“Tewfik Saleh: Curated Cinema Series.”

Film program


“Tawfik Saleh’s film Al-makhduun (The Dupes) is the first feature film to come out of the Arab film world that portrays Palestinian refugees as the protagonists of their own story. The renowned original novella on which the film is based (Men in the Sun, Gassan Kanafani, 1962) had tackled this issue within the literary form, spurring on the newly coined ‘resistance literature’ genre. While Saleh’s film adaptation stays true to the novella’s poetics with its complex literary flashback form, he makes one small but paramount change. This change introduces a radically different implication to the original narrative, an implication that is intended to serve as a reflection of the transformative decade that separates the novella and the film. It also offers some insight into the Egyptian director’s perspective in the early seventies, by which time he was living outside of Egypt and had finished with his Egyptian period and the genre of realism that he had helped to formulate. In Syria, he envisages a new (post-Nasser) condition: a modern, Arab political consciousness in which, Saleh believes, the desire for self-determination represented by the new Palestinian resistance movements plays a central role. The film, like the novella, does not rely on any protagonist-hero to identify with and lead to a clear resolution. As cinema it is not realism but a kind of hybrid, with narrative routes that lead audiences through the cinematic equivalent of diasporic identity: layers of documentary footage situate 1948 and authentic refugee camps; subjective flashbacks offer fragments recollecting home relations and the recognisable signs of conventional Arab melodrama; the ‘road movie’ becomes a stark modern existentialist parable in the form of a passage locked in the no-man’s-land between national borders; the final act amounts to a light farce, where two divergent positions—Palestinian and customs officials—eventually converge and culminate in the tragic conclusion.

My interest in Al-makhduun can be traced back to the preparation for my project From/To, which was presented in Witte de With in 1999 (when Bartomeu Marí was director) and then in 2002 in Documenta 11. As the exhibition catalogue states, the focus was on charting a “topos Palestine” and “a map unfolding in real time,” “geography as nothing but history in space” and “the replacement of roots with routes.” With precisely these characteristics in mind, I realised at the planning stages that Al-makhdu’un was a central feature of the project. This was primarily because the hybrid nature of the film itself offers up a complex set of points of convergence from many lines relating to the issue of Palestine, politics of identity, the role of culture, methodology and narrative and the time period. One of the unfortunate points that I discovered during research for the project in the late nineties was that there was very little information available on the film, and on Saleh’s generation of Arab filmmakers in general, and even less in English. The same applies to getting hold of a good copy to purchase or screen. After the conclusion of From/To, this absence of material led me to consider developing a new work that took off from that lack of archival material on Al-makhdu’un. The first stage was to conduct a video interview with the director Tawfik Saleh, and particularly an analysis of Al-makhd’un. Excerpts of this interview, in which Saleh directly comments on the film sequences he discusses, will be included in this presentation. The other, final, stage of the work focuses on the one key change Saleh made to the film as a way to provide an opening into this historical work—both film and book—in order to introduce the new space of a contemporary perspective.”