Unfortunately, poverty remains the reality of the world. It has always existed. Indeed, whether to take middle ages or modern era with advanced technologies, there is still poverty. It is true this social issue may not be a popular theme in art. When people come home from hard work, they usually do not want to see poverty on their screens. For these reasons, movies and TV shows about rich people, their lifestyles, habits, and leisure are so popular. However, without portraying poverty, the art, including cinematography, would be very far from reality. In other words, it would be “dead” art. One may compare unrealistic art with the Latin language, which is still used in science and religion but totally useless in everyday life.
In the twentieth and the twenty first century, movies became more or less realistic. They give an insight into what people face in their everyday lives. Indeed, while watching the American movies, a spectator may find how an average American family struggles to pay loans or cover medical care costs. However, this essay is not about American films. This work is dedicated to Egyptian movies, which, unfortunately, are less known in the world, but it does not make them less meaningful. In this paper, the way poverty is portrayed in Egyptian movies will be explored.
Poverty Theme in Egyptian Cinema
Prior to exploring whether Egyptian films accurately portray poverty, it is necessary to examine the problem of poverty in the country. At all times, poverty has existed in all societies. Egypt is not an exception. As in other countries, poverty in this country existed a hundred years ago, and it still exists. Thus, for many centuries, beggars and the poor have been a part of the Egyptian urban landscape. Under the Roman rule, many people left their settlements to escape poverty and to find a better life (Ritner, 2008). However, Romans outlawed the flow of such migrants (Ritner, 2008). According to their logic, apparently, poor people should have stayed where they belonged. During the last century of the Fatimid State, poverty was also widespread. According to Sanders (2008), poverty was so extensive that it even affected the Fatimid family.
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At the very beginning of the twentieth century, Kamel Greiss wrote “In our cities, and especially in Cairo and Alexandria…the streets and public spaces are cluttered with the infirm, the crippled, children in rags, and the unemployed, all with the outstretched hands” (Ener, 2003). Today, one still can see beggars on the Cairo streets. However, beggars are not the only indication of poverty. Families with extremely low income, although not being beggars, are also poor. In Cairo, the majority of poor people inhabit informal settlements. As a rule, these settlements represent low-income shelters (EL-Gabalawi, 2010). The districts with such shelters represent slums. Very often dwellings in slums are built illegally (EL-Gabalawi, 2010). Slums usually appear on agricultural land or state owned land (EL-Gabalawi, 2010). There are also slums built on deteriorated historic core (EL-Gabalawi, 2010). Therefore, poverty remains one of the pressing issues in the Egyptian society. It is especially evident in the rural areas. Indeed, scholars mark that rural Egypt traditionally suffers from poverty (Muller-Mahn, 1998). In the last decades the situation only deteriorated (Muller-Mahn, 1998). One may logically assume that poverty, being one of the most important social problems, finds its reflection in the Egyptian art, including Egyptian movies.
Historically, poverty was not a major theme in Egyptian movies. Thus, in the pre – revolutionary era, during the Golden Age of the Egyptian cinema, movies were mainly musicals portraying romance. The popularity of romantic musical can be attributed by western influence, which became a major feature of the early Egyptian cinema. In general, before the revolution, political and pressing social issues were not demonstrated in movies due to then existing censorship established by the British government. After the revolution, censorship remained the same. However, its character was changed. In particular, the criticism of the Nasser’s regime was banned. In fact, the films of the Nasser’s era were often permeated by patriotic and nationalistic motives. The movies often adopted anti-western and anti-colonialism rhetoric. Another popular theme in the movie was history of Egypt with the emphasis on the distinguishing features of the Egyptian people. Politics also became one of the popular themes.
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At the first glance, it would be logical to assume that in the Nasser’s era, the theme of poverty should have gained more attention. However, poverty was a dumb reproach to the Nasser’s regime. Therefore, this theme was never a central one in the Egyptian movies of the Nasser’s era. At the same time, a poverty theme often served as a background to a central storyline. For instance, in Cairo Main Station (Bab al-hadid), created by Youssef Chanine and released in 1958, it was poverty which drove a young man from a rural area to a metropolis (Shafik, 2007). Although rural poverty is not depicted in details, the movie gives the idea that rural communities suffer from it. In this aspect, there is a reflection of reality. As it has been mentioned earlier, it is rural regions that are vastly hit by poverty. At the same time, the urban poverty is depicted quite accurately. The viewer may observe the main character living in the central station in a shabby old wagon (Shafik, 2007). However, again, poverty serves only as a background, while the main theme is love and crime. One of the more recent Chanine’s movies more accurately depicts poverty in Egyptian society. Thus, in 1992, Chanine produced a movie entitled Cairo… As Told by Chanine. This short movie depicts severe poverty and underdevelopment existing in the Egyptian society (Ginsberg & Lippard, 2010).
