Mohamed Khan: In your face, sadness

Writing a eulogy is one the most difficult things, especially for someone surrounded with as much love and appreciation as filmmaker Mohamed Khan.

Any blend of flattering words or reminders of good deeds collapse immediately into cold social compliments, while attempts to find in the departed’s legacy an inspiration for those still alive seems rather insensitive toward those in mourning.

Death is undoubtedly a tragedy, and there are so many tragedies in a country like Egypt, so used to sadness and addicted to it. Egypt’s tragedy forced bright-spirited Khan to obey that law, respect this sadness and look inside it for potential roles for his own passion for cinema, his fondness for love and his declared collusion with fantasy.

I think Khan’s relationship with sadness in his movies is one of the rarest and most responsible relationships in Egyptian art making. His choice to be the particular director he was and make the particular films he did seems derived from an underrated courage. I’m trying to be inspired by that courage in this article, and imagine how Khan would have received news of his own passing, and what ideas it would have given him about the world and the meaning of life.

In his book of collected articles, A Director on the Road (2015), Khan writes that, right before returning to Egypt from London in the late 1970s, he seriously considered starting an Egyptian fuul and taamiya restaurant that would have been the first of its kind in London. He wanted to open it with his friend, the famous Egyptian director Salah Abu Seif, and suggested calling it Al-Ousta Hassan after one of Abu Seif’s most successful movies. This restaurant would have been a beautiful tomb for Khan’s cinematic dreams after years of adventure and experimentation. When Khan felt his dream to become a director in Egypt was fading away, his response was like a big sad joke, a delicately cute reproach and a loving message to Egypt from a far-away land.

This is what Khan’s relationship with Egypt’s charming misery and illogical logic was always like. Maybe it’s that sweet spirit that dragged him back to Egypt’s lap after continuously shuttling between Egypt, London and Beirut, and maybe, because of that spirit, Egypt eventually blessed him with a career. Soon, actorNour al-Sherif would become excited about Khan’s story Sunstroke and decide to produce it, that cinematic explosion of 1978 that introduced Khan and his new cinematic language to a market thirsty for free voices. Unintentionally, or maybe through planning and a shared destiny, Khan became a major player in a young movement that changed Egyptian cinema forever.

Khan belonged to the Egyptian neorealism movement, alongside filmmakers like Atef al-Tayeb, Daoud Abdel Sayed and Khairy Beshara — those rebelling against the cinematic painkillers Egypt was swallowing every day: movies with bad fights, swimming pools and Lebanon’s mountains. Egyptian society was being forced then into an economic opening and a rushed cultural submission. But instead of swimming pools and fancy cars, the neorealists’ movies were full of taxis, buses, rickety government offices and low-income neighborhoods on the brink of disintegration. In short, everything people don’t really want to watch because their chances to escape it are very small. Each director had a trick to appeal to both audience and producers. And Khan’s trick was like him, nice and special.

After high school in Egypt, Khan spent the years of his youth, inspiration and education in 1960s London, swimming in diverse arts and cultures and liberated social movements, a world completely different from Egypt at that time. But he returned with open eyes, a sharp mind and feelings still burning, unaffected by London’s cold fog: It feels like he knew something was illogically unfair about this world, and he wanted to make films about it. Even though what fascinated him about cinema in the first place was its shining glamor and sparkling stars, Hollywood’s perfect wild fantasies (he bragged — he loved to — about how much he knew about its most popular and sometimes cheesy flicks), some courage inside him made it impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: Egypt is a very poor country where people endure endless sadness for reasons that are obvious to everyone. For an artist like Khan, whose senses seem to be in charge of his relationship with the world, this was impossible to ignore. And he had a plan to deal with the sadness.

Khan had productive habits and a strict discipline (perhaps this was London’s influence), which sometimes made him a source of stress for those who worked with him, but gave his work a level of professionalism that he and those he worked with could be proud of. Poor production values limited the prospects of neorealism — the external 16 mm shots made with available light that filled these directors’ movies all looked the same, and shooting costs made repeated takes difficult, meaning good performances weren’t guaranteed. Yet European aesthetics distinguished Khan’s classical yet modern compositions, the types of colors and forms that attracted him in Egypt’s streets and houses, and even the solutions he found for opening credits or music choices. Despite being deeply in love with very Egyptian characters and stories, he was never ashamed of his “foreign taste” — he actually invested in it and developed it (Adel Imam’s jeans in The Artful are an example). His relationship with Egypt narrowly escaped the self-exoticism or self-orientalism other Egyptian filmmakers fell into while trying to find a place for their work in between Egypt and the other.

