The UCLA Film and Television Archive's rich and comprehensive 21-feature "CineArabic," opening Thursday and running through April 22 in Melnitz Hall's James Bridges Theater, is the archive's first such survey in seven years. Spanning nearly 60 years and seven countries, it opens with six outstanding films, commencing with Kamil Selim's 1939 "Determination," which screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and will be followed be Salah Abou Seif's "The Beginning and the End" (1960).
They are virtually companion films, both centering on a handsome, intelligent young man living with his family in a bustling working-class Cairo neighborhood and struggling to get ahead.
In "Determination," the film that introduced realism to the Egyptian cinema, Mohamed (Hussein Sidqi) has just received his university degree in business administration and dares to set his sights above the usual low-paying civil service jobs by persuading the rich father of a playboy classmate to back the two of them as partners in an import-export business. Not surprisingly, setbacks develop, allowing Selim to comment on the widespread government corruption and high unemployment rate at the time, issues that remain timeless and universal.
Although Selim draws upon elements of melodrama in "Determination"--poised as it is between the past and present, the Mideast and the West in its views and lifestyles--he is never preachy, always entertaining and highly expressive.
Only 26 when he made "Determination," which gradually changed the course of the Egyptian cinema, Selim was killed in a 1945 car accident, a tragic loss to film.
If Mohamed and his family confront dire circumstances yet persist, Omar Sharif's youngest of three brothers and his family face a seemingly irreversible downward spiral from middle-class respectability in "The Beginning and the End." Directed with much compassion by Abou Seif, Selim's assistant on "Determination," and based on a novel by the distinguished Naguib Mahfouz, the film begins with the family's grim realization that government red tape is going to hold up indefinitely its recently deceased father's pension for his widow, leaving her and her children struggling to scrape enough together to send her youngest son to military college. This is a film as beautiful as it is stark.
Screened in UCLA's 1990 series, Youssef Chahine's powerful, neo-realist-style 1958 "Cairo Station" (Saturday at 7:30 p.m.) casts Chahine as an ill-fated Chaplinesque news vendor at Cairo's main train station.
Ferid Boughedir's warm, sensual and witty "Halfaouine--Boy of the Terraces," which played at the Nuart in 1995, is one of the most exquisitely told coming-of-age tales imaginable (Saturday following "Cairo Station"). Boughedir's graceful, supple style expresses his affection for the ancient Halfaouine quarter of Tunis and, above all, his love for women. One of the Arab world's leading film critics, Boughedir, in his feature debut, celebrates the beauty, dignity and eternal mystery of women. In doing so he cannot but remind us of how all too rare this view surfaces in contemporary world cinema. His handsome, talented 13-year-old nephew, Selim Boughedir, stars.
Shadi Abdul-Salam's unique 1969 "The Night of Counting the Years" (Sunday at 7 p.m.) is an astonishing, demanding work of much austere beauty and tense, shadowy ambiguity that was inspired by an actual incident that occurred in Thebes in 1881. In Cairo, government authorities at the Department of Antiquities are confounded by the occasional appearance on Thebes' antique black market of funerary objects bearing the names of 21st Dynasty royalty--because no tombs of that era had ever been discovered. Meanwhile, the chief of a powerful mountain tribe dies, but not before passing on the secret that long ago his people had located those tombs and plundered them in times of need.
From this point "Night" evolves into a stark psychological thriller, culminating in tragedy, in which Abdul-Salam makes inspired use of the camera in telling his story and in creating the film's all-important portentous mood.
Emerging as the central figure in the drama is the chief's younger son (Ahmad Marei), a handsome, uncertain youth horrified at learning the tribal secret. "Night" unfolds amid vast, maze-like ruins in which people meet, part and spy upon each other with an air of great suspense and secrecy. In taking this clandestine approach, Abdul-Salam evokes a sense of awe and mystery at the glories of Egypt's ancient past, and he also laments what his hero's resolution of his crisis signifies for his people's equally ancient way of life.
Playing with "Night" is Chahine's 1968 "The Land," which recently was voted by Egyptian film critics as the best Egyptian picture of all time. An example of the agrarian epic tragedy at its most eloquent and stirring, it is easy to see why it received its unique honor.
"He who has no land has no honor," says the patriarch of a village of cotton growers in the 1920s who are faced first with a government cutback on their crucial water supply and finally the confiscation of their land for a railroad and a highway--all in the name of a progress that ruthlessly excludes them. The remark, "What's the difference between our government and the British? It's six to half-dozen of the other," pinpoints the film's overwhelming appeal to national pride and independence.
"The Land" is a major work from Egypt's most internationally renowned filmmaker, best known for his irresistible autobiographical "Alexandria Trilogy."