Cairo Station

03/28/2010

Egypt / 1958 / Arabic

Directed by Youssef Chahine

With Youssef Chahine, Hind Rostom, Farid Shawqi

Still from 'Cairo Station'Cairo Station opens with a montage of rushing locomotive metal, a visual construct of speed and noise that would do Dziga Vertov proud. Through the bustling terminal that provides the film’s backdrop move tides of humanity, everyone from fashionable urbanites off to their holiday destinations, to rural peasants who come from distant places seeking opportunity in the city. From the latter group, who to this day make up the bulk of the Egyptian populace, comes Qinawi, a physically handicapped and socially low-functioning man without friends or any job prospects. Madbouli, the kindly newspaper vendor at the station takes pity on the destitute bumpkin, providing him with employment and a place to stay. And so he joins a barely visible but roiling underclass that scrapes out a living in the station.We are introduced to some of the other permanent denizens: Hanouma, a fiery and energetic woman who makes a living selling cold drinks from a bucket, and her fiancée, a burly porter named Abu-Serih. There is a certain solidarity among the poor workers as they stumble through their daily tribulations, but even among them, Qinawi is an outcast. He seems able to do little but sit idle and occasionally hobble around the station leering at women. His one-room shack is papered with cutouts of pornography, and his growing obsession with Hanouma treads a fine line between visual fantasy and actual violence.

The station is by nature a sort of voyeur’s paradise, with scenes of human farce discernible here and there amongst the heterogeneous crowds. So much of what unfolds in the way of love and melodrama is viewed from the intent but uncomprehending gaze of Qinawi, all of it rendered somehow awkward, as he is neither artful nor particularly low-key. He makes his feelings known to Hanouma, but she and everyone else turn him away, thinking him harmless. When others catch him in his nervous, squirrel-like stare, he is berated. Unable to engage with other people, even the few who care about him, he lives permanently in his illusions, spying on a young woman who nervously awaits a last meeting with her lover. Qinawi himself is waiting for a time when he can be alone with Hanouma and convince her to run off with him.

Meanwhile Abu-Serih is exhorting the workers at the station to organize into unions, much to the dismay of some of the other porters who work the platform. His autocratic senior fears that support for Abu-Serih will grow too strong, but as the formation of the union appears to have the government’s approval, the boss has little recourse but to plot in the shadows.

Still from 'Cairo Station'Chahine’s choice to focus much of his film through the point of view of Qinawi, a pariah who is at once brooding and strangely innocent, gives the comprehensibility of many of the events onscreen – sundered relationships, social unrest, petty skirmishes – a somewhat disjointed, half-lit quality. In Qinawi’s single-mindedness, the world is a distraction, and it is looked on accordingly, subordinate to his fascinations. He delights in cutting out pinups, even drawing himself in next to the women, surgically severing them from their context, as he does in his mind with Hanouma. It is interesting that the first real look at Qinawi’s face that we get is through a distorting glass, indicating both the abstracted way in which he sees things and the screen of social deformity that comes between him and the objects of his gaze.

Apart from the subjectivity of the protagonist’s view, the film is rendered with neorealist immediacy and a supple, highly tactile sort of clarity that imbues the impassioned characters and heavy, relentless chug of the enormous steam engines with an energy that is nothing short of arresting. His political outlook is similarly acute, examining, or at least including the different layers of society and struggle, while mocking both implacable, modern feminists and rigid, religious types in turn. The essentially solitary and unsympathetic Qinawi contrasts greatly with the others in the film, which is why he is an unusual, but nonetheless complex intriguing  main character. Chahine looks at Hanouma, the kind of spangled, wildly ebullient heroin for whom Egyptian audiences of the 50’s must have gone gaga, in a somewhat critical light, not for her rejection of her devoted stalker, but for the opportunistic self-absorbtion that makes it difficult for her to see his (somewhat obscured) humanity. Of course when she does catch on, realizing the danger that he poses, not even Abu-Serih takes her complaints seriously.

Still from 'Cairo Station'In Cairo Station, Chahine includes instances of the socially acceptable sexual harassment that women encounter almost as a matter of course in their personal and professional lives, likening it in some ways to the hidden violence harbored by the unlikely protagonist, whose scopophilia mounts to a dangerous pitch. Both forms of oppression stem from a common wish to possess, or otherwise control, that which is seen, and both are creations of an unequal and deeply stratified society that channels an ingrained frustration and idealization into the external realm of sexual politics. Madbouli and Qinawi avidly follow a news story about the severed body of a woman found in a train station not far from theirs. While visual clues may lead to the interpretation that Qinawi is in fact the perpetrator of this crime, he seems incapable of it (in a literal sense – incapable without getting caught). More likely though, he is perversely inspired by this story. The visceral and visual energy of the newspapers that he carries and the photographs that he hoards feed into the violent and intrinsically tragic potential with which he sees no fault. Brutality is conflated with love, scrutiny with understanding. Amidst a backdrop of societal change, Chahine creates a curiously intimate study of obsession and intrigue that also speaks volumes about the turmoil suffered by the prevailing culture of the time, both on the surface and underneath.

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