For the past week or so I have been reading Mohamed Khan’s Mokhreg Ala al-Tareeq (A Director on a Journey, 2015).
Khan is over 70 years old with 25 films to his credit as a director. As one would expect, he has a lot of stories to tell about a country and an industry that has gone through major changes in his lifetime. The book takes you into the inner circles of famous actors, directors and critics with all their rumors and gossip. Reading exclusive anecdotes is perhaps one of the main pulls of the book, and narrating them allows Khan to become a spell-binding storyteller – a position he is certainly familiar with as a director.
The book compiles articles Khan has written for five different newspapers since 1991. A Director on a Journey lies between a memoir and a constantly unfolding newspaper column. Topics range from childhood memories and proclamations of personal taste in films or food to nuanced arguments about the state of the film industry in Egypt and, occasionally, the world.
In a 1998 column titled “Judging in Paris,” Khan narrates his experience as a jury member during the fourth edition of the now-discontinued Biennale of Arab Cinema in Paris. He speaks of the delicate politics of juries and his concerns when he was informed about the names of fellow jurors. He fondly recalls seeing early signs of a new Lebanese and indeed Arab cinema after deciding to accept and watching the competing films. A 24-year-old director from Lebanon called Nadine Labaki, now well-known for her award-winning films such as 2010’s Where Do We Go Now?, piqued his interest with her 12-minute 11 Rue Pasteur (1998). Although in some articles, a sense of rivalry can be felt regarding another director’s particularly impressive film, here the tone is chatty and upbeat. He is enthusiastically welcoming new talent into filmmaking.
What also stands out about this column, beside the character Khan paints for himself as jury member, is a story he tells about another young Lebanese filmmaker. While on stage, accepting his award, the young director is asked to translate his acceptance speech into Arabic. Rather shockingly, he then starts reciting a verse of old Arabic poetry. It is not hard to imagine an audience completely stunned by this response to a simple request for translation. For Khan the young director appears conflicted, unable to negotiate a move from French to Arabic, not knowing where he belongs or why.
Khan himself is often in dialogue with notions of belonging and commitment. Through his writing, he furthers his position as an outsider never fully in tune with the film industry or the communities in which he lives and works. Rumor has it that he prefers an early start, and he confirms this in the book – since his school days he has preferred waking up before anyone he knows. The image of Khan sitting alone at his desk, without a soul awake, thinking about the world and his relationship to it is perhaps emblematic of the writing position he adopts. Aware of his intimate relationship to the film industry, he chooses to observe from a carefully positioned perch.
If there is a personal philosophy that comes across in A Director on a Journey, it is this: Enter every space and set your own tempo, then demand that everyone present respects it. One time, Khan writes, someone arrived late on set for an early morning shoot. On finding out that oversleeping had caused this tardiness, Khan fires him immediately, but much later invites him back for a different project. Having gotten a second chance, we could assume, the guy did not risk getting fired again and set his clock to match Khan’s.
There’s a comically exaggerated undertone to Khan’s philosophy. For example, he writes in a column from 2012 titled “Bel hana wel shefa fel cinema” (Bon Appetite in the Cinema) that his film Kharag w lam Yaoud (Gone and Never Came Back, 1984), which includes scenes of people eating eggs cooked in ghee, raised the consumption rate and total sales of eggs nationwide. A whole nation here willingly sings along to his baton.
Belonging, for Khan, runs deeper than passports, attachments to a language or a fixed notion of identity. (His Egyptian citizenship was granted only in 2014, despite his being born and raised in Cairo to an Egyptian mother). He seems to understand belonging along the lines of Welsh writer Raymond Williams’ idea of a shared structure of feeling — values, perceptions, tastes and rhythms that develop with time and bind people together at any given moment. This understanding of belonging is particularly suited to an artist working with the moving image; films can create shared structures of feeling by realigning perceptions, thoughts and desires.
Many directors have turned to writing memoirs or personal treaties at some point in their careers — Spike Lee, Errol Morris and Woody Allen among others. But Khan chose the public forum of a newspaper to be his platform as writer. Why would a director write a weekly column? One could suggest that a text coming out with a steady beat every Wednesday is another ploy to make the world work according to his clock, but this might be taking it too far.
And there is a fear underlying Khan’s writing. It comes to a height in an article from 1997 titled “Aflamy Tamout” (My Films are Dying), which ends with Khan telling us that in his sleep he sees his films falling one after the other into the dark abyss of forgotten objects. He sees moments that he had lived with actors, writers and cinematographers all gradually disappearing without a trace.
In the same article, Khan writes about the challenges facing film archiving in Egypt. He writes (in Arabic, so this is my translation) that “at the end of the day the real challenge is in preserving the archived copy in conditions that would allow it to be screened long into the future in cultural events and festivals, whether local or international.”
Around the time Khan wrote this article, he had been invited as a guest of honor at a film event in Geneva. They had asked him for 10 of his films, but upon visiting the National Council on Cinema, where producers typically deposit Egyptian films, he discovered that the archived copies were in no condition to be screened at an international film event. When the Ministry of Culture refused to foot the bill for reprinting the films, Khan had to pay for it. But for each film to be reprinted and subtitled, he needed between LE10,000 and LE12,000. So he had to compromise and chose films that were already in good condition, films that were not his own, to screen at the event in Geneva.
When we lack proper archiving systems, active writing and publishing on cinema, films and the passionate people who make them may indeed fall out of our collective cinematic memory. The prospect of a director who has given so much of his life to cinema being forgotten is scary. Facing the possibility of his films being lost, Khan’s writing is a way of leaving a decipherable public trace that might save his films from being forgotten. Like ancient men and women who carved walls to ensure they were not forgotten, Khan writes in order to say across past, present and future that once he too was center of the universe.