A Cinema of Unveiling, A Cinema of Awareness

An Interview with Tewfik Saleh


The following interview was conducted in May 1976 for La Palestine et le cinéma, edited by Guy Hennebelle and Khemais Khayati. It was included in a section dedicated to depictions of Palestinian resistance in Arab cinema, and it was followed by an interview with Mohamed Slim Riadh and another with Borhane Alaouié. Saleh’s film The Dupes was also analyzed by the Lebanese filmmaker Heiny Srour in her article “L’image de la femme palestinienne”, written for the same collection.

(1) Al-makhdu’un [The Dupes] (Tewfik Saleh, 1973)

Guy Hennebelle and Khemais Khayati: Among your most important films, The Rebels stands out with a particular intensity. Even though it’s not about the Palestinian cause, it would be good to hear you talk about it, since in many respects it foreshadows The Dupes.

Tewfik Saleh: I wrote The Rebels in 1965 and filmed it in 1966. The story takes place, symbolically, in a sanitorium for tuberculosis located in the desert. In this hospital, we find two kinds of people: those who can afford to pay for water, and those who can’t. Next to the sanitorium, there’s a military camp where the soldiers hog all the water for themselves. The patients who pay for water don’t mind too much, because they have their own reserves. Bit by bit, we realize over the course of the film that this sanitorium is actually a concentration camp. A child ends up dying. All the patients, paying or not, start to rebel. One of the doctors from the paying class organizes a hunger strike that leads to the patients taking over the hospital. The doctor becomes the director of the hospital. Lacking any rational theory to guide him, he proceeds empirically, by instinct. Hints of his social class can be felt in the people around him. Anticipating an attack by the police, they erect a wall. But the new leaders begin to commit a series of errors similar to the ones made by those originally in power. More people die. The police arrive and a battle begins. From here, a series of precise, concrete allusions to the situation in Nasser’s Egypt slips into the film, largely drawn from newspaper headlines at the time. The “revolutionary” system is reversed. The leaders are sent to another sanitorium. The old administration returns to power and behaves even more cruelly than before the putsch. The film ends with an image of a meeting at which the people, the “sick”, demand that the power comes from them, that the leadership be truly popular. 

How was the film received?

The film was completed on December 30, 1966. I showed it to a few people. Many told me, “Next week, you’ll either end up the director of the General Cinema Foundation1 or in prison!” The censors didn’t want to take responsibility for banning the film, but they wouldn’t dare release it either… They combed through the dialogue to try and prove I didn’t follow the initial script, but they didn’t find anything. The delay lasted a month. Finally, the minister met with me and said, “You were awarded the Gamal Abdel Nasser award and now you’ve made a film against Nasser!” Toying with the idiots, I replied, “But I didn’t make a film against Nasser!” “How! Isn’t the doctor in your film based on Nasser?” “Absolutely not!” I insisted. I didn’t convince him, of course, but he was very annoyed. The film cost a lot of money and now everyone was talking about it. What was to be done? I tried again to explain that I wasn’t trying to denounce revolution but to show that a rebellion not guided by a just theory always ends in failure, and that it couldn’t have any resemblance to the Nasser regime because it was the opposite, etc. I tried to hide my laughter, but they were not fooled. The minister asked me to remove certain scenes, especially those in which the doctor explained in a letter to the nurse that his failure owed to a lack of a just theory. They also asked me to specify in the credits that the events took place prior to 1952. The minister was hoping that this would indicate that everything was fixed with the 1952 revolution. I didn’t agree, but I played a new trick. The film ended with a scene in which a journalist was teaching peasants to write, “In the future, the hospitals will be ours and we will be rich.” In Arabic, the word for riches (tharoua) is similar to the word for revolution (thaoura). I replaced the one with the other. The government didn’t notice and seemed pleased, but they let me know that for the time being they would shelve the film and wait for a more favorable period to release it. Not long after, the July 1967 war broke out and we were thrown into defeat. My film took on a prophetic dimension! I could no longer deny that the doctor in the film was indeed Nasser! Especially since, after his defeat, the doctor in the film goes as far as to offer his resignation… The minister met with me again and told me, “I’m going to protect you, but you must also protect me: cut twenty-five minutes.” I was forced to accept this mutilation. The film once again lost its impact, but I think that despite all of these misadventures, The Rebels still has value as a warning to the Third World.