Khan made movies about people constantly swinging between defeat and hope. There are always epic worlds of glory at the tips of his characters’ fingers, flirting with them and seducing them but then running away, floating around, coming back, escaping and returning. While Atef al-Tayeb was busy with Greek ethical dilemmas about righteousness and justice, Daoud Abdel-Sayed rapt in silent biblical philosophizing, and Khairy Beshara on an experimental quest to find a connection between western surrealist language and Egypt’s surreal reality, we can say — with a reckless summary — that Mohamed Khan was indulging in the sensations of life, of being alive and how that feels. He was loyal to the way things tasted and to people’s feelings, and he utilized every possible way in which a camera and minimal equipment could help recreate them on screen.

His protagonists’ struggle toward achieving these rare moments of glory seems inspired by his own pursuit of almost impossible dreams, which he went after with a strange insistence, seemingly only fed by an enjoyment of life’s pleasures, which he was very good at, with loud laughs, biting jokes and a love of good food and good films.

Maybe Khan’s love of life and its joys is what gave him this confidence to dive into Egyptian sadness with no sense of alienation or difference. Maybe he felt that he and Camellia from Hend and Camellia’s Dreams shared the same appreciation for a good cup of tea, despite her poverty and lack of means, or that he shared with Souad Hosni and Hussein Fahmy in A Dinner Date the delight of moussaka, even if it’s dipped in jealous poison. Maybe he related to actor Ahmed Zaki’s deceased president and the character the three of them collectively created in Days of Sadat, with a blind self-love and a feverish desire to stay on top.

Making art is a dangerous experiment. Unifying with an artwork that might fail for so many reasons out of your control is a risk to your mental health. Many artists make a lot of effort to make sure their work doesn’t reveal the slightest hint of what’s going on inside their hearts, maybe because they’re embarrassed about it, or maybe because there’s nothing there. Many choose to make art that’s as flat as possible, about the most common and popular business ever — men punching each other or naked bodies shaking in front of the camera, or cheesy melodramas about poor people made without knowledge or care.

The police officer’s character in An Important Man’s Wife was inspired by a real police officer who punched Khan in the chest over a traffic dispute between them. The courage of recreating this human being’s persona and confronting him in a context entirely under Khan’s control is a very strong and perspicacious experiment. Khan redesigned the situation and turned the chessboard around to tell the officer and the audience: In the street the officer is king, but in the film I’m God, and I decide who lives, who dies, who’s happy and who is sad. Let’s see how the officer used his authority on the street, and how Khan used his authority in the movie. It’s obvious: One used his authority to ruin the other’s day. The other used his authority to make one of the best Egyptian movies ever made, and not out of bitterness or vengeance, but through vision, wisdom and a clear point of view.

Even though Egyptian governments refused him Egyptian citizenship until he was 71, Khan stayed in Egypt and made beautiful movies that confronted the scarecrows and poked them with confidence and curiosity. Khan gambled on cinema with all he had and did all it took to make it, and that’s hard. You can very easily, if you take the wrong turn or make the wrong choice, curse the passion that brought you to these moments of pain, hardship and depression that get harder as love gets deeper. Khan experimented with everything — directed for cinema, commercials and Ramadan soap opera shows, if necessary. He played with digital cameras, shorts, documentaries. And throughout all this his compass always pointed toward those with no voice, and he always kept his ability to compose films with a mixture of pain, deprivation, beauty, persistence and sensitivity.

Nobody wants to get old, and a lot of people with old minds and life stories are described as young-hearted as a compliment or an encouragement to biologically remain in a world running faster and faster than their capacity to cope. Until the last moment of his life, Khan was present, strongly and clearly, making films and looking for a new birth for himself with every film, grappling with reality with the tetchiness of a young man starting his life and not taking no for an answer.

Mohamed Khan will remain — at least for me — a director on the road, present as long as the road is present, a guide and inspiration and reminder that, despite the pain, confusion and temptation, the journey is totally worth it.


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