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A depot of time and humanity
The thing that may immediately stand out to the viewer of this sixty-four-year-old film is the cold open. Can someone tell me another movie from this era with a cold open this precise? In a fashion befitting a modern television show, the film wholly sets the stage within the first two minutes: The “modern” city of Cairo, the intersection of life that inhabits the station, natives, foreigners, people with jobs, people without jobs, and the allure that brings them all through the titular central artery of the city. Bab el hadid (Cairo Station, Youssef Chahine, 1958) speaks to a contemporary audience while giving potential future audiences everything they’d need to understand the universe we’re about to inhabit for the next seventy-five minutes. It’s a masterclass in timeless storytelling.
The narrator, Madbouli (Hassan el Baroudi), runs a newspaper stand in the eponymous station. He sees and hears everything. One day he encounters a seemingly homeless disabled man, and he takes pity on him, offering him a job in the newsstand. This man is Qinawi (played by director Youssef Chahine). Madbouli is also a friend of the young Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi), who is working on setting up a union for himself and his fellow porters to fight unsafe working conditions and unfair pay. The third main character is Hanuma (Hind Rostom), an entrepreneurial drink seller in the station who is engaged to Abu Siri.
This film tackles a few themes that make it surprisingly prescient given its 1958 release: ableism, organized labor, feminism, chauvinism, classism, and longing. One of the enjoyments of the movie is reflecting on how these themes are constantly at play with each other and taking turns on center stage. A scene where a character explains what he would do for a woman he pursues conveys many of these themes with nothing more than a smart backdrop, costumes, and a few precise lines of dialogue. The scene seems blindingly simple in its plotting and execution. Less straightforward is how these themes will later collide in a Coen-esque fashion to illustrate the irony of humanity.
Cairo Station does not offer us platitudinal lessons. Characters challenge our sympathies, daring us to view any person as “right.” Hanuma can sometimes seem cruel to Qinawi, but as a woman refusing to be enshrined in the male gaze, can we blame her? As we see more scenes showing us that Hanuma intends to be at the steering wheel of her fate, we can consider the implicit conditions and circumstances that would lead her to adopt a confrontational temperament. Interestingly given the period, one specific scene could be read as explicit sexual dominance on her part, complete with a phallic bursting coke bottle used to spray a male character who, despite what he may believe, is not in control of the situation.
A train station must be a difficult place to make a living if you feel like you have no control and no future. Day in and day out, you watch people come and go with places to be. Young lovers bidding farewell as one sets off for war, despondent but hopeful for when they’ll meet again. Commuters on their way home from their jobs to see their loved ones. Business people on their way to meetings to discuss important matters of varying impact. As a newspaper or beverage salesperson, you’re attempting to be noticed by these critical people just long enough to make ends meet.
Running behind the main story is a discussion of recent news in the city of an incident involving violence against a woman. At first, it seems like dialogic dressing meant to provide fidelity to the time and place. We gradually realize that what started as a film akin to On the Waterfront is morphing into: well, something I won’t spoil.
Cairo Station will take you across the earth and back in time in a breezy seventy-seven minutes. Its importance is felt even sixty-four years after its release. Parasite comes to mind when watching; I wonder if it will still be regarded for its impact and recognition worldwide sixty-four years from now. Similarly, Cairo Station will offer you insight into one of the many cultures that enrich the planet. It will feel at once foreign and familiar. It is a perfect example of why we watch movies.
Written by Abdel Hai Adib; Directed by Youssef Chahine
It’s all about timing
You may have noticed a focus on brevity over the months on Movie Night, and I’ve been considering why this emerges as a ‘value’ for me when making a rec. The most significant impetus for me to start Movie Night was to spare my friends the ramblings of my routine and enthusiastic recommendations. If I could find some outlet for it, they can look if they want. They can not look if they don’t wish to, it’s all the same to me, and I’ve gotten it off my chest. Win-win! However, despite the change in medium, one habit remains; the understanding that we live in an age of entertainment glut, and time is precious. Gone are the days when sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater for 3 hours was a feature; now are the days when doing so would be considered a bug. It’s lovely when a film like Drive My Car manages to punch through the noise and draw praise despite the daunting run-time, but this is an exception.
Economic story-telling impresses me. I am mesmerized by the discipline and thought put into bringing the figure from the stone. Sure, you can watch Stalker or Hot Fuzz or Barry Lyndon and witness master craftsmanship that is meticulous, detailed, and drawn out. Or, you can watch Cairo Station and see master craftsmanship that moves with the speed of a person on fire racing towards a lake. I mentioned Billy Wilder last week, and I’ll mention him again. His rules for screenwriting lay a blueprint that is optimal for our age, and I often think about them when watching movies past and present. It’s nice to recommend something that will leave a mark on a person, but not their calendar.
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