You had already directed two other films, Struggle of the Heroes [1962] and Diary of a Country Prosecutor [1969].2  Then in 1971, The Dupes, this time directly dedicated to the Palestinian question.

This film was adapted from a novel by the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani published in 1963, titled Men in the Sun.3

I wanted to adapt it as early as 1964, but despite my efforts I was unable to at the time. There were some demands that I could not accept. In particular, they wanted me to eliminate the Palestinian dimension of the novel and just focus on the struggles of three poor men trying to immigrate to Kuwait.

It seems like The Dupes was the first Egyptian feature film to take the Palestinian question seriously. How would you explain the long silence?

We could say that, for some time, the Palestinian cause was regarded by many of the Arab regimes sort of like a… coat rack. A coat rack on which each of them could hang whatever they wanted, depending on their interests. In the cinema, it was used to concoct artificial films filled with false bravery, operatic heroes, and stirring exploits. I’m thinking of a film like Land of Peace [Kamal El-Shaikh, 1957], for example. The Palestinian cause has also provided the basis for syrupy melodramas featuring women separated from their lovers by war. Things like that. Some also filmed short propaganda films, in which Palestinians were represented by images of women and children in tents… No one ever proposed a serious political analysis of their situation as victims of an imperialist machine. In all these films, we can sense the strong influence of American cinema.  

Did the Palestinian cause before 1967 at least inspire literary work?

Very little. Some things were written but nothing that deserved to be called literary or theatrical. However, Palestinians from Gaza did write some poems that were published in Egypt, since the territory was attached to Egypt at the time.  

Do you think that Ghassan Kanafani wrote Men in the Sun in reaction to this situation?

It was his first novel. Before then, he had written short stories, published in two collections, and a play. Men in the Sun was inspired by a real story: the death of forty Palestinians in a truck that was transporting them to Kuwait, where they were trying to immigrate illegally. He reduced the number of characters down to three. Kanafani had been a teacher in Kuwait after having worked in a laundry in Syria, where he attended high school. Like many others, he was involved with those who were later called “Syrian nationalists”. He quickly became acquainted with Marxism after writing Men in the Sun. His trip to China, sometime in 1964 or 1965, constituted a major event in his life, perhaps even a turning point. After the resurrection of the Palestinian resistance in 1965, he linked up with George Habash (who was also a “Syrian nationalist” at that time) and became the spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He wrote and drew a lot. At the time of his death, he left three incomplete novels. He also wrote a screenplay for Youssef Chahine, The Plum-Tree Flower.4

(2) Al-makhdu’un [The Dupes] (Tewfik Saleh, 1973)

Why did you wait to direct The Dupes until 1971?

Like I told you, I tried to direct the film in 1964 but was unsuccessful. In 1968, the so-called Battle of Karameh took place, the first time that the Israeli forces were defeated by the Arabs. The following week, four film projects on the Palestinian cause were proposed to the Egyptian General Cinema Foundation. We tried to film the script I wrote four years earlier. I didn’t think it was the best time to bring Kanafani’s novel to the screen because the situation it denounced had evolved considerably – in particular, since 1965 the Palestinian resistance had once again become a reality. I thought it was more appropriate to popularize and support the efforts of the Palestinians, to show how their resistance could constitute a hope for an armed revolution in the Arab world. In the end, it was not in Cairo in 1968 that I made The Dupes but in Damascus in 1971, thanks to the Syrian General Organization for Cinema, directed by Hamid Merai. It was after the famous Black September tragedy of 1970 in Amman that I made the decision to adapt Kanafani’s novel for the screen. I reread it in one night and felt that, with a few changes, I would be able to give it a valuable contemporary significance. I benefited from a great deal of freedom. I’m convinced that others thought they would block me in one way or another, but the chain of events meant that I was able to go ahead with my plans. I thought that, despite the reactivation of armed Palestinian resistance, the subject of Kanafani’s novel remained valuable and relevant: the theme of the film, as I conceived it, was the necessity to elaborate a just strategy for fighting Israel and creating a secular, democratic Palestine. The title makes it clear: “The dupes”, as the film shows symbolically, are the Palestinians who have been reduced, either by bad politics or the lack of coherent politics, to detritus, garbage abandoned in the wasteland. 

