Egypt’s cinematic gems: Adrift on the Nile

Thartharah fawqa al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile, 1971) answers three immortal questions: “What’s the importance of cinema?” “What’s the big fuss about a black-and-white downer of a film?” and “How significant is a bunch of chitchat on the Nile?”

Sometimes there comes a writer, a filmmaker, or even a musician who, though talent, and probably total and honest immersion, is capable of capturing the essence of certain characters, events and even complete atmospheres. When the creator is as true as author Naguib Mahfouz or director Hussein Kamal, an artfully portrayed slice of human condition can prove shockingly timeless.

Directed by Kamal and written by Mamdouh al-Laithy, Adrift on the Nile is an adaptation of a 1966 novel by Mahfouz, eternal observer of Egyptian communities, set against the war and the late Nasser era.

Ministry of Health employee Anis (Emad Hamdy), the weird narrator from whose point of view we see events unfold, must be Mahfouz himself.

The film starts with a long shot of a typical Cairene crowd and a voiceover asking questions about pretty much everything around. This introduces Anis as a lost soul in a concrete jungle. We have to concentrate to find him, so when we do we can’t let go. The camera follows as Anis talks to himself in wonder, in a shot that beautifully portrays the character’s rambling sensibility.

You’ll be shocked to hear Anis wondering about issues and phenomena that still dazzle us to this day, such as the issue of why alcohol is legal and hash is not.

Symbolic scenes in which sound is minimal to highlight the visual content are a trademark of Kamal’s. We can see it when Anis is being yelled at by his boss, whose head starts to look like a piece of paper full of stamps and signatures, implying that he’s been transformed into the reports he loves so much.

We’re introduced to Anis as a madman wandering the streets — but to his former student, an actor named Ragab (Ahmed Ramzy) — when a Cadillac storms onto the scene, playing up a lifestyle that sticks in our minds throughout.

Keeping his audience aware of context and on track is a Kamal signature. As we follow our characters in the streets of 1970s Cairo, we zoom in on a newspaper headline about the war taking place. We’re kept in tune with the events that impact our story, at least from the perspective of Anis, who we soon find out is not completely oblivious to what’s going on around him.

Occupying Ragab’s boat are a bunch of intellectuals who spend most of their time smoking hash and drinking, totally detached from reality: A lawyer, a journalist and a storywriter, the crème of Egyptian society. Off the boat they use their connections with each other to make their lives physically and morally easier.

Through clever edits by Rashida Abdel Salam and camera angles, we’re immersed in their circle as they pass the pipe around. Dissolves suggest passing time. Camera movements on the boat give us a very detailed tour, so we gain familiarity with the space. Adel Adham, playing one member of the group with what looks like method acting, stands out with his enactment of cunning and decadence.

When they discover Anis as a veteran user of hash they cheer and appoint him “minister of high.” He has a flashback to the days of revolution when the cheers where different: Now “long live the minister of high,” back then cheers of revolt and freedom. This scene establishes what our timeless story is about. We see in Hamdy’s magnificent facial expressions how numb he has become to his surroundings. He appears to not give a damn, but we’ll soon find that he does.

As events unfold, we discover why Anis is an alien among these people: They smoke to live in denial during a critical time in the country’s history, but his mind keeps wondering about the state they’re in and the state the country’s in — so much that he seems to be driving himself mad, always carrying sorrow around.

We follow each character to their homes and discover their truths, especially the women. One is from a very poor family and leads a fake life, another constantly cheats on her husband just to spite him. All this is fodder for Anis’ wondering mind and he speaks words of wisdom about everything that occurs.

In a beautiful sequence in which we follow Ragab in a film studio, we find color and new technology, the fakeness of commercial cinema. This colored scene contrasts with the serious black and white of the film to give us an idea of the fragility of Ragab’s world. Commercialization is portrayed, remarkably, through dressing Ragab as a belly dancer, gaining our sympathy, and we see his real face, that of a sad clown.

Mervat Amin portrays the naïve hippie generation who blindly worship their ideals. Her character, Sana, goes home with Ragab totally impressed, not recognizing the more serious roles he once played in theater, and we see sadness on his face. He was not always as empty as he is now.

Kamal always uses contrasts to get across his ideas, in compositions, characters, events and character placement, like when Sana lies about her whereabouts to her mom on the phone as Ragab pours too much beer into her cup.

As the gang goes outside to party they carry Anis around with them. They seem to want his soul, not his presence. The agonies and superstitions of normal people don’t matter to them. They go to a tomb and climb over the pharaohs, humiliating their history. Plot twists show how much denial they have become accustomed to, especially when they hit a female worker as they cruise around in their car.

The use of hash to distort reality and forget obvious misdeeds is emphasized beautifully as smoke fills the screen and it becomes blurry. They forget their crimes and find salvation in each other’s arms, never mind the bombing all around them.

In the scene when the hippie is finally brainwashed, the Santana song Treat is played to dynamic handheld camera movements, and as they celebrate life with words and dancing and a great fake speech by the lawyer, very stylized slow motion proves how ahead of his time Kamal was.

When a serious journalist takes an interest in the group, it’s the beginning of the end. Anis tells her that he sees everything upside-down and naked. The story writer finally tells her the truth of their situation and admits that they were not always like this. They were once revolutionaries, involved in their country’s events. When the revolution was over they were cast aside, just like our generation was cast aside after our revolution, and they became the zombies they are now.

The journalist places Anis amid the terrible events taking place in the country, and zooms and panning shots emphasize images of destruction and his shock, the need to wake up, the guilt.

The film was banned by Anwar Sadat, who was wary of people’s anger at a film denouncing the corrupt bureaucracy of the recently dead Nasser.

Painfully, Adrift on the Nile is not just a story of that generation. It’s become the story of all Egypt’s young people. Back then they drifted, ignoring the war, and now it’s the same all over again, in houses, cafes, cyberspace, on the sidewalk, in blacked-out cars. We stay oblivious to the pain around us by injecting all kinds of drugs into our systems, forgetting about the future of our country and souls, shutting our eyes and silencing our tongues at the abuse of police officers and politicians, and limiting our worries to the amount of hash we get for LE50. We’re adrift, never finding land. If we don’t see the blood on our hands and the blindfold over our eyes, we won’t be any better than these so-called intellectuals.

As Anis says, “We have to wake up.” There’s no other option.

Hessen Hossam 

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