Despite then-existing censorship, there were some Egyptian movies, where poverty was depicted in detail. Thus, The Earth (another translation is The Land) directed by Chanine is considered to be one of few Egyptian films that addresses the problem of rural poverty (Ginsberg & Lippard, 2010). Perhaps, the reason why the film was able to pass through strict rules of censorship is that the action takes place at an unspecified point of time under a constitutional monarchy (Ginsberg & Lippard, 2010). In a word, it is clear that the movie does not depict the Nasser’s era. From this movie, one may learn how the loss of land impoverishes people not only economically, but also spiritually. A closer look at the movie’s theme shows that the message of the creator was a plea for an effective and fair land reform. The Earth depicts everyday life and hardships of an average Egyptian peasant (Wharton, 2009). From the movie one may learn the way Egyptian peasants speak and dress (Wharton, 2009). The movie gives an insight how, season by season, Egyptian peasants work hard to make their living (Wharton, 2009). They live together with their cows and chickens in dreadful conditions, but demonstrate dignity in such poverty (Wharton, 2009). The film also shows how important the land is for peasants. They are, indeed, closely attached to it. Such an attachment has mainly quasi-religious nature (Wharton, 2009). While there are motives of solidarity of community in this film, one may also feel pessimism regarding prospects for the social change (Wharton, 2009). The film also illustrates insecurity of peasants in Egypt. One of the storylines was an attempt of the aging villager to resist to tyrannical landlord (Wharton, 2009). Unfortunately, this villager was severely punished for this attempt (Wharton, 2009). One of the most striking scenes of the movie is when a sheriff rides a horse, to whose legs the body of the villager is tied (Wharton, 2009). The villager’s body is covered with blood, but he still clutches to the soil. Wharton (2009) assumes that “the clutching” symbolizes the importance of land for peasants: despite a horrifying condition, the villager cannot let the land go. At the same time, Wharton (2009) assumes that it may the land that clutches the peasant. The Earth is viewed as a very touching and powerful movie (Wharton, 2009). As it has been mentioned earlier, it was the first movie that showed the rural poverty in details. What is more important is that this movie was the first one that portrayed an Egyptian peasant, his life, hardships, and struggle in a realistic manner (Wharton, 2009).
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Poverty is often portrayed as an influential factor on the line of conduct of the main characters. Thus, in Cairo Main Station, it was a poverty that led a young man to the central station. Had not he come here, he would not meet the love of his life and do what he had done. Furthermore, in Shafika and Metwally (1978), poverty makes Shafika to become a prostitute (Ginsberg & Lippard, 2010). In this movie poverty is only the initial reason, the starting point for Shafika’s following destiny. The major theme of the movie is a slave trade. Shafika meets a rich businessman and eventually travels with him to London and Paris (Ginsberg & Lippard, 2010). Upon the return, she finds out that she is involved in a slave trade. At the end, Shafika is killed (Ginsberg & Lippard, 2010). The movie itself symbolizes the nation enslaved by colonizers. Poverty theme here is important indeed. However, it is only shown as a reason for engaging in bad practices.
In the 1980s, Egyptian movies became more focused on pressing social issues. Thus, in 1988 Mohamed Khan, a filmmaker closely associated with the New Realists, produced the movie entitled Dreams of Hind and Camelia, which shows the everyday life of female domestic servants, who suffer from abuse, rape and poverty (Ginsberg & Lippard, 2010). However, again, it is not the poverty that is the major theme of the movie, but the uneasy life of two women.
In the current decade Egyptian directors became more attentive to the issue of poverty. In 2002, the movie El Lemby presented a comic and satirical view on inhabitants of urban slums. The main character of the movie is a young man, a typical slum dweller, who struggles to find a job to earn his living (Karawya, 2009). The character, as well as the entire movie, is presented in a comic way (Karawya, 2009). Eventually, the young man overcomes the troubled situation (Karawya, 2009). El Lemby has become extremely popular as it was the biggest box office of the year (Karawya, 2009). The success of the movie began a new tradition in the Egyptian cinema, which is a comic and sarcastic portrayal of slum dwellers (Karawya, 2009). However, one should remember that the “El Lemby” movies are far from a real depiction of the poverty. The point is that poverty often comes with drama, rather than with entertainment. In this sense, the impression these kinds of movies give about poverty is delusional.
