In September 2006, to celebrate its twenty-fifth issue, “Good News Cinema” decided to put together a special file about the most important 125 films in the history of Egyptian cinema. The writer of these lines, then a managing editor at the magazine, was in charge of deciding how films were to be chosen and ranked, in such a way that the final result would represent the collective opinion of the critics and editors working in the magazine.
After distributing forms, getting them filled in, calculating points and organizing the results, which took more than two weeks, the whole crew was surprised by the result, confused even. Al-Horoub (The Escape) came first place, as the most important movie in Egypt’s cinematic history, way ahead of all the classics we’re used to finding top lists of that sort.
Shown in cinemas in 1991, The Escape seems to be an exceptional moment in the career of its now departed director. Good directors tend to have specific elements and traits in their works, some aesthetic (shooting angles, frame composition, actors’ movements, the nature of the soundtrack, or the storytelling style) and some related to subject matter and ideas. Examining a director’s hallmarks requires a close look at all of their works. You usually spot a feature in one or two films that disappears in a couple of other films in order for another feature to shine, so it’s very rare to encounter a movie that reflects, clearly and maturely, all the characteristics of its director. The Escape is one rare such case. It is the essence of Atef al-Tayeb’s cinema.
In terms of topics and content, Tayeb had two main obsessions. Firstly, the social reality of Egypt’s middle class at the time, with an emphasis on the state of social alienation that signals the absence of collective values that are meant to protect individuals and support them in their ordeals, such as the values of family and friendship. Secondly, the brutality of the political authority and the extent to which it oppresses average citizens – Tayeb tries to plant a seed of rebellion in his audience and incite them to resist and change.
In all of Tayeb’s works, prior to and after The Escape, showing one of these two main concerns was enough for the other to step backwards. We find that his realistic social formula dominates movies such as The Bus Driver (1983), Love over the Pyramid Plateau (1984), Gabr al-Khawatir (1998) and Blood on the Asphalt (1992). There are obvious political messages in these movies, but they are always in the background. But when he puts his political preoccupation first, and heightens his anti-authority discourse, he abandons his favorite template of realism to drift towards symbolic epics. He does this in The Whistle-blower (1985), The Innocent (1986), The Unveiling (1994) and even in Nagui al-Ali (1991). Only The Escape shows Tayeb’s two preoccupations with equal levels of clarity and influence.
The script, written by Mustafa Muharram in its early stages, then developed and reformulated by Bashir al-Deek (unofficially, unfortunately – you will not find his name on the credits), tells the story of Montasir, played by Ahmad Zaki in one of his usual brilliant performances. Montasir works for a company that sends people to work abroad, even though he knows that the contracts his company sells to its unsuspecting customers are mostly deceptive. He overlooks that, finding excuses for himself. Then one day the company’s owner plays these tricks on Montasir’s own village’s relatives. He feels ashamed, refuses to cooperate, and gets framed in a drug case by his partner. After getting out of prison he seeks revenge. Things snowball and he turns into a public hero: surprisingly, the state is facilitating his escape to use him as a distraction from its corruption.
Montasir here is a typical Egyptian everyman, an upper Egyptian who immigrated to Cairo, with a modest education, modest intelligence, married to a Cairene cousin. He’s not honest to the end of the line, he has enough flexibility for minor ethical compromises as long as they don’t touch his honor, or his close relatives, and as long as they bring him the extra income that he needs. Tayeb deliberately highlights the date: he intends to talk about Egypt’s reality at the specific time the movie was made, and to emphasize this he gives us a long obvious shot of the hero in his cell with a 1990 calendar on the wall.
The events and characters are realistic and explicitly connected to the social circumstances that produced them. Yet the main struggle seems to be entirely political. The tyrannical government is against a citizen, manipulating him into deceiving everyone else and controlling them, until it gets bored of the game. When it feels the string is about to snap away from its fingers, it is immediately ready to fill his body and that of whoever defends him with lethal bullets. The movie does not show government officials as one homogenous type, but as fitting into a gradient of brutality and abuse. Some of them even object. The meanest of them all is an officer who has just returned from America, having received special training on using the media to benefit the government.
Through these ingredients, we see how mixed and blended the political and social realities are, confirming this movie to be perfectly reflective of Tayeb’s ideas.
Artistically, The Escape also seems to best express his style. The film’s dramatic adaptation consists of a classical beginning, middle and end – Tayeb’s favorite dramatic structure, which he abandoned only in very few of his many works.
Tayeb’s philosophy is also evident in the casting. He wasn’t a big fan of surprising audiences with new faces in important roles. Indeed, he always tried to assemble as many familiar faces as possible, and used high-caliber performers for the supporting roles as well. Stars as big as Abu Bakr Ezzat, Hassan Hosni, Abdel-Aziz Makhyoun, Zouzou Nabil, Hala Sedky and Mohamed Wafiq all rallied, making it impossible to escape captivating, sophisticated performance throughout the film. Cleverly, Tayeb assigned very accomplished actors to completely unexpected roles. Wafiq is thus foxy and harsh, Ezzat strict and naive, Hala a z-list defeated belly dancer, and Zouzou a grieving, dignified Upper Egyptian mother.
We also see how much Tayeb took pains to make sure the film’s editing serves the audience, feeding us with what satisfies our curiosity, rather than what the he wants us to see. This means, for example, that when we want to see the reaction on the arrogant officer’s face after the hero escapes, we see it right away, with no delay. And when the good cop is staring at the top of a fruit warehouse, the film does not keep us from knowing what he can see, the next cut reveals the sight. When a firearm is being handed to the hero inside the courtroom so he can escape, the director does not deprive you of a close shot of his hand grasping the gun and hiding it in his clothes. This does not make Tayeb’s cinema beautiful and complete artistically so much as make it warm, intimate and honest, a crucial flavor of all his movies.
Perhaps not many people will agree with the eight-year-old finding of “Good News Cinema,” that The Escape is the most important movie in the history of Egyptian cinema. (Actually, the film wasn’t even among the top five in any of the lists compiled by any of the editors who contributed to the file.) Regardless, it is an exceptional work by an exceptional director.