You previously tried to film another subject, “The Palestinian Wedding”…

Yes, in August 1969 I went to Amman where my mother-in-law (who was Palestinian) had just died. On the airfield, I witnessed a scene that shocked me: the reception of a fedayeen’s coffin by his family, who reacted as if it was a wedding, with chants [les you-yous] and songs, etc. After this, I read a short story by Adib Nahraoui titled “The Palestinian Wedding”, which told a similar story: in a refugee camp, a father and a mother are preparing the festivities for their son’s wedding. We watch the bride prepare. Near the end of the film, we would discover that the groom, a fedayeen, was killed in combat. The film would have been fairly costly (there would have been a flood that washed the tents [of the refugee camp] away) and I was unable to secure the funds to film it. 

What “message” did you hope to draw from this scenario?

Among other things, I wanted to respond to the Zionist slogan that pretends Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land”. I wanted to show that Palestinians possess national traditions, an original culture and civilization, and that they have no other solution today for protecting this culture other than by fighting. “The Palestinian Wedding” would have been a pretty spectacular film, I think. For example, it would have had a scene in which someone turned off twenty-one lights (representing the twenty-one years of the occupation of Palestine) with a Kalashnikov they received as a gift, redirecting the extra power to another, larger lamp lighting up the Palestinian flag…

Let’s return to The Dupes. What elements [of Kanafani’s novel] did you leave out in your adaptation, or on the contrary, what did you add?

To give one example, I added the dimension of “the betrayal of certain Arab governments” with respect to the Palestinian cause. That wasn’t in the novel. In general, I think I’ve remained faithful to the spirit of Kanafani: I’ve simply updated his words to account for the evolution of the situation. All I had to do was add or remove one or two sentences.

But couldn’t the betrayal of these Arab governments be read through the characters in the novel?

No, I don’t believe so.

So Kanafani’s aim was essentially to denounce the inhumane condition of Palestinians?

Yes, but there was a certain nuance to the way he put his finger on the problem in the three genius symbols he introduced in his novel, which I’ve developed further. The sexual mutilation of the driver, for instance, exists in the novel. To me, it seemed so representative of the imperialist strategy regarding the Palestinian people that I put special emphasis on it in the film. I don’t think Kanafani was fully aware of the symbol; otherwise, he would have developed it. In any case, it’s genius.  

Do we find three generations of Palestinians in the novel?

Yes. The old man belongs to the generation that I call the “goats.” This generation is contemporary with the loss of Palestine. In his flashback, there’s an important scene in which his wife tells him, referring to the schoolteacher Selim, “I don’t like that man, he doesn’t know religion.” To which he replies, “It isn’t with religion that we will liberate Palestine, but with guns.” The second generation is the one that knew Palestine in their youth. They matured politically elsewhere and fought in Transjordan. The third generation doesn’t know Palestine at all, but they have also suffered the dramatic consequences of its loss. 

You spoke of three symbols. What are the other two?

There’s the symbol of the desert: the symbol, of course, of the “desert” through which the Palestinian people have traveled for more than a quarter of a century. There’s the symbol of the woman whose leg has been amputated and who no man wants, except in exchange for money: another symbol of the Palestinian people, who everyone has long turned their backs on but who continue to be taken advantage of. 

Isn’t the castration of the driver, the “leader,” politically ambiguous?

