Tewfik Saleh’s 1972 film The Dupes (Al-makhdu’un) screens in the Walker Cinema July 12, 2017 as part of Reshaping Our World: Cinema Without Borders, a series copresented with Mizna, a Twin Cities nonprofit arts organization that promotes contemporary expressions of Arab American culture.
Three Palestinians seek to escape the ignominy and privation of displacement and defeat by seeking fortune away from their refugee camp homes that no longer seem temporary, only to literally lose themselves. Such is the wage of escapism from humiliation and from the imperative of social responsibility. The Dupes begins its account of its doomed men one stop before their desired destination. They have traveled already from their unidentified refugee camps—their dialect would tell us from Syria—to Basra, the ancient city at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is the city wherein the four principle characters, the three men and their smuggler, meet. Abu Qeis, Marwan, and As’ad negotiate a deal with water truck driver Abulkhaizaran to smuggle them in its empty tank into Kuwait, where they dream of wages to assuage the wretchedness. The three men settle on Abulkhaizaran, after trepidation over accounts of the smuggled being abandoned in the dessert; they suffer a fate worse.
Singular, bleak, brazen, uncompromising—these are some of the terms by which The Dupes has been delineated over the decades since its release in 1972. These ascriptions are not surprising, considering that the film was borne out of the culmination of two traumas—the Nakba, the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from their land in 1948, and the 1967 War (the Naksa) that inflicted a humiliating defeat upon Arab nations involved, not least Egypt.
In the aftermath of ignominy and dissipated credibility of Nasserism, a few Egyptian films ventured to criticize it, obliquely at first then rather directly, all of which are considered classics of the Egyptian cinema. A Touch of Fear (1969) betokened the autocratic rule of Nasser’s regime as a village subjugated by a ruthless patriarch. Miramar (1969) slighted the fallen leader’s party in a single statement—“The hell with the Socialist Union.” Al-Karnak (1975) centrally accused Nasser’s security services of brutal suppression and implicated Nasser’s fallen regime by association, though it risked little, in indirectly endorsing the current Sadat regime. The Sparrow (1972)—adapted for the screen, produced and directed by Youssef Chahine, the most renowned Egyptian director of all—charged the Arab Socialist Union directly and was banned by the censor for two years as a result, despite its fragmentary narrative.
By 1972, Chahine’s boyhood friend and colleague in Alexandria’s prestigious Victoria College (a school) had long been the bane of Egyptian censors. The comparison between Chahine and Saleh is generative—both were trilingual Alexandrians, both espoused socialist ideas, both studied cinema abroad, and both made films outside of Egypt. Chahine left Egypt in frustration to make films in Lebanon after the Egyptian film industry—its production, distribution, and exhibition—had been nationalized in 1963. That same year, Saleh, whose Palestinian mother had died from puerperal fever when he was only three, read Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun (1962) and became determined to adapt it. Saleh proposed the project to the General Organization of Cinema that same year, a project that “the Organization,” as it was commonly called, would not approve, despite Saleh’s vigorous pursuit, before the Syrian regime’s own General Organization of Cinema would, according to the talented, stubborn director’s terms. Saleh’s final Egyptian film The Rebels (1968) had intrepidly, if metaphorically, criticized the autocracy and corruption plaguing Nasser’s regime, a year before Egypt’s ignominious military defeat, and was, like Chahine’s post-defeat film The Sparrow, banned from exhibition by the Egyptian censor for two years. The Rebels, like The Sparrow, blisters with discontent.
Unlike The Sparrow, however, The Rebels, and certainly The Dupes do more than cry out in protest: they suggest a course of resistance and defiance. As such, the thrust of Saleh’s The Dupes was aligned with the imperative of Third Cinema, even if his techniques owe more to Italian new realism and the French New Wave, or at least to a film that precipitated the latter, for The Dupes borrows evidently in composition and pacing from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), which itself borrows from John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). (It is thus curious that I have located in Los Angeles a letter penned by Saleh to Huston, apologetically consoling him about the Egyptian authorities’ ill-treatment during production of Huston’s 1966 film The Bible: In the Beginning.)
What is arguably most creditable about The Dupes is that it maintains remarkable narrative clarity despite using flashbacks repeatedly to background its characters’ stories, despite not naming locations, despite cutting associatively throughout, in spite of even interrupting the plot in the present to insert a character-narrated photomontage sequence that dares to incriminate cowardly, collaborationist Arab regimes, leaders, and institutions, including some current. That it does not incriminate the Syrian regime did not save The Dupes from being banned in Syria, as it would be denied exhibition in Egypt, save for by cultural institutions wishing not to totally ignore a film that had engendered substantial festival and critical recognition.
Certainly, Saleh’s commitment to empowerment is what drove him to notably, and rather controversially, alter the film’s ending, to insist that the duped men in the sun had sought to save themselves, instead of having them suffer a silent demise as in Kanafani’s venerated novella. In extremis, The Dupes’ piercing conclusive image showcases a gesture of defiance, perceptible to those who can look past, or into, calamity.