THE LAND (al-Ard) B+ Egypt (130 mi) 1969 d: Youssef Chahine If the land is thirsty we would irrigate it with our blood. It is our old vows and our responsibility to fill it with good. The land of our ancestors and the reason of our existence. We would sacrifice our lives to give the land a life. —recurring musical refrain written by Ali Ismail
With the Biblical historical costume drama SALADIN (1963) and this film, Chahine has returned to an old-fashioned style of filmmaking, with a recurring song sending a powerful message that assumes the role of the film’s narrator, as a wealthy class has exploited lower class workers throughout history, making this a blatant parable on the horrors of capitalism, authoritarianism, and fascism, as brute force reigns down on the peasantry, always protecting the interests of the wealthy. Once acclaimed in a nationwide critic’s poll as Egypt’s greatest film, this epic historical film examines the lives of small peasant villagers against the powerful interests of the landowners. Much like using brush strokes, the director paints a broad canvas in the small, intimate details in the lives of ordinary citizens, powerfully affecting, especially when we come to understand the historical implications that have played out through history. Considered a classic of socialist realism, this film is an adaptation of Marxist writer Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi’s 1953 novel Egyptian Earth published shortly after the abolition of the monarchy by Egypt’s 1952 revolution, giving voice to the defining struggles engulfing the nation. An authentic chronicle describing a rural Egyptian village’s struggle against the arbitrary injustice imposed on them by a repressive hierarchy of authority, set in the British colonized era of the 1930’s, a colonial presence in Egypt since 1882, the main plot concerns the unsuccessful attempts of a community of impoverished village farmers living on the Nile Delta to retain their access to water, drawing up a petition to stop their exploitation by major landowners and ensure the irrigation of their land, which is completely ignored, instead advancing the interests of a corrupt Mayor and a wealthy landowner, told by authorities that they can only irrigate their land a few days a month, several of the villagers are arrested for overwatering, having little choice, believing their corn and cotton crops would be destroyed otherwise. Although the outside threat originally seems to unite the villagers, divisions resurface, as individual interests supersede village solidarity, selling the others out, where the changing times literally bulldoze those left behind as collateral damage in the push to modernize, where the poor are always sacrificed to protect the lofty ambitions of the rich. The film premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970, offering a realistic portrayal of village life from the perspective of the villagers themselves, like an insider’s view, providing a series of episodes that not only reveal their way of life but also the escalating impact of the intrusion of an oppressive authority. After the Nationalist Revolution of 1952, there was a socialistic trend to express an open commitment to the poor and oppressed, which they did by highlighting the injustices and atrocities of earlier regimes, yet Chahine’s film was released on the eve of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death, just two years after the traumatic Six Days War defeat to Israel in 1967, and while it may have been designed to advocate humanistic values while also setting a tone for redefining Egyptian identity, it also carries an eye-opening pessimistic streak that may accentuate the profound failure of Nasserist ideology, with any prospects for real social change fading from view. Unfortunately, many of the problems that existed in pre-1952 rural society in Egypt still exist today. What’s significant about this film is that what happens here is a formula repeated in countries around the world, as modernization pushes out locals and cultural norms, including smaller markets, replaced with something altogether new and different, but not necessarily better. When Walmart or big box warehouse suppliers come to your neighborhood, it replaces smaller stores that have sometimes been in the family for generations, but can’t compete with the large inventory of these colossal warehouses, which allows them to undercut all other rivals, basically putting them out of business. This film introduces a much more basic economic tradition, something ingrained in the culture for centuries, but the law and the police always side with the wealthy class, putting smaller, marginal economic models out of existence.
