Tuesday, November 19, 2013

FI: Cairo Station / Bab el hadid

Cairo Station (aka The Iron Gate) / Bab el hadid
Egypt, 1958
Directed by Youssef Chahine

Mark Cousins, in his The Story of Film: An Odyssey, calls Cairo Station "the first great African film." While I don't have enough context to back up or contradict Cousins's claim, Cairo Station is a vehicle by which the lie can be put to the convenient western narrative of filmic sophistication. Youssef Chahine's film is a dark melodrama with shades of European style—here a touch of noir, there an impression of neorealism—that is, nonetheless, uniquely of its time and place. The issues it deals with include workers' rights, sexual repression, discrimination against the handicapped, and the different expectations placed on men and women, all issues that European cinema has dealt with as well. But this is the first time we've seen these issues through the filter of an Arabic-speaking, secular Islamic society, and the traditions and values that enforce that particular status quo.

The film is set entirely at Cairo's main railroad station, where we meet a crew of people who depend on the station for their livelihood. The news agent Madbouli, who also serves as narrator, takes pity and hires a young man named Qinawi (Chahine himself), whose bad leg has forced him to beg. Qinawi's condition isolates him, leading to a secret obsession with women that culminates in a delusional "relationship" with the beautiful drinks seller Hannouma (Hind Rostom). She alternately views his advances as funny, flattering, and annoying, but largely focuses on her impending wedding to the dashing porter Abou Saria (Farid Chawki), who wants to take her away from her illegal line of work. His position, however, is also tenuous due to his advocacy of unionization, which puts him at odds with the station bosses. Meanwhile, the police are always chasing after Hannouma and her fellow drinks sellers, leading to comedic moments as well as at least one potentially dangerous mix-up. These little melodramas play out against the backdrop of partings and reunions as people arrive in or depart from Cairo, and it's all captured in gorgeous deep-focus photography that enhances the bustling energy of the station.

Indeed, Cairo Station is a busy film, with many characters and a lot of plot to serve. But it isn't all relentlessly forward moving, as Chahine (working from a script by Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hay Adib) takes time to show many slice-of-life moments, some small and touching, and some dramatic and disturbing. But Qinawi's mental state is the dark shadow that hangs over the film's heart, as the bizarre love triangle between him, Hannouma, and Abou Saria gradually becomes the film's most important storyline. Throughout, Chahine depicts everything with a strain of humanism that doesn't smooth over the characters' rough spots, but nonetheless treats them with dignity and compassion. It's a side of Egypt's past that we don't really see here in the US, and that alone would be enough to make Cairo Station noteworthy. Thankfully, the quality of the film itself is high enough to more than match its cultural significance.

If you want to watch Cairo Station, it can be streamed on Fandor with a subscription. I have to thank Maggie for my own subscription to the service, which has a lot of great content. Check it out!

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