Dina Hamza’s much-anticipated film Gaye al-Zaman (The Past Will Return) closed Hybrid Reels, the celebrated 20-day non-fiction program at Zawya, with yet another full house.
The Past Will Return is extremely personal. In it, Hamza, who is now 36 and has been making films since 2004, uses the making process as a way out of the emptiness she faces when her father dies in 2010. She tries to find what remains of him through the people and places he touched: her siblings, his workplace (the state-owned Sabah al-Kheir magazine) and his poetry.
Mohamed Hamza was one of Egypt’s most celebrated poets, with 1,200 poems to his name. He worked extensively with Abdel Halim Hafez, along with Shadia, Nagat al-Saghira, Warda and others, writing some of Arabic music’s most memorable words.
In her film, Hamza invites us into her world, her thoughts, her weaknesses. She presents herself honestly and transparently. This vulnerability is endearing as we accompany her on her journey. We spend time with her twin sister, who talks about being inspired to raise her daughter like their father raised them. Her brother describes their father showing him his very personal poetry, and their father’s co-workers discuss his importance as a journalist and poet.
Hamza edits in archival footage, photographs, music and news clips about him, his work and his life. She uses the state television radio archive, newspapers, her family’s home videos and photographs to give a glimpse of one of the people behind the last century’s iconic music.
The Past Will Return starts off strong. We see a newspaper story about a girl who committed suicide after Halim died in 1977, before watching a staged sequence of a young girl, dressed in a floral dress and eyes full of sadness, jumping off a balcony. We are then confronted with Hamza herself, filmed performing the same sequence as the young girl, but she doesn’t jump.
Hamza dwells on the intricate details in both parallel shots: shoes, dress, expressions. This cinematographic style of capturing details of objects continues throughout the film.
She tells what seems to be a therapy group that she has been extremely lonely since her father passed away, and that she is having suicidal dreams. “But I’m okay,” she insists.
Unfortunately, The Past Will Return is extremely fragmented. Despite its sincerity, the connection felt with the director and her family during the first half of the film is lost at some point in the middle. I say unfortunately, as it’s a very difficult position to be critical of such a personal endeavor. The director is honest in her film and puts herself out there, which gives it an emotional depth clearly felt by many audience members at Zawya.
The issues come as Hamza’s storytelling drifts from her family story to focus on Abdel Halim and his popularity, which still prevails. She interviews a woman who’s still in love with him, goes to his house and films there, and plays snippets from his famous spring concerts. This part feels imposed on the rest of the film.
Because the most interesting element is discovering who Mohamed Hamza was, the focus on Abdel Halim, who is already iconised in not just Egypt but the entire Arab world, is an unnecessary distraction.
Another problem is the plot structure of The Past Will Return. It becomes evident at one point that the story is tying together, coming to a close as Hamza returns to the opening footage of the girl committing suicide, seeming to signify making peace with her difficulties letting go of the past. But then it doesn’t.
It becomes increasingly difficult to follow the film after this, as scenes and ideas start repeating, and the fragmentation increases when footage from the 2011 revolution appears. Our generation did not really have a context for any of Hamza’s nationalist lyrics until the revolution, so it makes sense that Hamza chose to incorporate it. But it comes late in the film, and without being tied in with her father’s musical significance for events taking over the country.
Hamza’s previous feature documentary, In and Out of the Room (2010), constructs a portrait of Ashmawy, the dreaded hangman who sees the death penalty through. She follows one such worker from the Interior Ministry, and shows us the atrocities of his job, but also his light spirit and humanity through his personal life.
One can see similarities in terms of style, narration and camerawork in her two films, but they are very different. In the first, she has distance from the subject as a filmmaker, in perhaps a more comfortable position. In The Past Will Return, she is in fact the subject, making it difficult to take the distance needed to produce a film as sharp and tight as her first production.
The Past Will Return has many poignant moments. The sequence of Mohamed Hamza’s songs in relation to the difficult times Egypt was living in the late 1960s and early 1970s feel very relevant to now — she speaks of the 1967 defeat, the loss of an entire generation’s dream.
Perhaps the strongest part is the focus on the words of Teer Mesafer (Traveling Bird) by Nagat al-Saghira, in which a woman sings for her lover who left. At a time during the 1970s when many Egyptians started immigrating to the Gulf, this was something many related to. Hamza then visits her cousin Magda, whose family had immigrated to Saudi Arabia, and sees how this immigration affected local culture. Magda’s son is afraid his painting will upset God.
Another moving moment occurs when Hamza uses archival footage of their house, full of life and people. Ahmed Fouad Negm recites poetry, Salah al-Saadany makes a joke and Mohamed Mounir sings a song. A voiceover tells us the house had guests from Cairo’s intellectual circles every night. Then Hamza cuts to recent footage of the same house, but now empty and quiet.
While the film could have benefited greatly from being tighter, shorter in length and being more precisely edited by Mohamed Eid, it is a touching, genuine endeavor as the director tries to make peace with loss through exploring her darkest thoughts, her surroundings and her father’s legacy to a nation still struggling for its identity.
The Past will Return premiered at the Luxor African Film Festival, where it won the Radwan al-Kashef Award for Independent Cinema. It will be commercially released through Misr International Film’s latest initiative, Zawya Distribution, later this year.