Perhaps the central premise of both the book and the film is man’s love affair attachment to the land he works, where the work in the fields defines a man’s existence, producing food for his family and community, viewed as an integral part of their collective survival, which also includes adequate water distribution from the nearby Nile River, which one would think is a vast and reliable resource, yet the water management favors the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The central figure is Mohamed Abu Swelam (Mahmoud el-Meliguy), a man defined by his family and work, the most respected of the Fellah, who has remained on the land while his two former comrades in the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 have risen to prominent societal positions and now carry the honorary title Sheikh, including Sheikh Hassuna (Yehia Chahine), an honorable religious figure whose son Mohammad Effendi (Hamdy Ahmed) is the local school teacher, and Sheik Yusuf, a greedy, village merchant. There are secondary characters that figure prominently, including Abu Swelam’s attractive daughter Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim), who seemingly has to choose between her cousin Abd El-Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili), a penniless yet headstrong farmer who is seemingly a younger version of her father and Mohammad Effendi, an uncharacteristically weak and naïve but educated young man who represents the possibility of economic progress, while one of her best friends is Khadra (Tewfik El Dekn), a landless orphan who ends up bartering sex for food. One curious aspect of the film is an introductory return home visit from a 12-year old student who was been away at school in Cairo for the last few years, serving as a kind of narrator, perhaps a stand-in for the author himself, helping viewers become familiar with the various village characters, but then just as quickly disappears, not to be heard from again, where you think he may have aged and developed into one of the prominent characters, but that is not the case. A similar device was used in the novel, with the child’s narration returning again at the end, which can get confusing, so this carry-over into the movie doesn’t really work, as he’s never really integrated into the storyline. Instead the interests of the fellah are highlighted from the outset, as an unscrupulous Pasha, Mahmoud Bey (Ashraf El Selehdar), an aristocratic remnant of the Ottoman days wants to build a palace, but to do so requires inflicting pain upon the villagers, so he cuts their irrigation days from 10 days per month to five, creating chaos and division among the villagers, each wanting to water their own respective plots of land, sending in soldiers to arrest offenders, where the more prominent fellah are imprisoned and tortured, where the worst offense is to call them women as they are subject to Waterboarding, while cutting off the moustache of Abu Swelam, making sure they are thoroughly emasculated and humiliated. This allows the Pasha to confiscate land to build a road that leads to his mansion. These acts of corruption reveal the system of the fellah for what it is, as they are viewed as subhuman, so if they suffer or go hungry it does not deter the actions of the wealthy class, whose primary goal is to enrich themselves, sending in a Camel Corps of armed soldiers to quell any rebellion amongst their ranks, enforcing a curfew where villagers aren’t allowed to leave their homes. But Chahine humanizes these soldiers, as they themselves were driven from their land with the building of the Aswan Low Dam, which was designed to prevent flooding and access hydroelectric power in order to provide for the greater good.
While overly melodramatic to the core, though not without caricatures, there are scenes of song and dance at a wedding and an erotic scene of Khadra bathing in the river that quickly turns ugly, shot on 35mm by Abdelhalim Nasr in color, there are also striking uses of tracking shots, frames-in-frames, with plenty of deep focus shots as well, yet perhaps most memorable is a scene of dust blowing through an empty village, a scene shrouded in smoke and betrayal, as if Hell on earth was being depicted. Mostly, however, this is an ensemble work revolving around the interplay between the villagers, who stand in stark contrast to the wealthy class, as they offer a welcoming generosity, easily sharing what little they have, and provide a warming communal spirit. While they bicker and fight among themselves, they also embrace and easily forgive. When the captain of the Camel Corps takes offense by a stinging rebuke of their mission, reminding Abu Swelam that he should not speak this way to a guest, Abu Swelam answers, “If you were a guest, I’d welcome you with open arms. You came to beat us.” In an earlier scene with the villagers fighting over the scarcity of the water, actually coming to blows, they are diverted by another emergency, as a cow has fallen into a water wheel, mirroring a scene in Dariush Mehrjui’s Iranian film THE COW (1969) released the same year. The men put their individual quarrels aside and work together to solve an immediate problem, displaying cooperation in a collective effort, each embracing the other afterwards in a spirit of brotherhood. This collective spirit of unity is the heart of the film, a metaphor for nationalist, pan-Arab cooperation during the Nasser era. The history of colonialism in the Arab world is rooted in the economic and political exploitation of resources, exactly as depicted in the film, where a simple rural village is taken over in a power grab that protects the interests of the wealthy class. In what is arguably the most passionate scene in the film, Abu Swelam reminds both old friends, Sheikh Hassuna and Sheik Yusuf, who fought together in WWI and the 1919 uprising, that there is a difference between then and now, claiming they once stood up like men, sharing a common interest, fighting side-by-side in a spirit of patriotism, but now everyone is out for themselves. Sheikh Hassuna is moved enough to embrace him, renewing his friendship and solidarity with the village, but in the very next scene he betrays them. When the government workers arrive to build a road, Sheik Yusuf, who owns the only shop in the village, decides it’s in his interest to withhold goods to local villagers, as he can sell his goods to the government workers for a higher profit. Sheikh Hassuna initially stands up for Abu Swelam, but when the Pasha threatens to build a road through his land instead, he quickly betrays not only his old friend, but the entire village, an example of the moral hypocrisy of religious clerics. It’s important to point out that in a nation that suffers from over 70% illiteracy, 60% of Egyptians belong to the fellah, making this the first time they’ve ever received a realistic portrayal in Egyptian cinema history, so this story has personal ramifications. The finale is a crushing blow, as the villagers are working collectively to harvest what they can from the crops before the builders arrive, but the arrival of an armed cavalry police dampens their spirits, destroying the land, reducing it to dirt, while those that stand in the way, like Abu Swelam, are tied-up with a rope connected to a horse, his feet bound, and dragged through the dirt in a bloody and murderous example of the price paid for progress.