Mohamed Khan has died?! This was the question of denial that followed the tragic news of his death. His death was followed by nothing but the silent sneaking of absence.
Khan—king of reality—is no longer in real life. There is something that cannot be said in one sentence—something that still does not mitigate the suddenness of the event. That thing cannot be written, even if everyone penned down all the love, passion, and feeling of loss they have for Khan.
He believed he experienced love in his life before he left. He was the one who lit up a spark in spirit that shed a stubborn spotlight on our critical sense, altered our perception of cinema, and raised—along with a group of directors, authors, and critics—our standards for watching screenplays.
Now we weigh life on the scales of cinema that begins with spectacular images and does not end at discussions and controversies that break out over the topics. It involves us pondering over streets and the geography of human nature.
This is Khan’s great journey, documented, step by step, by his movies as he observed the fragility of the weary, the defeated, and those who suffered from their past as well as their present.
While I was walking around the streets of Cairo, neither awake nor asleep, I walked on pavements as if paddling at a mirage, hitting passers-by, who looked as though they were dancing to the melody of their own wounds. Such gloomy faces that were a fine match for the ugliness in every corner of this loud city.
The spaces in the city were small and narrow. Its sky was divided into two, one made of smoke and dust, and the second was a lost horizon so much like the long stories and the tangled details in Mohamed Khan’s films.
My memory cannot rest from all the details and the absence, and I find no one to share this pain with. We were all terrified from Khan’s death. A surprise that left us unconscious, shattering our feelings that always bloomed in his presence and all his films that we saw ourselves in, moving from one dream to another and from one disappointment to another.
I look at the city and I remember my visit to his place in Maadi before the premier of his last film Abl Zahmet El Seef (Before Summer’s Hustle).
He sat in his quite corner where the sunlight fell on him from his open window. Plenty of books on well-organised shelves, in addition to cassettes and boxes, and they were all indexed just like he had told me before. A large screen was put in the middle of that place, which was all about cinema. That was where he practiced his daily activity of capturing details and watching the world from his special corner. That is where he wrote all his articles and Facebook posts, and read all the novels he could read, and the biographies of foreign directors.
One thing he never gave up was his daily habit of watching two movies a day. He told me: “Cairo is my city and my human and artistic origin. I’m its son, who is crazy about it. Its streets left a mark on my feet from the many walks I took on its ground when I was younger. I was born in Ghamra and lived Downtown, in Ard Sherif, with my family. There were two cinemas in front of our house: El-Karnak and Barady. This was the beginning of my relationship with cinema. Cairo planted this love in my heart before I travelled to England. There, I was introduced to the cinema in better ways that allowed me to see all sorts of international cinema. Our home’s position in front of those two cinemas was really such an opportunity for me to keep up with all the newest films through the balcony. I could watch all the movies through the balcony, and I heard the sounds of the films well, especially at night. When Monday arrived—the beginning of the cinematic week—I went to see the new films.”
Khan’s cameras have documented the streets and landmarks of Cairo and the ways in which they drain our souls. Khan’s cameras have moved through our thoughts and memories.
Khan’s cameras saw Egypt freely, the way his eyes did. He saw it fluttering and happy.
Ironically, Khan’s last film was made outside Egypt. But through it, he explored the new era through a certain social class that revealed the broken present. It is Khan’s usual game to turn what seems normal into an amazing state of art. An exception was Kharaga Wa Lam Ya’od (Gone and Never Came Back), in which he portrayed the countryside as the opposite of the city: clean and full of goodness and good people, while the city is a poor place, polluted with people and their personalities. The logic of this film is similar to the one used in Mr. Karate, in that light is shed on a new crisis that portrays Cairo as a place in which you can see all the problems of the entire Egyptian society. This happens through the main character’s journey in the hustle of the city and the loneliness of its streets that make him feel its brutal cold. So he moves from one loss to another and from one conflict to a bigger conflict.
In one of my interviews with Khan, he said: “The cinema takes us to the places that we never imagined to see life in. Throughout my career, I believed that a director who does not have socialist tendencies, will never be able to present innovation. I don’t mean that he should be a communist; however, he should believe in social justice.”
From this perspective, Khan tended to free his characters from pain to keep us hopeful.
In Return of a Citizen, Khan left the protagonist standing in the airport to keep the door of hope open. In Dreams of Hind and Camilia, if the two main characters did not find the young girl, the end would be a dark one. They lost their money, but at least they still have their dream.
In Factory Girl, the end was cheerful and that was what the audience needs. He crossed the depressing and breaking lives of his characters that move from houses to streets as if they are being hunted. Despite all that, they memorised the streets’ map and develop an ability to resist the street life’s wilderness through love and dreams.
In Super Market, Khan exemplified all the details that describe a society facing the wind of capitalism that breaks all the old traditions and leads to a mirage, in which the middle class fails for the sake of the autocrats and arrogant people.
Khan’s camera spins around Cairo’s streets to draw a painting crammed with love and questions about the world of the middle class.
The open economic policy shot society in the chest with its change that touched the world of the middle class. As a result, its new values of materialism and capitalism transcended over the middle class values of spirit, meanings, and ethics.
Khan’s camera was like the painters’ tool: drawing the resistant, lofty old houses in the face of the wind of change. However, they are hurt and full of scars, wounds, and pains of the new age and its effects on the human soul. Life turned out to be like a supermarket, everything is for sale, and the resistant who refuses to be sold to the rules of the new world are undoubtedly losers, according to these rules. Everything becomes the same and there is no chance for choosing an alternative way.
Either “you have to make moral concessions” or “wait for a stroke of luck” in the time of “what is the story? Speak to me; explain to me; what a beautiful girl”, the song that Khan chose for the finale of his movie to stand as an artistic correlative to describe the level of deterioration society has reached. It is the same objective correlative that he chose to demonstrate the chaotic society in Missing, in which he used Ahmed Adaweyya’s song “Crowd”. Nevertheless, the movie Sunstroke is still not only the real start of Khan’s journey, but the movie that “put points on letters”, bringing to life a new rhythm of cinema in which the pictures engage with the subject and create a different equation. In this movie, the houses of Cairo, the streets, and the transportation join with the people of the city who appear lost looking for a safe space.
Khan also created a special human state in A Dinner Date. Here he draws another story in which faces and visions blend together. The result that Khan wanted to achieve was that freedom cannot be compared to anything except death. Another face of the need for freedom can be found in The Wife of an Important Man, which pictures the assault of the authority in the seventies through a police officer that turns into a beast, attacking people. He becomes more brutal when losing his power. He symbolises the opportunistic authority that caused the uprising of 18 and 19 January 1977. In that movie, Khan is recalling moments from the beautiful past through the songs of Abdel Halim Hafez, which light up the soul of the heroine of the movie after her husband, the authoritative police officer, tainted her with the darkness of his brutal soul during their life together. He ended by destroying Abdel Halim’s cassettes, killing her father, and killing himself.
Mohamed Khan did not present his movies with the aim of writing history and did not mean to make us address what events came first and what events came second, but he created for us a cinematic memory that passes through the terrain of Egypt, and more particularly Cairo, and documents the mirage of the dreams of its people whom Khan shaped with all their psychological and sociological states of being with the skill of an expert who walks on the tips of his soul in a country whose people are exhausted and cannot find dreams.
Nahed Salah is a film critic.