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A Talky Sadat Movie Proves Boffo in Egypt

Culture: Makers of the film about the slain president considered putting off its release during the intifada. They needn't have worried.

August 25, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Every few weeks, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat makes a desperate appeal at the offices of the Arab League here for help with his people's struggle against Israel. And every few weeks, he leaves empty-handed.

"One cannot expect miracles," Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Shaath told reporters on a visit here this week. "But let me say, there are practical, positive decisions that can be implemented."

Although there are many reasons for Arab leaders' lukewarm support of Arafat, the sentiment among Egyptians is clear: If there is one thing this society holds nearer to its heart than the Palestinian fight, it is peace at home.

That reality, embedded deep in Egypt's psyche, is reflected in a blockbuster movie that has defied box-office expectations with its celebration of the late President Anwar Sadat.

"Days of Sadat," in its sixth week at theaters around Egypt, is a three-hour epic that tries to get inside the complicated world of the first Arab leader to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

The producers considered delaying the movie's release because of the 11-month-old Palestinian intifada, fearing that anti-Israeli sentiment would keep people away. But there appears to be as much public support for Sadat's peace efforts today as there was in November 1977, when he took the dramatic first step with a speech before Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

"The movie shows what I always believed: that Sadat's policy for peace had solid support from ordinary Egyptians. Those who opposed him were anti-peace then and now," said Abdel Monem Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "There is support for Palestinians, but not the kind of support that will lead to going to war for them."

The movie is mostly talk. Sadat--or, rather, the actor who plays him--sits at a table. He walks on a lawn. He sits in a conference room. He smokes his pipe, at a table, in a conference room. The only drama comes in snippets of grainy black-and-white archival footage with images of riots, warplanes and such historical figures as late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

And yet this film has attracted large audiences of mostly young people, some of whom weren't even alive when Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and taken in an estimated $3 million in ticket sales--twice what it cost to produce.

The docudrama has generated its share of controversy as well. There has been widespread talk of its being a cinematic whitewash that lets Sadat explain away all his most controversial decisions, including a 1981 mass arrest of dissidents and opposition figures.

It also gives a nod to current realities by allowing Sadat to appear deeply committed to the idea of a Palestinian homeland and the preservation of East Jerusalem for Arabs.

"The film tried to be biased and failed, or tried to be objective and was unable to. It wooed all parties and then made all parties angry," columnist Ali abu Shadi wrote in the regional newspaper Asharq al Awsat.

The production has also inspired a few chuckles. At a tense moment, Sadat announces: "I want to tell you one of the most important decisions I have made in my life. I have chosen a vice president, Hosni Mubarak."

Mubarak, now president, liked the film so much that he awarded six members of the cast and production crew medals of recognition. And director Mohammed Khan, 59, who has lived most of his life in Egypt but was long denied an Egyptian passport because his father was from what is now Pakistan, says he was finally granted citizenship.

Khan, a veteran filmmaker, says the script is based on the memoirs of Sadat and his wife and that while he wanted it to be accurate, the story is told from Sadat's perspective. Khan is unapologetic about the positive spin, although he says he would have liked to include more about Sadat's personal life.

"The film talks with the tongue of Sadat," he said. "The success of this film is it didn't twist arms."

The movie opens in 1970, at the time of the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian president who helped lead the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy. It then flashes back to Sadat's peasant childhood and early life as a young revolutionary.

Its depiction of those early years includes a period when Sadat worked as a spy for the Germans to undermine the colonial British. It covers his time as a founding member of the Free Officers--the group that plotted the revolution. And it touches on his decision, as president, to liberalize the economy, which prompted riots at the time and is today blamed for widespread corruption and a huge gap between rich and poor.

It also tells of his dispatching troops across the Suez Canal in 1973 in an effort to recapture the Sinai, which had been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War. The move was hugely popular with Egyptians, whose pride was restored when Israel initially withdrew.

When it comes to peace with Israel, the film offers Sadat opportunity to explain himself over and over again. At one point, he promises that once the Sinai is completely recovered, he will get right to work on the issue of a Palestinian state.

Speaking to his wife, Sadat, played by Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki, says he has a moral obligation to do what he can to spare future generations from bloodshed.

This cinematic revelation is followed by his historic speech in Israel, which opened the door to Camp David, the return of the Sinai to Egypt and a Nobel Peace Prize.

On Oct. 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants at a military parade.

"I believe he did the right thing," said Mohammed Wafa, 38, an Egyptian who recently saw the movie. "We can't stay fighting all our lives. He was concerned about his country and his people."

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