It’s hard to watch the opening scene of Mohamed Khan’s Darbet Shams (Sunstroke, 1978) and not think of Jean-Luc Godard, especially his 1961 comedy Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman). The setting is pretty similar: a small, white-walled apartment filled with quirky objects and two young lovers engaged in light-hearted banter. We sense right from the start that despite the strong feelings they obviously share, they are not really on the same page.
The parallels between Khan and Godard don’t stop there. They were both pioneers in two groundbreaking movements that changed the film industries in Egypt and France, respectively. Egyptian neorealism and France’s Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) were founded on different aesthetic values, but both sought to change the way cinema was being made, and both were started by a group of young artists who, by bringing their unique perception of the world to their work, succeeded in doing just that.
Just like Une femme est une femme (Godard’s second feature, preceded only by Breathless in 1960) contained a lot of the stylistic elements that would later cement its director’s lasting influence on the history of film, in Sunstroke, Khan’s debut, one can easily see the defining qualities emerge and begin to take shape that would give his later works their unmatched stature in Egyptian cinema.
The film spans a few days in the life of Shams (Nour al-Sherif), a photographer who works for a newspaper, but who – driven by his passion for images and all they can reveal, as well as an almost child-like curiosity – often gets sidetracked, finding more stories in his pictures than those he is assigned to cover. It is that penchant for adventure that gets Shams and his girlfriend, Salwa (Noura) into trouble and sets the film’s events in motion, as one picture he takes at a wedding becomes a clue that leads him onto the trail of a band of criminals smuggling artifacts out of the country. This is when we realize that we’re not watching a freewheeling romance à la Une femme est une femme, but a thriller.
Although Khan never became a master of that particular genre, and despite the fact that the film, written by Fayez Ghali, is often found lacking, specifically in the flat portrayal of its “villains” and its poorly executed car chases and fight sequences, Sunstroke remains a remarkably significant achievement for several reasons.
It has often been referred to, along with Khairy Beshara’s Al-Awama 70 (Houseboat No. 70, 1982), as the work that started the neorealist wave. It also marks the real birth of one of Egypt’s richest and most prolific artistic duos, that of Khan and cinematographer Said Shimi. Although, being childhood friends who grew up dreaming about making movies, they had collaborated before on Khan’s short film Al-Batikha (The Watermelon) in 1972, it was with Sunstroke that they introduced neorealism’s most crucial characteristic on a large scale: they filmed all their exterior scenes – which make up the majority of the film – in real locations. For the first time Cairo – in all its devastating confusion – was the canvas upon which the action unfolded, and we could see the characters move from one familiar neighborhood to the next through jammed streets and ancient bridges and desolate highways and monstrous flyovers and deserted metro stations.
It’s also safe to consider Shams the first of Khan’s renegades — the unfortunate, unlikely heroes at the heart of his films, made unforgettable by their flaws and failures more than anything else. At the start, Shams’s interest in the smugglers is driven by mere curiosity and perhaps the desire for a scoop. But when his colleague, Fathi (Farouq Falawkas), is shot and killed by one of the gangsters, it becomes a personal quest for justice, and Shams in turn becomes a vigilante, reluctant to rely on the efforts of the police or to even coordinate with them, even though his close friend Murad (Hussien El-Sherbiny) is the chief commissioner on the case.
While Murad is a “good guy” in the classic sense, brave, conscientious and prudent, Shams is far from perfect: He’s impulsive, unfocused and cocky – but he has integrity. He is shocked when he discovers that Murad had intentionally sent him to that wedding in the beginning because he knew some of the gang members were going to be there and he needed Shams’s keen eye for hidden details. His friend had lied to him, putting duty before loyalty, and to Shams that is unforgivable. And so after their final confrontation, when we see him – tired and bruised – trudging with Salwa along the pedestrian walkway stretching above Tahrir Square on their way home, there is no triumph, but a sense of liberating defeat. He is battered, but he has done the right thing.
It’s the same with many of Khan’s later protagonists. When Hend and Camellia (1988) are robbed of every valuable thing they own, they end up laughing because they have the beautiful expanse of the sea, and their girl, Ahlam – they have their dreams. Even as she commits suicide and murder simultaneously in Mawaed Ala al-Ashaa (A Dinner Date, 1981), Nawal has the calm comfort of knowing she’s done what she had to do: she has freed herself. In Al-Harreef (The Artful, 1983), when he scores his final, breathless goal, Fares resignedly decides: “The time of playing has gone.” When Mona, the wife of an important man (1987), finally musters the courage to leave him, she brings forth unspeakable tragedy. Hayam’s promised dance in Fatat al-Masnaa (Factory Girl, 2014) – joyous and confident – actually comes from a place of pain.
Khan’s downtrodden characters are so captivating because, in the grey area where he’s planted them and allowed them to grow, there actually exists a multitude of colors, a vast array of possibilities. Their wins are often their losses, their victories invariably intertwined with their defeats. There are no absolutes, but a complexity that – like the city he so passionately brought to the screen – compels, confounds and relentlessly endures.
Such is the legacy of Mohamed Khan, and it started with Sunstroke.