Historical films are among the most important and expensive, requiring dedicated and accurate research at every stage of the filmmaking process. Evoking a time with convincing detail, iconic features like Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939), Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) or Sam Mendes’s 1917 (2019) are so convincing and powerful they leave the audience trembling with excitement. But why do filmmakers want retell episodes of history?
In some cases – as in American WWII cinema during the Cold War – this was a matter of propaganda. In other cases – in Apocalypse Now, for example – individual filmmakers will have their own ideas about history and want to tell it as they see it, sometimes regardless of factual reality. In Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino makes Hitler and Nazi leaders die in a blast at a small movie theatre in France.
Egyptian cinema too has had its share of historical films, the first perhaps being Fritz Kramp’s Lasheen (1938). Kramp was a German filmmaker who lived and worked in Studio Misr as of its launch in 1935. Banned on its release, the film wasn’t screened publicly until the director had altered the ending from a revolution against the sultan to a sultan-led revolution against the corrupt vizier. Youssef Chahine made Saladin – promoting pan-Arab nationalism at the height of Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s pro-Palestinian doctrine – in 1963, Adieu Bonaparte in 1985, Al-Mohager (The Emigrant) in 1994 and Al-Massir (Destiny) in 1997. The latter, an evocation of Averroes in the 12th-century Spain, sought out the roots of Islamic extremism in history. Though not intended as a historical film per se, Hassan Hassan Al-Imam’s Bein Al-Qasrein (Palace Walk, 1963) – the first part of Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy – includes a powerful evocation of the 1919 revolution in Cairo.
The latest in the ongoing sequence is Marawn Hamed’s Kira wal Gin (Kira and Al-Gin), written by Ahmed Mourad and based on Mourad’s novel 1919. With a budget of over LE100 million ($5.5 million), it is an ambitious project that opens with the Denshawai massacre, and George Bernard Shaw’s quotation on the screen: “If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906… then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters”.
A narration describes the historic event which led to the killing a number of Egyptian peasants after one English soldier died of a sunstroke. After a four-day trial, a British court sentenced eight Egyptians to be hanged in their own land.
Ahmed Abdel-Hay Kira (Karim Abdel-Aziz) lost his mother during the incident, when she was shot by an English soldier, while his father was hanged right in front of his own eyes. This pre-credit scene provides the audience with background information on the brutality of the British occupation, showing the main character’s motive for helping to found an Egyptian militant band during the 1919 revolution – which is the main focus of the film.
The second part of the film involves Abdel-Qader Al-Gin (Ahmed Ezz), an alcoholic and drug addict who trades illegally with a British army camp. Perhaps this is the only character that experiences a turning point in the drama: Al-Gin is away the morning of 9 March 1919 while his father Shahata (Ahmed Kamal) hears the chants of protesters outside his home in an old Cairo neighbourhood, and the camera shows him taking his old military uniform out of a wooden box, showing that he used to be a veteran officer of the Egyptian army fought with Ahmed Oraby during the revolution in 1882. He wears his military suit and carries his sword to participate in the demonstrations, where he is killed by a British colonel. And this is how Al-Gin himself becomes involved with the resistance.
The opening scenes of the film promise and deep and interesting film, but already by the time the militant band members are introduced the film has lost all originality. Too obviously, the narrator describes each member with a flashback.
Dawlat Fahmy (Hend Sabry) left her village in Upper Egypt after the death of her father to work as a girls’ school teacher and become a member of a feminist movement. Ishaq Naim (Mohamed Abdel-Azim), who used to be a print press worker, is now in charge of incendiary leaflets. Ibrahim (Ahmed Malek) is a painter and from an aristocratic background, Ragheb Dawoud (Ali Kasem) a Jewish young man who lost his voice but can hear and read, and Alexandra (Lara Scandar) an Egyptian Arminian and Ibrahim’s girlfriend. Nargis (Hoda Al-Mufti) is a belly dancer in one of the Al-Azbakiya night clubs, while Kira who left Denshawai and his grandmother after the massacre studied medicine and acting before working in a public hospital.
All of these are fictional characters, but there is also Naguib Al-Helbawy (Sayed Ragab), who is mentioned in the context of the assassination of Major-General Lee Stack, the Governor-General of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, in 1924 as the informer who betrayed his comrades. Mixing a real character in with imaginary ones isn’t the only odd thing in the script, which need not include the assassination of Stack in the first place since it is not especially relevant to the action.
The characters themselves have no substance beyond their names and sects representing the range of the Egyptian polity at the time. They are not real human beings with stories. The filmmaker focuses instead on the action with intriguing camera movement, energetic actors and extras, and interesting use of firearms and explosives. This might be a major cause of the somewhat anaemic drama in the course of the three-hour feature.
Dramatic lines are shallow and abrupt despite including love interests like Emily (the British-Lebanese actress Razane Jammal) for Kira or Dawlat for Al-Gin, though nothing at all is seen of the relationship between Ibrahim and Alexandra.
Kira Wal Gin is a continued collaboration between the writer Mourad and the filmmaker Hamed after many commercially successful films such as The Blue Elephant (2014, Part II in 2019), Al-Asliyyin (2017) and Diamond Dust (2018). Apart from Al-Asliyyin, they are all based on Mourad novels. Most had a reasonable standard of characterisation and storytelling. Kira Wal Gin is totally lost in action.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.