Based on Tharwat Abaza’s 1967 novel A Taste of Fear, Hussein Kamal’s 1969 film of the same name is a timeless story of state brutality, political corruption and the collective fear that results. Timelessness aside, it also has temporal specificity: The film came out two years after the 1967 military defeat, which deeply transformed Arab polities and societies.
In Egypt, the Six Day War — locally and regionally referred to as the Naksa or setback, where Egypt, Syria and Palestine lost parts of their lands to Israel — interrupted the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had reigned for over a decade with the gift of decolonization and the promise to create an independent and modern nation state. In its first post-colonial imaginations in the early 1950s, that nation state was built on principles of social justice, gender equality and actively belonging to a wider regional context that is the Arab world. But the efforts to construct it coincided with the rise of a ruthless security apparatus that silenced dissent through imprisonment and torture, and that actively engineered state narratives into the media and public opinion. The nationalization of Egyptian cinema in the 1950s was just one example of how state-engineered narratives were able to permeate diverse forms of artistic production to further Nasser’s vision of the new nation state.
But 1967 disrupted all of that: The defeat sanctioned a collective sense of disappointment in the Nasserist project that had been mediated by the state and related to by society as a dream — one that still lingers.
A Taste of Fear belongs to that political and cinematic moment. It also belongs to a more limited subversive movement: one of cinematic productions crafted around themes of dictatorship, tyranny and revolution through stories set in the Egyptian countryside, that same countryside championed by Nasser in his socialist reforms. These were highly directed political works expressing disgruntlement at a surrounding reality, but they were also cinematic experiments with how the form can deliver such politically loaded messages, at least through its aesthetic license. Youssef Chahine‘s The Land (1970) and Salah Abu Seif‘s The Second Wife (1967) are examples. According to media coverage of the time, A Taste of Fear was initially banned by Egypt’s censorship authority, which read it as a depiction of Nasser’s rule in Egypt, but after Nasser watched it, despite being busy with the post-defeat crisis management, he allowed it to be screened, saying that if he was the protagonist then he would deserve such a nasty end.
From the title credits, written out on a wall accompanied with powerful charcoal illustrations of rural citizens with eyes downcast, we begin to learn the story of the Dahashna village through song. The score is one of the most remarkable elements of Kamal’s film, written by recently departed iconic poet Abdel-Rahman al-Abnoudy (who also wrote the film’s dialogue) and composed by Baligh Hamdy (another icon in his own right) – and almost makes it a musical.
Throughout the first act powerful songs continue introduce us to the characters: the grandfather (played by a skillful and understated Mahmoud Morsy), a typically nightmarish villain whose grandson Atris is a quiet kind boy who has a pet dove. We learn early on that Atris is in love with Fouada, a courageous and intelligent girl from the village. The grandfather is insistent on toughening Atris up to continue his legacy as village ruler. “If you’re not a hawk, they will eat you alive,” he tells Atris intensely in a close-up shot after slaughtering the dove. “They will close in on you like wolves. I want you a monster. I want to rule Dahashna through you after I die.”
Years go by and we meet adult versions of Atris (also played by Morsy) and Fouada (singer Shadia in one of her most memorable acting performances). Although still part of his grandfather’s inner circle he has not yet been corrupted, and Fouada tells him that the moment he becomes a killer will be the moment they have to separate. And of course that moment comes: after his grandfather’s murder, Atris becomes the village thug and rules even more wrathfully.
Two famous scenes mark A Taste of Fear. They are usually remembered for their powerful political message, but it is no doubt their lyrical, cinematic delivery that has made them unforgettable. (Note: the following two paragraphs contain spoilers.)
Unlike the rest of the village, Fouada stands up to Atris and his gang and encourages others to do the same. In one scene, all the villagers sit around in despair after Atris’s men have dried up the village stream, and Fouada takes control of the water pump in a powerfully edited rhythmic sequence in which accelerating instrumental music is matched with with carefully constructed shots of the villagers celebrating while water stream slowly steeps into the cracked land and machinery is re-activated. (Like the whole film, this is seen in stark black and white, and the shadows in between, despite the possibility of producing in color.) This scene, centered around Fouada, would become one of the most authentic nods to Egypt’s feminist movement and its traces in cinema, an industry tarnished alternately by empty feminist rhetoric or complete misogyny.
Another of the most enthralling scenes in Egyptian cinema history comes when villagers gather to depose Atris after he forcibly marries Fouada. The chant “Atris’s marriage to Fouada is void” sung over and over again, tied with dramatic choral music, has become an iconic and transcendent line, underlining the power of the people’s lyrical nullification of a reality they disapprove of. In A Taste of Fear’s pervasive spirit of metaphor, Atris is a symbol of authority and Fouada is a symbol of Egypt. Their marriage is deemed illegitimate by the people.
A Taste of Fear is a document in which the post-1967 sentiment is delivered by unusual suspects: an affluent anti-Nasser author whose family paid the price of the leader’s anti-feudal policies (yet who proves able to authoritatively depict a triumphant village life), a commercial director who would soon make it to the box office (and manage to retain some experimental aesthetics in his filmmaking), and a lyricist who turned screenwriter upon being asked to write songs for a film he felt he needed to be the ultimate poet for.