Thursday, October 23, 2008

[TIFF 2008 Review] Cairo Station

[This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFF. During the screening I attended, Yousry Mansou, a filmmaker based in Singapore, was in attendance during the screening to share some insights of the movie, which I have also included here.]

Don't Underestimate Me

I came, I saw and I was totally in awe.

In attendance today was Yousry Elsayed Mansou, a graduate from The Higher Institute of Cinema in Egypt (in 1981) and an ex-student of the director, and he had shared some valuable insights on the movie which you can read below. Yousry will also be present on screening day to interact with the audience after the movie, and I would encourage one and all to pick his brain to learn more about the movie, and of Egyptian cinema in general too.

Yousry shared that in his 4th year in the Institute, which was the graduation year, they had to sit in a director's workshop, and it was fortunate and lucky that his was with Youssef Chahine, although the director he idolizes was the director who preceded the batch before his! Nonetheless Youssef still remains one of the most remarkable filmmakers today, and is now 81 years old. [Editor's Note: Youssef Chahine had passed away earlier this year.]

Youssef was born in 1926 and started to make movies from 1949. Cairo Station was made in 1958, and remains the only film in Egyptian cinematic history where the audience demonstrated within the theatre, and almost destroyed the seats. They had also asked for refunds as they didn't like the film, calling the film Ugly. It may seem strange to people today when they watch the movie, why such was the reaction then. It was the first day of screening, and it was removed from release. For 10 years nobody had watched it, until it was screened on television in Egypt, and many then had started to realize its importance.

Youssef Chahine had never spoken about Cairo Station during the 20 years, and relations between him and the scriptwriter were at breaking point - they never stopped blaming each other about the failure of the movie with the public. But on thing's for sure, the film was earlier than its time, and perhaps the audience then were not ready for it. In the movie, Youssef Chahine also plays one of the lead roles.


I believe Cairo Station marks my very first experience in watching an Egyptian movie (those television soap operas over the RTM channels when I was younger, don't exactly count). And having the opportunity to watch one made by an acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker, was nothing less than a bonus. What provided the icing on the cake, was that it was shown in 35mm print, and that is precisely the attraction of the World Cinema Series.

I was under the uninformed impression that older, black and white movies, will likely to be paced too slow for my liking, or have stories that are quite bland by today's standards. I was so wrong, and Cairo Station absolutely threw those notions out of my mental window the minute I experienced the first few minutes of it. It has an extremely strong story, sophisticated in that it managed to span multiple threads and had ensemble characters, having so much paced so nicely within its 74 minute runtime, and having them all come together neatly for the finale.

Having the events take place within a single day, it centers around 3 lead characters - Kenawi the newspaper boy (played by the director himself), who walks with a limp and gets discriminated against by the working folks at the train station (hence the English title), Hanuma the sultry, sexy soft drink seller (played by Hind Rostrom) and her beau Abu Sri (Farid Shawqi), a porter at the station who's galvanizing his fellow workers to form a union to fight for better wages and welfare. There you have the female lead in a familiar seductress role, an anti-hero, and the hero himself, caught in a love triangle, which starts to turn Kenawi's jealousy and having his love spurned, into a dangerous obsession.

Sounds like a Hitchcock-ian thriller? You bet! It's a dark movie indeed, one which explores the trappings of a misguided soul and his fetish and fantasies of beautiful pin up models, and because of his inability to express himself properly, gets frustrated and even with his relatively low IQ, starts to scheme to get his desires met. But it's not always all about Kenawi, as having the premise set in one of the busiest train stations, it allows for a number of avenues to introduce simple side stories to enrich the main narrative - every anonymous face in the station, definitely has a story to tell.

And what exactly was in the film that had made audiences back then upset? Well, I could offer a few suggestions, but by today's standards, it has seemed that it's already quite common, be it the water soaked clothing that accentuates a woman's curves, or a folio consisting of various scantily clad pin up models, or the many cleavage bearing shots, or perhaps some dancing and flirting amongst a train full of man, giving them that seductive wink? One wonders, but as with most situations, anyone seemed to have been crossing the boundaries, pushing the envelopes, or revolutionizing the way stories are told, would have met with either accolades for doing so, or unfortunate condemnation like what this film received during its very first screening.


After the screening, Yousry shared with us some of the breakthroughs in tradition that this film has had. One, Farid Shawqi the actor is extremely well known for his heroic roles, but here, gets reduced to less than a "superman" he is well known for. Even actress Hind Rostrom was regarded like the Madonna of cinema, and in this movie she has only 1 costume throughout, versus the typically 20-30 costume changes she will have in her movies. These might have presented as a disappointment to their fans and to the audience in general. Two, The main character is a nobody, instead of your usual heroic roles. Three, the movie was filmed entirely outdoors instead of in a studio, and one can imagine the size of equipment those days (on 35mm) that has to be setup during production.

Yousry also provided some additional insights and introduction to Egyptian cinema, for example, sharing with us that the Director of Photography for this movie, Alevise Orfanelli, is credited for having heralded the beginnings of Egyptian cinema way back in 1907, and this year, they are celebrating 100 years of Egyptian cinema.

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