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However, the modern era of the Egyptian cinema is marked not only by comic and sarcastic movies about poverty. Thus, the 2007 movie Heen Maysara, directed by Khaled Yousseff, describes the miserable reality of poor people in Egypt. The movie depicts such phenomenon as ashwaiyyat. It is a term, which denotes informal (often illegal) housing communities that emerged in the 1970s as an urban expansion of Cairo (Karawya, 2009). This term is associated with the disorder, poverty and vulgarity of the slum inhabitants (Karawya, 2009). The screenwriter Nasser Abd Al Rahman examines the reality of life of people, who struggle to survive in the slums (Karawya, 2009). At the same time, as well as The Earth, the movie stresses upon the authentic features of slum characters. In particular, the manners and the language of slum inhabitants are depicted in a very realistic way. However, they are presented in a tragic rather than in a comic way (Karawya, 2009). One may feel that the movie is permeated by despair and pessimism. Indeed, the film gives an impression that moral obstruction and corruption are the distinguishing features of the slum communities (Karawya, 2009). Such a vision became a source of great criticism of the movie. Karawya (2009) explains that such a vision went “beyond the expectations of the majority of cinema audience in Egypt.” A well-known Egyptian cinema critic, Samir Farid, explained that for the middle-class Egyptians it was the entirely new experience to watch drama that took place in Cairo slums (Karawya, 2009). In other words, it was difficult for an average Egyptian spectator to take this kind of reality. The debate over the movie was so heated that even members of Egyptian parliament and representatives of academia discussed the possibility to ban the film (Karawya, 2009). In Heen Maysara, the ashwaiyyat theme is presented together with the matters that traditionally accompany poverty. Specifically, rape, incest, prostitution and promiscuity are depicted as daily reality of slum dwellers (Karawya, 2009). Throughout the movie, Youssef and Abd Al Rahman attempt to explain a complicated relationship between poverty and the humiliation, which the ashwaiyyat residents accept every day (Karawya, 2009). In this aspect, Heen Maysara differs greatly from The Earth. To recall, in The Earth, peasants, despite a striking poverty, manage to secure their dignity, while in Heen Maysara, there is no room for dignity but only for aspiration to survive. It is difficult to assess which kind of portrayal is more realistic. There is indeed a difference between rural and urban poverty. The two movies, The Earth and Heen Maysara, depict two different kinds of poverty: rural and urban ones respectively. One may assume that both movies present the reality of these kinds of poverty. In other words, The Earth realistically depicts rural poverty, while Heen Maysara presents a horrifying but realistic picture of the urban poverty. It is also logical to assume that Heen Maysara is more accurate in the depiction of poverty because unlike The Earth, here the authors were not tied up by the censorship of the Nasser regime.
Another important theme in Heen Maysara is the relationship between the ashwaiyyat residents and representatives of Egyptian security personnel. The film shows how Egyptian state officers encourage thuggee (Karawya, 2009). From Heen Maysara, one may learn that corrupted police officers and criminals are the united team. This team forms the entire structure of daily life in Egypt (Karawya, 2009). The authors show the interdependency between corrupted police officers and the ashwaiyyat inhabitants (Karawya, 2009). In particular, the authors illustrate how policemen and the dwellers share public space in slums according to a hierarchical position (Karawya, 2009). Needless to say, in such hierarchy, the policemen represent dominating power. One may feel that in such a portrayal the authors make reproach to police authority and accuse them of humiliating and suppressing the slum dwellers (Karawya, 2009).
For many years, poverty has never been a major theme in Egyptian movies. The pre-revolutionary period of the Egyptian cinema is characterized by overwhelming western influence. For this reason, pressing social issues were not popular. Instead, the Egyptian public enjoyed musicals with romantic stories. Ironically, but the Egyptian revolution did not depict poverty as one of the major themes. One may assume that the main reason for that is the censorship of the Nasser’s regime. However, it does not mean that the poverty theme was absolutely abandoned. The poverty often served as a background to the main storyline. Moreover, poverty was depicted as the driving force behind the destiny of the main characters. In the Nasser’s era, there were however exceptions, as far as the way of portraying poverty was concerned. Thus, in Chanine’s movie The Earth, the rural poverty is a major theme. Fortunately, in the last decades the poverty theme became more popular among Egyptian filmmakers. In particular, the 2000s are marked by increased attention to the poverty theme. The ways, in which poverty is depicted, vary greatly. Thus, the movies of the El Lemby kind describe poverty issues in a comic and sarcastic way. Such descriptions are far from reality as it does not show all the drama, which comes with poverty. However, the recent movie, Heen Maysara, presents many dramatic aspects of the issue. One may observe that in the course of time the Egyptian cinema becomes more and more realistic, so does the poverty theme. If such a trend continues, one may expect more accurate and realistic portrayal of poverty in Egyptian movies.
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