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Lumet's classic films evoke corruption and injustice in Egypt

The prolific filmmaker Sydney Lumet, who passed away on Saturday 9 April, left us with masterpieces that expose corruption and injustice, themes which reverberate in Egyptian society today

Menna Taher, Friday 15 Apr 2011
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“Lumet was a filmmaker who portrayed the sleazy side of New York in his films,” said film critic Sherif Awad.  “In Serpico, Lumet trails an undercover cop as he realises that the police are even more corrupt than the crooks”.

“Lumet condemned violence and introduced issues on injustice in his movies,” continued Awad. Other films involving corruption in the police include Prince of the City (1981), Q&A (1990), and Night Falls on Manhattan (1996).

Sydney Lumet, like Woody Allen, was a filmmaker known for his interest in the city of New York. "He was definitely the quintessential NY filmmaker, although ironically his finest film, The Hill, was shot elsewhere," Allen said in a statement released to Entertainment Weekly. Martin Scorsese also described him as a New York filmmaker at heart.

However his films, which reveal the nitty-gritty of life in New York, are relevant to Egypt today. One in particular, Network, about duplicity and deceit in the media, reflects concerns facing Egyptian society. It is a satire on the stark reality of the inner workings of television and news stations and refutes the popular, Hollywood-inspired image of journalists valiantly seeking the truth.

In the film a fictional television station, Union Broadcasting System (UBS), is struggling with low ratings and is on the verge of closure. Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is given two weeks’ notice to quit and goes on air to announce he will commit suicide. Viewer numbers shoot up and lead the competitive, fame-obsessed television executive, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to broadcast Beale’s crazy tirades on television as a golden opportunity to further boost the ratings.  

“The American people are angry and have been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate and inflation,” Christansen says earlier in the film. “They want somebody to articulate their rage for them".

In one of the most memorable scenes Beale explodes with anger on air and calls on viewers to go to their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”.  The response from the public makes it apparent that television can influence people and the universality and timelessness of Lumet’s Network is undisputable.  

The audacity of the media in twisting the truth and broadcasting lies has been evident during the current Arab uprisings. In Egypt state television claimed that protestors in Tahrir Square were receiving money and meals from KFC and even got a woman to assert that she was one of the protesters and had been trained in the US and other countries.

The demonstrations that erupted in front of Maspero, the state television building, calling for the sacking of the heads of media companies, finds resonance in Lumet’s dark satire, as it is alleged  that Egyptian state television was one of the factors that influenced the revolution.

Not only does the film criticise the media organisations themselves, but it sheds light on those working in the industry and how the environment affects them on a personal level.

The Christansen character, who develops from a publicity-seeker to an obsessive workaholic who would do anything to get higher ratings, was an excellent portrayal of those working in television. Even her romantic life suffered from her total absorption in her work and demonstrated how individuals can become blank human beings, without a soul or essence - a humanoid, as Beale says on his show.

The quest for the truth

In Lumet’s debut film, the 96-minute conversational 12 Angry Men, he exposes injustice in the courts.  The film, set in the room where the jury is sent to debate on the evidence from the trial until they reach a unanimous verdict, has the viewer engrossed. 12 Angry Men has a relevant theme today; the quest for the truth.

The jury is swayed by the apparent facts that a 16-year-old boy is guilty of murder because of two eyewitness accounts and a threat he made to kill his father. One exception is the juror, played by Henry Fonda, who wants to give the boy a chance by fully investigating the details. As the events in the claustrophobic room unfold each juror is convinced of the truth in a way that relates to them personally.  

As we are bombarded with information, rumours, hearsay accounts of incidents and mysteries, 12 Angry Men, reminds us to always dig deeper to try to get to the truth.

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