All through the history of Egyptian cinema, the majority of the narrative films have been inspired by the life of the working class and marginalised members of society. Many genres including melodrama and comedy dealt with the same subject matter, but it was the realist movement that focused on the working class most extensively, examining the suffering and passion, the terrors and dreams of the disinherited and the distressed.
Most film historians see Kamal Selim’s 1939 Al-Azima (The Will) as the first realist film. The movement took off in the 1950s and 1960s with directors like Salah Abu Seif, Tawfik Saleh, Kamal El-Sheikh and Youssef Chahine. In the 1980s, a new wave of realism by younger filmmakers – Mohamed Khan, Atef Al-Tayeb, Khairy Beshara and Daoud Abdel-Sayed – made a significant impact by taking the stories of the working class from the studios to real-life locations. They had studied cinema during the 1960s and 1970s and may have been influenced by the radical politics of the time, especially after the collapse of Nasserism and the start of the Sadat era. This movement was named by the late Samir Farid and other film critics as Egyptian Neorealism. Farid selected Beshara’s Al-Awwama Rakm 70 (Houseboat No.70, 1982) is the first such film.
The influence of the realist movement has persisted into the 21st century. Mohamed Khan’s daughter Nadine Khan’s work is one example of that. She graduated from the Higher Institute of Cinema in 2001, though it would take her 11 years to make her debut feature, Harag w’ Marag (Chaos, Disorder, 2012), in which she mixes in elements of the fantastical. The film deals with the daily life of a remote working class neighbourhood over a week, and its non-linear plot revolves around two young men who are in love with the same girl. Khan manages to present the ordinary activities of those people in such a way as to suggest dystopia.
In her second narrative feature, Khan adopts a different mixture of fantasy and realism. Abu Saddam premiered in the official competition of the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival, winning the best actor award (Mohamed Mamdouh). The title of the film is the name of the main character, a trailer truck driver whose character is revealed in the first scene when he is heard explaining to someone on the phone why he had a fight while delivering a cargo of wood. It wasn’t just the disrespectful attitude of one of the buyer’s assistants but a worker scratching his vehicle too...
The plot does not have a main theme around which the drama revolves. Khan and her co-screenwriter Mahmoud Ezzat use the structure of a road film with a number of incidents to gradually uncover layers of Abu Saddam’s personality on this first day of work after a years-long hiatus. Most of the scenes are shot in the truck’s cabin and the dialogue between the protagonist and his assistant Hassan (Ahmed Dash) reveals the reason he stopped driving: a fight with another driver in which he permanently scarred his opponent on the face, though it isn’t clear if her went to jail or was simply suspended from driving.
The script depicts a family crisis between Abu Saddam and his wife, with the tension rising when he refuses to let her leave the house to attend her cousin’s wedding. It is suggested that Abu Saddam suffers infertility or impotence when Hassan is told that, though he has a child’s picture next to the steering wheel, Abu Saddam doesn’t actually have children of his own. But this impression changes when, following the wedding, Abu Saddam is seen having sex in the truck with a belly dancer (Zeina Mansour), who is so dissatisfied they end up having a fight. Khan manages to communicate the idea that, though not impotent, Abu Saddam has an attitude problem or misconceptions about intimacy.
What is interesting in the structure of the script is the reluctance of the writers to include any action that might radically change the drama. Every time Hassan steals the money of the cargo from Abu Saddam, for example, he ends up changing his mind and putting it back. This adds a suspenseful flavour and makes the action more gripping.
Khan provides a coherent critique of popular notions of masculinity through showing the arrogant and the aggressive attitude of the protagonist and how it makes his life difficult. At the end of the film most dramatic lines collapse causing him to intentionally make a foolish accident. The scratch in the door of the truck that happened before the first scene of the film is used repeatedly, perhaps a direct symbol of Abu Saddam’s fragile masculinity. This is demonstrated at the end when he is seen touching it even though the truck has sustained far worse damage.
A trailer truck driver as the protagonist of this story is a clever choice. Khan beautifully and ironically shows how Abu Saddam controls this huge machine, perceiving other drivers from above. Likewise the name Abu Saddam, an oblique reference to Saddam Hussein who was himself a symbol of masculinity and patriarchal power – popular among both working class Egyptians whose family members worked in Iraq before the collapse of the regime in 2003 and fanatics of Arab nationlism.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.