The first Red Sea International Film Festival, which was to open in March 2020 but has been delayed due to Covid-19, held a three-day event with the iconic Egyptian filmmaker Khairy Beshara in Jeddah (14-16 December).
The event included the launch of The Rebel, a book on Beshara’s life and work by critic Mohamed Sayed Abdel Rehim, a masterclass in which Beshara shared his professional experience reshaping the Arab film industry over four decades, and a three-day retrospective featuring ever-before-seen 4K versions of five of Beshara’s best loved films (restored by the Red Sea Foundation): The Collar and the Bracelet (1986), Bitter Day, Sweet Day (1988), Ice Cream in Gleam (1992), Abracadabra America (1993), and Traffic Light (1995). None of these films had ever been screened in the kingdom.
In seven chapters – “Khairy Beshara’s Influence on the Millennial Generation”, “Colourful Butterfly Effect”, “Documentary Film Star”, “Neorealism”, “Folk Fantasy”, “Criticising the Critics” and “Digital Democratisation” – The Rebel focuses on the rebellious spirit that has characterised Beshara’s work since the early 1970s: “The rebellious spirit he sparks in new artists stands out in hiw artistic influence on modern Egyptian and Arab cinema. This is not only evident in his work, be it documentaries, short and feature narratives or even TV dramas, but it has also always been an integral part of Beshara’s personality.”
The 262-page book also includes an extended interview and a filmography, as well as stills and making-of images from the director’s private archive.
Abdel Rehim traces Beshara’s influence through Egypt’s New (aka Independent) Cinema, which he sees as both an extension of the New Realism of which Beshara was part and a beacon of hope for the future of cinema in this part of the world. Examples include Ibrahim Al Batout’s Ithaki (2005) and Hawi (2010); Sherif El Bendary’s Dry Hot Summers (2015) and Ali, the Goat & Ibrahim (2016); Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City (2016), and Muhammad Hammad’s Withered Green (2016).
He also stresses the connection Beshara forged with the public, his conviction being that, without an audience, cinema cannot exist. Abdel Rehim moves onto Beshara’s childhood in the small village of Sidi Sakem in the north of Kafr Al Sheikh governorate, where he was born in 1947, and the atmosphere of which, even as a famous director in his seventies, Beshara remains attached to: the pigeons, seagulls and butterflies especially. “He once said that if they were controllable,” Abdel Rehim writes, “he would have had butterflies star in all of his films.”
Assisting Abbas Kamel on I’m the Doctor (1968), Beshara’s career started with a short documentary, Tank Hunter (1974). Between 1974 and 2000, he made 25 documentaries and short films, the 2000 feature-length documentary Jesus in Egypt being his most recent. Though he was maneuvering his way to his first narrative feature, through the 1970s and 1980s Beshara became known as the documentary film star. His rebellious spirit came through in his focus on the human element even when the topic was historical or public. He always presented ordinary, convincing, flesh-and-blood characters.
But it is his second long narrative Houseboat No.70 (1982) – his first was Bloody Destinies (1980) – that is regarded as the founding film in Egyptian Neorealism, the school that bound the directors Mohamed Khan (1942-2016), Atef El-Taieb (1947-1995), Raafat El-Mihi (1940-2015) and Daoud Abdel Sayed (1946) as well as the screenwriter Bashir El Deek (1944).
Influenced by documentary techniques, Neorealist films used archival footage and were often shot on the street – features that would persist into Beshara’s later, mature work like The Collar and the Bracelet (1986) and Bitter Day, Sweet Day (1986), both of which feature real-life footage of their settings. “He rebelled against the mainstream commercial cinema of his time, the early 1980s, presenting the rough, realistic face of society. Thanks to him a totally new aspect of Egyptian cinema was to emerge...”
Ice Cream in Gleam
The 1990s marked a new phase in which Beshara rebelled anew, not only against existing cinema but also against himself. “I cannot make you The collar and the Bracelet over and over. If you like it this much go and watch it again, but don’t imprison me inside it,” Beshara is quoted as saying. By the time he made the cult classic Crab (1990), starring Ahmed Zaki, the Neorealist approach had become somewhat hackneyed and was being overused in shallow and repetitive ways.
In a somewhat postmodernist way, Beshara reflected the spirit of ideological collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall in such films as Ice Cream in Gleam (1992), starring the then aspiring pop star Amr Diab and Wild Desire (1992), starring the commercial screen goddess Nadia Al-Gindi, as well Abracadabra America (1993), and Strawberry War (1993). He referenced various world film schools in new, localised ways and above all popular ways.
This led to attacks by critics who, not expecting such films to succeed commercially, also disapproved of serious cinema embracing pop culture. According to one interview, Beshara felt he was seen as a traitor. The pressure was such that he considered giving up his film career. But he found the perfect way to deal with the critics: he ignored them, focusing on himself and his audience.
An innovator to the last, Beshara developed a link with digital technology while attending his daughter’s wedding in the US in 2000. With such a small, light device he found the freedom he had always sought, developing techniques he would use in such digital pieces as A Night on the Moon (2009), a narrative feature, and Moondog (2012), a biographical film he wrote and edited as well as directing. Beshara is still writing and rebelling, with new scripts looking for producers. He directs television drama, and appears in such films in Sherif El Bendary’s short Sunday at Five (2020).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.