The Controversy of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Nasser’s Republic, The Making of Modern Egypt
By Neila Driss.
Michal Goldman’s documentary, Nasser’s Republic, The Making of Modern Egypt (2016), was screened on November 20th during the 38th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). Criticized by some viewers for historical inaccuracies, it got a stormy reception, and Goldman herself was in attendance to field questions from an animated, and at times hostile, audience. I had the good fortune of being there as a freelance journalist specializing in Arab cinema, to appreciate Nasser’s Republic, observe the audience’s surprisingly emotional reaction to it, and hear Goldman patiently handle some heated questions and debate about the film and the idea of an American filmmaker depicting such an important, and controversial, Egyptian political leader.
Goldman started her independent film career during the civil rights era. In the nineties, she made Cairo her base and made Umm Kulthum, A Voice like Egypt (1996) about the Arab world’s most legendary singer. Nasser’s Republic is her first political film. Made between 2011 and 2015, including the period of instability during the revolution and Sisi’s rise to power, it traces the political life of Gamal Abdel Nasser, using interviews, old photos, video archives, and eyewitness testimonies. Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (Dégradé ; Foreign Body ) provides the narration, while Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga (Microphone ; Eyes of a Thief ) is the voice of Nasser in English. I was, at first, shocked by the fact the Palestinian Abbass was chosen over an Egyptian actress. However, Goldman was unable to find an Egyptian actress without an accent in English and chose Abbass, whose mature, feminine voice lends itself nicely to Nasser’s Republic and, with Abol Naga’s voice, is in harmony with the film itself.
I found the film laudatory, as it emphasized largely the Arab leader’s qualities, such as his strong connection to the people, the poor especially, his oratorical gifts, and his desire to modernize Egypt. Goldman clearly intended to present Nasser in a complimentary light and it is not until the end that we hear of the downside to his fourteen years in power. In 1952, Nasser was just a young colonel when he led a successful coup and, in the eighteen years that followed, he defied the West’s cultural hegemony, fought against Islamism, established an authoritarian military regime, and confronted the deep divisions among Arabs. A charismatic man with great ambition, Nasser started a revolution that he didn’t see through to its completion. Ultimately caught up in the machinery of power, he died at 52, and Egypt is still today confronted by his controversial legacy. He not only failed to establish a democracy, but, on the contrary, laid the foundations for an authoritarian regime of which the current situation in Egypt is, in large part, a result.
After the screening, Goldman addressed the audience and explained that she had intended the film to show her fellow Americans, who might never have heard of Nasser or only knew of him through how the British presented him, the Egyptian leader’s role in the history of the Arab world. The director then explained that during her stay in Egypt in the nineties, she had fallen in love with the country and wanted to share her passion for it. According to Goldman, she went further with Nasser’s Republic than she did with her previous effort on Umm Kulthum, which she felt was a good way to introduce Egypt to an American audience, in that it helped make her fellow citizens aware of recent Egyptian history and culture. Prior to this year’s CIFF, Nasser’s Republic had been screened in the US at several film festivals, including Washington, DC’s International Film Festival in April and Boston’s Independent Film Festival in May, where it was well-received, with audiences finding the film largely informative.
But in Cairo, Goldman faced a stormy and even, at times, violent debate following the screening of Nasser’s Republic. It was reproached by some viewers for overlooking certain facts while distorting others, and for having emphasized certain aspects over others. Some members of the audience were particularly critical of the director for not having treated the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had systematically undermined Nasser’s work, and for not having emphasized the organisation’s desire to assassinate him. The director was also criticized for ignoring the Communists, student movements, and the abundant correspondence between Nasser and John F. Kennedy. Facing such harsh criticisms, the director replied that she had filmed hours and hours of footage, but was forced to summarize the length and richness of the Nasser years into just eighty minutes. She decided, therefore, to only treat one specific example of an assassination attempt on Nasser out of several because, in her opinion, it was enough to provide a general understanding of the overall situation.
One particularly testy audience member asked Goldman to tell Americans in her next film that if Arabs detest them so much, it’s because certain US administrations detest Arabs. He accused them of having dirty hands, for destroying Iraq, financing ISIS and always siding with Israel. Another audience member then lashed out aggressively, yelling that the film was full of lies, and that during the Nasser years, there was no censorship, but a true democracy in Egypt. Another tried calming her and added that he, on the contrary, wanted to thank the director for having completed a film that helped make known Egyptian history. He was especially impressed with Nasser’s Republic for preserving Egyptian heritage because films on the late leader are uncommon, and for its inclusion of rare and previously unedited images. His views were supported by a couple of other participants, who also found the film enjoyable, even if it demonstrated that Nasser had laid the foundations for authoritarianism while also focusing on his successes and his determination to make Egypt an independent, modern nation. But, the hysterical audience member continued screaming and the debate became even fiercer, with accusations that history had been manipulated. In the end, the theatre had to be evacuated. In my opinion, Goldman’s passion for her subject and her good intentions should have been commended and not treated with scorn. Furthermore, the director had worked with several historians during research for the film, all of whom had seen the film several times to check for any inaccuracies.
The director had remained poised during these moments of hostility and reemphasized how Egyptians should make more honest films about their heritage and history. She also explained that while she was making Umm Kulthum, A Voice like Egypt, she was criticized heavily for not having shown certain elements of the singer’s life, such as her purported homosexuality and the way she treated her musicians, who were rumoured to have not been paid by Kulthum. Goldman then expressed that it was the responsibility of Egyptians themselves to make more films about Umm Kulthum, Nasser and other important players in Egyptian history and culture.
Ultimately, Goldman’s ideas and her film are relevant and informative. Egyptians should make films that retrace important moments and figures in their history, to inform both Egypt and the world. Of course, such films exist already, and we can cite numerous examples, including Amir Ramses’ Jews of Egypt (2013) and, more recently, We are Egyptian Armenians (2016) from Waheed Sobhi, Eva Dadrian and Hanan Ezzat, which, coincidentally, was also screened at this year’s CIFF. But, Egypt and other Arab countries, especially those that are confronted by problems of preserving their history and heritage, need to see more of such cinematic initiatives. When foreigners like Goldman engage in such efforts, they are insulted, and I find this inexcusable, especially seeing how admirable Nasser’s Republic actually is. What is particularly impressive is the director’s determination and passion for making Egypt and its history and culture known. Testimony to Goldman’s drive during the five years it took her to make the film was her ability to bring to light old photos and to contact people who had known Nasser, including his own daughter. Through such documents and human resources, she was able to portray the man, his reason for being, and his way of thinking and acting.
After such a reception at the CIFF, I was pleased to learn recently that Nasser’s Republic is scheduled to play again in Egypt, this time in competition at the Luxor African Film Festival in March 2017. Irony aside, it is nice to see Egyptian film experts understanding the importance of such an oeuvre, not only in the realm of cinematography but also in preserving history.
Neila Driss is a Tunisian lawyer, blogger, and cinéphile. In 2006, she won the Most Promising Blog Prize at the Tunisia Blog Awards and in the following year, she won the first place jury prize. In 2010, her blog MonMassir, whose title translates as My Destiny and is inspired by Youssef Chahine’s film Al Massir, was censored by the Tunisian government. In more recent years, she has been writing about cinema, in particular Arab cinema, and she has published on the subject in Tunisian and Egyptian newspapers (Tunis Hebdo, Al Akhbar and Al Ahram) and in online magazines and websites, including Webdo.tn, Tourismag.com and Za2ed.com.