x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Film to explore Egyptian general's suspicious death

A controversial project will depict the souring of relations between President Nasser and his former friend, the country's top military commander.

The Egyptian director Khaled Youssef edits his most recent film at his office in Cairo.
The Egyptian director Khaled Youssef edits his most recent film at his office in Cairo.

CAIRO // More than 40 years after the suspicious death of Abdel Hakim Amer, Egypt's army general during the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, Egyptians will finally have the chance to learn more about his life and death through a controversial film whose production was allowed recently by a court order. The script for Al Rais wal Moushir, ("The president and the marshal") was rejected by Egypt's censors five years ago. In a surprise verdict, the administrative court overruled the censors' decision just before Eid and said the film could now be produced. The film addresses the complex relationship between the late president, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Amer, his longtime friend. Nasser was born in 1918, one year before Amer; they joined the military academy together and fought in the Palestine war of 1948. They led the revolution that overthrew King Farouk in 1952. Nasser appointed Amer to head the army. The film depicts the souring of their relations after the Suez War in 1956, and the humiliating 1967 defeat.

"It's a very rich and complicated human relationship between two very different characters," said Mamdouh el Leithy, the president of Cinema Production Agency, which produces films by the government, in an interview at his office. "It started with the two men, both from upper Egypt, swearing on the Quran and the gun to remain loyal to each other as they were both joining the military academy in 1937, their ascendance to power, Nasser appointing Amer, who was just a major, to an army commander in 1953, and appointing him as a vice president," he said.

Amer's death is an unresolved issue in their relationship. While the official story is that he committed suicide on September 14, 1967, three months after the war; his family insists he was killed. The film will portray both claims. In a portion of the script published in the independent daily newspaper Al Masry al Youm on Saturday, Nasser is seen reading Amer's death report, obviously very saddened, and telling himself: "What a loss, O Hakim; you didn't know how to teach me to play poker, and I failed to teach you to read, and it wasn't possible, and we shouldn't, divide the country into two." In a phone interview, Berlanti Abdel Hamid, Amer's widow, said: "All those who are talking about Amer committing suicide are liars.

"I published the forensic report that states that he was killed in my book The Road to My Destiny, Amer," she added. Ms Abdel Hamid, a former actor, met Amer in 1963, the couple married in secret, and had their son, Amr, shortly before Amer's death. "I and my son, Amr, agreed that we won't remain silent about any lies or wrong things about my husband in this film; we will take legal action and ask for compensation," Ms Abdel Hamid said. "It's not the right of the filmmakers to address our beloved ones, who concern us, without asking us, and say whatever they want, with no proof or credibility."

"We have nothing to do with this movie, nobody spoke to us at all, as if we're not his family or know anything about him," said Amr Abdel Hakim Amer, 42, a hematologist. "We are sick and tired of people blaming all the mistakes on Amer and giving all the credit [to] Nasser. This is totally false. Amer wasn't the charismatic leader who made all the wrong political decisions, he was a military man who carried them out." Neither El Leithy, the scriptwriter, nor Khaled Youssef, the director, are strangers to controversy.

El Leithy, a former police officer in his 70s, started writing controversial political movies, critical of the revolution, in the 1960s. Many of them were allowed to be made and shown only after the intervention of Nasser. Among them are el Karanak, Miramar and Adrift on the Nile, all critical of the revolution and based on novels by the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. El Leithy said he spent four years working on the script for Al Rais wal Moushir, which he completed in 2004, and wanted it to be his last film. When government censors said the film had to have clearance from the mukhabarat, or military intelligence, which never came, he resorted to the judiciary.

"I lived this era, and have no intention to fabricate or tarnish history," el Leithy said. Khaled Youssef, in his 40s, and one of the students of lthe ate Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, is controversial himself. Five of his 10 movies were allowed after he talked to intelligence, army and police officials about his movies and the issues addressed in them, said Youssef with a smile, in an interview in his office as he was editing his last movie, Call Me, Thank You.

"It's very difficult to discuss drama with soldiers, but I did, and succeeded in convincing them," he said. "I'm a Nasserite and respect the revolution despite its great mistakes." Along with their lawyer, Nasser Amin, el Leithy and Youssef were happily surprised by the ruling of the court, which emphasised freedom of expression and the right of the new generation to know its history. "This is a historic verdict," Youssef said. He and el Leithy will soon revise the script and choose the cast. "We will start shooting the film before the end of the year.

"Historic figures are the property of the nation not just their families. I'll abide by the historical facts, but every director has his own vision. "In a way, I'm happy that the movie was delayed for five years; I'm more mature now and gained more knowledge in these years that I'm sure will be reflected positively in the movie," he said. nmagd@thenational.ae