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History of contagion: Depictions of global pandemics in Egyptian, international cinema

Over the many years, the filmmakers tackled an issue of global pandemics in their works. Egypt's share comes with Youssef Chahine's The Sixth Day, a movie touching on the cholera epidemic of 1947

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 31 Mar 2020
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When the Covid-19 death rate began to escalate rapidly in Italy, an Italian friend commented that what was happening all over the world was worse than a horror film. This grim remark sent me looking for films that deal with similar conditions.

One Hollywood movie that has come up on social media because of the way it predicts the current crisis is Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion. It is the story of the spread from China to the US to the entire world of a deadly virus with flu-like symptoms: coughing, fever and seizures followed by respiratory failure and death. The script is built on several storylines, each with a connection to the pandemic somewhere around the world but with the greatest focus on the US.

The film opens with Beth, a Hong Kong-based American woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) on a work trip in the US. Titled “Day 2”, the opening scene shows her suffering a seizure and dying in hospital. Her grieving husband Mitch (Matt Damon) also ends up losing his son, whom she had infected, and sets out to protect his daughter. There is little dramatic development here beyond the situation exploding into chaos while people attack the hospital where Mitch is quarantined to demand a cure and start looting supermarkets and pharmacies.

The film also includes dialogue that seems to mirror current media discussions of the coronavirus pandemic. In one of the scenes, a freelance journalist and blogger named Alan (Jude Law) embarrasses a Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) official, Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) when she declares the authorities, who are withholding information about the number of victims from the public, have nothing to offer citizens beyond advising them to wash their hands and practise social distancing. The story, which by focusing on the political and the public becomes rather dry, ends with the development of a vaccine. “Day 1” is shown at the very end, and it involves Beth having infected pork for dinner.

1


Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness, based on a famous novel by the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago, competed for Cannes’s Palme d’Or in 2008. It opens with the spread of an unknown disease that blinds people by making them see white rather than black. It can be divided into three parts. In the first an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) is infected after he deals with a Japanese client  (Yûsuke Iseya). In the second, set in the quarantine space, which resembles a dysfunctional factory, the drama develops when different types of people who have caught the mysterious disease are shown coping.

Abusive authorities take advantage of people’s needs in order to control the situation, and along with the pain of isolation much of this rings true. One bartender (Gael García Bernal) who forms a gang to collect food from outside the quarantine provides people with meals in exchange for sex with the women. In the third part the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), who has pretended to be blind in order not to be separated from her husband even though she can see, kills the bartender and, following a fire, they escape – only to find the outside world in even more than the quarantine. At the end everyone is cured and, as has often been asked regarding the current pandemic, the question is raised of the effect of the experience on the future of humanity.

2


In 1995, perhaps inspired by the ebola epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, Wolfgang Petersen made Outbreak. The story of a deadly virus spreading rapidly in California after a monkey is smuggled from the African jungle to the US and set free in the woods, it focuses on the US army’s involvement. A military doctor, Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and a CDC expert, Robby Keough (Rene Russo), happen to be a newly divorced couple, giving the drama a personal dimension.

The suggestion is that such viruses are either created or isolated to be used as a biological weapon. In the opening scene it is clear how the US army deals with such outbreaks, when it is seen bombing an entire African village in 1976. That is why, when Robby is infected, Sam struggles with his superiors in order to find the host and harvest the antibodies that would save her.

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Another 1995 film is Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, which was screened in the official competition of the 1996 Berlin Film Festival. The pre-credit titles read, “‘Five billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997. The survivors will abandon the surface of the planet. Once again the animals will rule the world.’ Excerpts from an interview with a clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.” The opening scene shows how the survivors of a virus that killed nearly 99 percent of the human population living in an underground shelter, with some of them – like the protagonist James Cole (Bruce Willis) – confined to cells. When he is sent up into the city to look for information, Cole finds a sign that bears the logo of a terrorist organisation called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys with the words “We did it”.

Eventually he is sent back in time to 1996 to find out about the virus before it mutated into such a powerful weapon but ends up accidentally in 1990 and is confined to a mental asylum where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt in his best supporting actor Golden Globe-winning role), who will found the Twelve Monkeys in 1996. Goines’s father turns out to be the owner of a pharmaceutical company involved in microbiology experiments...

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Though Egyptian cinema has seldom depicted a global pandemic, in 1985 acclaimed filmmaker Youssef Chahine made The Sixth Day about the cholera epidemic of 1947. Starring the famous singer Dalida and Mohsen Mohieddin, it based on a novel by Egyptian-French novelist Andreé Shedid. It focuses on Siddika (Dalida), a 46 year old woman in a very poor area who lives with her paralysed husband (whom she has stopped loving since he married another woman alongside her) and their young grandson.

The street performer and chimpanzee trainer Oka (Mohsen Mohieddin) tries to seduce her, but she is drawn to her grandson’s teacher (Hassan Al-Adl), who contracts cholera and is taken into quarantine – a cemetery-like prison where people die – and so when the grandson too falls ill she hides him and sets out on a boat trip to Alexandria, during which she will pass the six days after which a patient either dies or is cured. The grandson dies. Mohieddin’s dances are inspired by Gene Kelly, to whom Chahine dedicates the movie.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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