Visitor, 1973) starts where all mystery movies begin: the crime scene. Nadia al-Sherif, a middle-aged journalist and activist, is found dead in her Tahrir apartment.
The proceedings of what seems to be a criminal investigation take place in June 1970, almost three years following the Naksa and just before the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
“She had a bad reputation,” says the doorman unhesitatingly when he’s asked about the victim. The neighbors confirm it. Forensics declare the cause of death to be heart failure, as the deceased had suffered from heart disease, but prosecutor Hassan al-Wakeel (Ezzat al-Alleilly) leads an investigation anyway.
The investigation takes in many places: the prosecutor’s office, the victim’s ascetic apartment, her ex-husband’s villa in Maadi and a “chic” brothel in Haram run by Madam Nana, her hairstylist. Apart from that, almost half the film consists of flashbacks of the victim’s life.
As the investigation continues, more facts about the country, corruption, defeat and activism unravel.
“She always said she was afraid,” says one witness. “Sometimes of prison, other times of death.”
Sherif (Magda al-Khateeb), we discover, was a political activist imprisoned in 1952 for distributing leaflets against the king’s regime following the Cairo Fire. During her incarceration, she was severely tortured and finally gave in and disclosed the identity of her fellow activists. Following her release, she chose a career in journalism and continued her fight through writing.
The Dawn Visitor examines the psyche of both a tormented activist and of a society of defeat and decay, plagued with elite corruption. Director Mamdouh Shoukry draws a satisfyingly sketchy and rough picture of that era, a time when the masses had forgotten about their defeat and the big fight, and only a small group of tormented, frail souls remained true to the cause.
“They always come at dawn,” whispers Nadia to fellow activist Souad, hours before she dies in her home.
The movie has multiple narratives because renowned Syrian scriptwriter Rafiq al-Sabban builds a portrait of Nadia through the accounts of many different people. Her conservative neighbors see her as loose drunk, her husband sees her as a cheater, her boss sees her as a fighter and her boyfriend sees her as confused and jealous. Nadia is human, not a saint or devil, she’s both good and bad. The multiple narratives give depth to her character and give the screenplay its brilliance.
Shoukry, meanwhile, put together this deconstructed storyline in a way that miraculously makes perfect sense.
The editing of The Dawn Visitor looks makeshift and progressive, apparently partly because of censorship — it’s said that dozens of scenes were cut out — but also to deliberately inflict a sense of incompletion. You feel throughout the movie that you are being told a lie, half the truth or even the complete truth but out of context.
Ramsis Marzouk’s cinematography vividly conveys this general sense of sinister fragmentation through rough camera movements that sometimes feel handheld, especially during the opening crime scene investigation. The last shot of Nadia, a close-up with half her face in the shade and the other half lit as she says her last words, is powerfully emblematic of the film’s themes.
The movie is relevant today: It touches on social and political issues the country (and its activists) are plagued with, and every president since the 1952 July revolution has done nothing but ignore or cover them up. The corruption of Nasser’s Free Officers and their entourage was only doubled in Sadat’s time due to his open-door policy, and nothing has changed since.
The Dawn Visitor was banned from cinemas a week after its release in 1973. Despite the fact that its events take place during Nasser’s rule, rumor has it that it was Sadat himself who banned it. Khateeb tried to meet him several times but failed. Indeed, it was a period that was good for hard-hitting films in Egypt, but also for censorship. Ali Badrakhan’s Al-Karnak — also dealing with police brutality under Nasser — was unofficially banned 1975, while Youssef Chahine’s The Sparrow had been banned in 1972, and Said Marzouk’s Al-Mozneboun (The Guilty) — also a police investigation into the death of a woman — was in 1976.
The ban was a huge blow to actor and producer Khateeb. And some narratives state that Shoukry fell victim to a severe depression and was soon hospitalized and died. Khateeb was jailed twice in the early 1980s, once on a charge of using narcotics and the second time for running over a pedestrian by mistake. Actor Saeed Saleh, who played Saleh, Nadia’s neighbor, was also jailed twice in 1991 and 1996 for drug use.
“A group of her friends got arrested two days before her death… Nadia felt she was being watched,” explains Souad, the last witness, in the film.
This simple sentence about a human who loses hope and dies sums the sentiments of activists then and today: hope, fear, sadness, defeat and despair.
“I am not afraid of death, Souad… I just dread that it comes before I see what I wish for,” says Nadia minutes before she finally passes away.