Oil and Sand


In Search of Oil and Sand Trailer (French subtitles) from wael sayedalahl on Vimeo.


Issandr and I recently had the pleasure of watching the documentary In Search of Oil and Sand. This is an extremely personal, suprising and charming glimpse of Egyptian history. Narrator Mahmoud Sabit -- a neighbor of ours here in Garden City in Cairo, who lives in an astonishing crumbling old villa that belonged to his family -- is the son of a cousin and chief of protocoal for Egypt's last king. 

In the weeks before the 1952 Officer's Coup, his father and many of the other young glam royals were running around making a movie they'd written and cast themselves in ("Oil and Sand") about...a coup d'etat in an unnamed Arab country. The movie also featured actual US and UK Embassy officers (and likely intelligence operatives) playing the part of...American and Brittish spy-masters. 

The actual film was destroyed after the coup, but Sabet found the black and white rushes. This "royal home movie," as the trailer calls it, gives a sense of the (incredibly glamorous, perhaps heedless) lifestyle of the Cairo elite just before the revolution. When the faces of the Free Officers appear on camera towards the end of the movie, you understand how much they are coming from a completley different world. 

You don't have to be nostalgic for the monarchy -- or to agree with Sabet's argument that the US, in supporting the Free Officers, ushered in authoritarianism -- to find the film fascinating.  

Most of the people in the movie lost everything and were treated with what seems like remarkable pettiness by the Nasser regime. What's saddening aren't such personal losses and upheavals, but how little was gained from them. It's striking -- knowing what we know now -- to hear General Mohammed Naguib declare that the 1952 Revolution's goal is to "end corruption" in Egypt.

In a country whose modern history has been clumsily papered over and cordoned off, and that has yet to deal with the legacy of the Nasser regime (let alone the Mubarak one), this is a beautifiully shot and edited, modest but lyrical, act of historical recovery. 

Tahrir, the movie

At Ferrara's international journalism festival (put on by the excellent Italian paper Internazionale) I saw the film Tahrir this afternoon. I was afraid it might be too familiar, or sentimental, or iconographic, but it was lovely. Italian film-maker Stefano Savona spent days in Tahrir Square and got some amazing footage. Here for example is a clip of the protesters fighting to defend the square from pro-Mubarak thugs:

And here is a completely different side of Tahrir: the funny, moving, poeting chants that inspired protesters came up with on the spot:

What's just as interesting are the long conversations between the young Egyptias the film-maker followed around the square, discussing (with remarkably clarity and insight) all the questions and difficulties of the coming transitional period. It was quite emotional for me to watch this film, at this moment, when the revolution's promises are so far from realized and when the aims and sacrifices of those involved in it have been (despite official lip service paid to the "glorious revolution") distorted and disparaged by the army, the security services, former regime elements and a disturbing number of media outlets. It's a good reminder of all the outrage, courage, and optimism on display during those 18 days, and of their continued potential. The film is playing in New York on October 2 and 4. And I really hope it will be showing in Egypt soon.