Egypt’s first hit war movie in years hailed as Hollywood-quality production
CAIRO - Defeat and failure can eventually lead to victory and success. This is what renowned Egyptian film-maker Sherif Arafa is trying to tell viewers through his most-anticipated movie, “Almamar” (the Passage).
The film, the first Egyptian war movie in decades, depicts the period following Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, which was dubbed “the Setback,” and the ensuing War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel that lasted a whole year (1969- 70).
The Six-Day War resulted in Israel capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Old City of Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights.
“Almamar” starts with an Israeli cabinet meeting where participants assess the situation in Egypt and its neighbours before declaring war. The scene is followed by another portraying grief and disappointment over Egypt’s defeat. The introduction showed with great realism how well-prepared Israel was for war in comparison with Egypt, which was not ready to face an attack of that scale.
“What are we going to tell our folks, sir, that we let Zionists capture our land?” Captain Mahmoud, played by Egyptian actor Ahmed Falawkas, asks a senior army officer following the military chief’s order for Egyptian forces to retreat in 1967.
Perhaps one of the most overwhelming scenes in the film occurs when Israeli officer, David, well-depicted by Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar, addresses late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s photo. “You still want to throw us in the sea, Gamal? Smile… smile!” Nassar said.
The events are based on the true story of a joint unit of Egyptian commandos and navy seals charged with special missions behind enemy lines. In the film, the group is assigned to bomb Israel’s highly fortified camp in Sinai, knowing by mere coincidence that war prisoners from Egypt were kept there, which makes it a rescue mission as well.
They are led by commander Nour, the film’s main protagonist, portrayed by Egyptian star Ahmed Ezz.
The war of attrition was carried out during Nasser’s reign. It included a series of successful operations by the Egyptian Army units that meant to drain the Israeli forces and prepare for a wide-scale war.
The film’s soundtrack, composed by Egyptian musical icon Omar Khairat, drew public applause.
Almost all Egyptian ethnicities are represented in the film: the Nubian soldier, the Upper Egyptian, Cairo residents and the Bedouins, who play the role of guides for the soldiers in the Sinai desert.
Egyptian actor Ahmed Rezk, the reporter covering the secret mission in the film, acts as comic relief during the film’s heated action. Rezk manages to put a smile on viewers’ faces following moments of awe and anticipation.
The film topped the Egyptian box office earnings with revenues amounting to more than 30 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $2 million) in the first few days of screening.
As a war movie, it is well-crafted and compared to Hollywood films despite limited production facilities. “Almamar” cost 70 million Egyptian pounds (about $4.2 million).
Producer Hisham Abdel-Khalik said in a recent interview that “the Egyptian Army’s Department of Morale Affairs helped in providing the necessary artillery, arms and training for the film’s crew to appear that way.”
Surprisingly, “Almamar” has attracted youngsters and adults alike, who enthusiastically cheered every successful attack by the Egyptian soldiers.
“Even though I didn’t live through these times, I have always heard about the Egyptian Army’s heroic operations during the War of Attrition from my parents and grandparents, a notion that has been confirmed by ‘Almamar,’” Soha Alaa, 21, said following the film screening at a Cairo cinema.
“’Almamar’ is a great movie, bringing back the memories of the war. I was almost 20 when the war broke out. It was a moment of severe frustration; but our army made it eventually,” Ahmed Sadek, a viewer, said.
The film has won raving reviews from movie critics as well.
“It is an important, well-crafted film made during a time when we lack good movie productions. This genre of films has been ignored for almost 25 years now,” critic Magda Morris said.
Arafa recalls a long preparatory phase that preceded the making of “Almamar.”
“I read sources and references from the Egyptian, Israeli and Russian sides. I also watched…documentaries and read memoirs of those who survived that stage whether soldiers or writers,” he said in a statement sent to the press.
The film is outstanding in its realistic representation of the conflict and effectively brings out the battle’s other angles, such as the humanity of the soldiers.
Some critics saw resemblance with the rhetoric used by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his speeches. It is stirring, simplistic and overwhelmingly sentimental — a testament to the resilience of the Egyptian man and a call to arms for national unity against the enemy, whoever it may be.