Egypt's Most Expensive Film Ever Shows Nationalism Is Always on the Agenda

This year’s blockbuster ‘The Passage’ makes evident that despite political shifts, the line of defense of the country’s artists and intellectuals hasn’t changed

A still from "The Passage."
Screenshot/YouTube

The Egyptian 2019 film “The Passage” cost 100 million Egyptian pounds ($6 million) to produce – the costliest production in the history of Egyptian cinema, and apparently also the most profitable. In only two weeks, the film has brought in about 30 million pounds from ticket sales. It was distributed in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and has been purchased by other Arab countries. Egypt’s national soccer team has already seen it. The ruling Nation’s Future Party distributed 6,000 tickets in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Gamaliya “to deepen the roots of love of country and nationhood among young people and the Egyptian family, and out of appreciation for Egypt’s armed forces and police.”

Audiences are continuing to stream to the theaters to see it and public discussion of the film on social media is only growing stronger.

The film addresses the period after the Six-Day War in 1967 and the subsequent War of Attrition, which continued until 1970, and challenges the definition of the war as a defeat. According to the narrative the well-known director and screenwriter Sherif Arafa attempted to develop, the Egyptian defeat was “only” an institutional failure, but not a failure of the army or the people.

Arafa is much admired in the Egyptian film industry. Among his dozens of films, many of which are superficial and lack any special cinematic quality, are also sharp satires, like “Terrorism and Kebab,” which stars Egyptian actor Adel Emam. This 1992 film depicts the hours and days of waiting that Egyptians must endure in order to receive a permit or complete the simplest bureaucratic procedure in the Interior Ministry building, which overlooks Tahrir Square. Some 20 years later the square was to become one of the symbols of the Arab Spring uprising that began there against the rule of Hosni Mubarak. Looking back, some see this film as authentically representative of the distress that led to the 2011 revolution.

The trailer for "The Passage"

Other Arafa productions, like “Birds of Darkness” (1995) or “Halim” (2006), about the singer Abdel Halim Hafez, won international awards and were very popular. But although Arafa came to the square to protest against Mubarak’s rule, he has always been considered as serving the regime. He is included among many others in the disparaged category of “artists of the regime,” who were fostered by the Culture Ministry and earned not only recognition but generous funding as well.

Ostensibly, “The Passage” is merely the natural continuation of Arafa’s record as a filmmaker who knows which side his bread is buttered on. The production company Synergy Films, which hired Arafa as a director, is owned by the Egyptian Media Group, which itself is owned by the government. It produces most of the TV series for the month of Ramadan. Only a government-supported company could afford the enormous cost of “The Passage,” which opted for hiring top billers like Ahmed Ezz and the Jordanian Eyad Nassar. The latter plays Lt. David, known for his cruelty and shown shooting Egyptian soldiers for pleasure.

The surprise is not in the production company’s or Arafa’s decision to produce such a film, but rather in its timing and content. Egyptian film critics attribute the timing to the new national spirit engendered by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who in 2017 called on artists and filmmakers to bring nationalist content into their creations. “For the past seven years everything has been frozen,” Sissi said at the time in a meeting with journalists and military figures. “Before that, the government was involved in content and instilling values and principles into the television industry and the media … we hope once again to take the same road.”

Sissi, it should be said, did not wait until 2017 to “instill” his content. He censored anything and everything, from films to satires and books. The guiding spirit was clearly understood by producers, as can be seen by the meager fare of the Ramadan series and by “The Passage.” In recent years there have been no films sharply critical of serious social issues like Muslim-Christian relations, poverty, the low level of education or the status of women. Family values, religion and the link between it, quality of life and happiness (as long as it’s moderate religion according to the principles Sissi sets out in his speeches), the aspiration for knowledge and love of country are the main subjects addressed by films and TV series.

But “The Passage” is not just a cookie-cutter production depicting Egyptian soldiers as fair, honest and patriotic and prepared to sacrifice themselves for their country. It reminds Egyptians who the real enemy is. Portraying Israeli officers and soldiers as sadists, or trigger-happy at the very least, is not new. Even in movies that dared to criticize the government or present its failures in war, the Egyptian film industry always framed the Israeli army and Israel as a wild, warmongering, land-guzzling country.

Still, after Sissi “revealed” in a TV interview that Israel and Egypt were closely cooperating in the war on terror and that Israel was carrying out attacks in Egyptian territory with Egypt’s approval, it might be expected that at least the tone of its cinema, which is dictated by the regime, would be somewhat softened. But when it comes to Israel, the line of defense set by intellectuals, artists and journalists does not recognize political changes. The guardians of these ramparts will continue to protect their country and their status as the vanguard of the fight for the liberation of Palestine.