Mohamed Khan: A tribute to Egypt's cinematic street player

Adham Youssef, Thursday 28 Jul 2016

Renowned Egyptian director Mohamed Khan passed away on 26 July at the age of 73. He leaves behind a rich legacy of cinematic works

Mohamed Khan
This photo shows late film director Mohamed Khan and actor Adel Imam during the filming of Al­Hareef (The Artful,1984) (Photo: Courtesy of Said Shimi)

On 26 July, the artist who loved the streets of Egypt was gone, never to come back. Mohamed Khan was mourned by thousands of his fans, and more importantly by the very streets, roads and alleys he admired so much and turned into film sets for his characters.

Khan's death ended an important chapter in the history of Egyptian cinema and leaving behind a remarkable film repertoire comprising more than 35 shorts and feature-length films.

Mohamed Khan was born in 1942 in Cairo to a Pakistani father and an Egyptian mother.

Khan developed an interest in cinema at an early age. However, as he often said, he did not know that filmmaking could be taught.

In 1956, he travelled to London to study architecture, only to change interests and study film; a very fortunate moment for Arab and world cinema.

The young filmmaker returned to Cairo in 1963 to work with Salah Abu Seif and Raafat El-Meehy, as well as other prominent scriptwriters and directors, only to travel back to London after Egypt’s 1967 military defeat against Israel.

Before returning to Cairo in 1977, Khan pursued the academic study of cinema and wrote two books; one about Egyptian cinema and the other about cinema in Czechoslovakia.

One of Khan's earlier short films is El-Batikha (The Watermelon, 1972), a 10-minute guide to the "Cinema of Mohamed Khan," from which we can conclude how characters like Shams the photojournalist in Darbet Shams (Sunstroke, 1978), the street footballer in El­-Hareef (The Artful,1984), Hend and Camilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia, 1988), Hayam in Fatat El-Masnaa (Factory Girl, 2014), and Salah in Mr Karate (1993) were moulded into life. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Said Shimi)

El-Batikha shows a government employee's journey from his workplace to his house. We follow the employee, who walks while carrying a watermelon, and overhear casual conversation between a man and his wife, with the husband complaining about laundry and the wife expressing her desire to travel to Alexandria for the summer.

The film showed the hard conditions faced by the employee in public institutions, and his aim of going home and enjoying an iced watermelon with his family.

Filmed in Cairo’s hot and crowded streets and alleys by Said Shimi, Khan's future comrade in arms, El-Batikha was one of the earlier attempts at what was later called by critics the "neorealist wave" of the 1980s.  

Khan, along with other vanguards of the movement like Atef El-Tayeb, Bashir El-Dik and Khairy Beshara, portrayed the life of regular Egyptians and the characters they saw and interacted with. The novelty of their cinema was in its simplicity, where life was depicted as is, without any exaggeration or fabrication.

These filmmakers grew up in a society that embraced socialist views, from top to bottom, believing in unity, dependence and collective effort, only to find these values replaced by individualism, materialism and consumerism.

Amid this radical shift, someone had to document, or at least get a near-true portrayal, of the class that suffered and was affected the most; the middle class.

Often accused of preferring the picture to the story, Khan made it radically clear that he rebelled against the typical structure of a plot, one that includes conflict, climax and conclusion.

His attention to the details of his complex yet simply portrayed characters was unheard of, making them the centre of attention and carrying deep humanistic values through which he explored major societal issues.

Ahlam Hend Wa Camilia
Still from Ahlam Hend Wa Camilia (Dreams of Hend and Camilia, 1988)

Nevertheless, his compositions, enhanced with powerful dialogue, gave the characters freedom to rebel, challenge societal norms – an oppressive husband, materialism, patriarchy, an evil murderous gang, a doomed love story, or even the noise of Cairo streets– and fight for the meanings of life; freedom, independence or love.

Khan was not a one man army, however, and to his credit, he acknowledged, as all directors should, the role of the other artists who helped and inspired him, from the cinematographer to the soundtrack composer and the scriptwriters.

Many have written about Khan's films and many more will continue to study and critique his masterpieces.

To simply gloss over his films in this obituary would be unfair to the artist, who was so loyal to his work.

Khan himself hated the idea of obituaries, but he believed in the idea of the "artist's art." In many of his talks and interviews, he stressed on the expression of the artist's soul, dreams and fears in their work.

However, the bias of the writer of these words does not allow one to refrain from mentioning Khan’s classic Zawgat Ragol Mohem (The Wife of an Important Man, 1987). In analysing this film we can see what Khan's cinema was all about.

Setting an example for feminist cinema by giving female actors the role of mirroring what society has turned into, Khan created a character played by Mervat Amin (Mona), a university student nostalgic for a bygone romantic era, dreaming of change, licking her wounds from previous clashes and traumatised by the present.

Despite the oppression of her husband, Mona listens to Abdel-Halim Hafez, resists going back to school, defies her husband's sick narcissism, and pays the price.

Twenty-seven years later, Khan directed Fatat El-Masna (The Factory Girl), where Maha El-Rayes (Hayam) watches the beautiful Soad Hosni on TV, abandons a classist patriarchal lover, and also pays the price. 

Khan did not like to make statements. When commenting to Ahram Online on the death of director Raafat El-Meehy in July 2015, Khan said “I do not need to make a statement to express sadness over someone’s passing.”

And here we are, only one year later, reading comments by the colleagues, followers and students of Khan’s cinema, as they make statements mourning Khan and celebrating his art.

The Wife of an Important Man
Still from Zawgat Ragol Mohem (The Wife of an Important Man, 1987)

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