This driver who leads the three Palestinians to their ruin by pretending to bring them to the Eldorado of Kuwait represents, in my eyes as well as in Kanafani’s, certain leaders of the Palestinian resistance who, on the one hand, lacked strategy, and on the other were sometimes corrupt.  We should note that the driver was once courageous – he fought against the Israelis. It was during this combat that he found himself emasculated. This trauma threw him into despair: from then on, he thought of nothing but the one pleasure left for him in life, money. A young Palestinian politely reproached me after a screening of the film in Damascus over the political content of this symbol. For me, the thing I wanted to denounce was essentially the recklessness of the Resistance, who for a long time had no strategy and did only what was expedient. Let me be clear that, on this point, I’ve done nothing but reproduce a quality of Kanafani’s novel, who had himself been a Palestinian leader. I’m in no position to give lessons. 

The Dupes opens with a reflection on the origins and development of the Palestinian drama. Only after this does the fiction begin.

This opening clearly situates the conditions of the drama that then develops in the form of a fable or allegory. I explicitly denounce the collusion of the Zionists and the reactionary Arabs. “In front of us there are Zionists and behind us there are traitors,” says one fedayeen. Then I show a portrait of Hussein of Jordan. I didn’t want to only show Hussein because he is not the only traitor, even if he is the most outspoken and bloodthirsty. There are many others, who are more discreet. Through a trick of montage, I let an ambiguity hover over the film as to the responsibility of other government officials in the region, past and present, in order to give myself a way out and avoid a good argument for censorship. I also denounce the idle chatter of the Arab governments who for a long time have left the Palestinian people to die a slow death, just like how in the story the small talk of the Kuwaiti border patrol officers leads to the suffocation of the three Palestinians trapped in the tank of the truck. 

If you had to remake The Dupes today, how would you proceed?

I would add a number of things. 

Would you make the film again today?

If I had to make a film outlining the Palestinian question, no, this is not the script I would choose for that purpose. But if had I to make a film showing the living conditions for many Palestinians, I could return to this scenario but with some modifications. In general, if I had to talk about Palestine again in cinema, it would be with a greater bitterness… 

But aren’t all of your films bitter, in a way?

I think so, yes. But when we speak about the political conditions that prevail in the Middle East, I don’t think we can be anything but bitter. Especially if you try to look reality in the face. In this vein, I have an idea for a film that would begin with the opening of the Suez Canal and ends with its reopening sometime later. I would cover all of Egyptian history in between. If I manage to make it, it will be in the form of fiction, but I assure you that it will all be authentic. 

Much like how The Dupes is a fiction film that draws on an extremely concrete, almost documentary reality?

Absolutely. From the Kanafani novel I took the essential: that is to say, three characters, a tanker truck, and a driver. I borrowed from reality all of the qualities that characterize documentary and introduced them to fiction in order to emphasize the profound character of the situation. I don’t think anyone can find a single image in The Dupes that does not speak to the reality of the political situation: sometimes it’s metaphorical, sometimes it’s documentary. Everything in the film helps to express the Palestinian “dream.”

What was the impact of The Dupes in Arab countries?

The film was not shown in Egypt. The censors never said yes or no, but it’s clear they didn’t want it. It was shown for two weeks in Syria, but only in Damascus. In Iraq, it wasn’t allowed, but I show my copy to my friends from time to time. It was shown in Tunisia and Algeria. I think it was in Aden that it had the greatest success. Round tables were organized on television.

There are no positive characters in your film, save for the instructor Selim, but even he dies at the beginning…

His memory, however, haunts the other protagonists in the film, who evoke him several times… “Ah, if we had only listened to Selim,” they say.

(3) Al-makhdu’un [The Dupes] (Tewfik Saleh, 1973)

The Dupes renews the question of revolutionary cinema for a new day. It seems more like a film warning its audience than one mobilizing them to action. What is your opinion on the subject?

It’s a complex question. At one point in my life, I believed it was necessary to make a certain type of mobilizing film, such as Struggle of the Heroes, my second feature. Then I thought it was more necessary to make films like The Rebels. In these two films, we meet a hero who refuses their condition and who fights against other characters to change the situation, the state of things. At first, I thought that mobilizing films had to have a relatively precise solution and include a certain number of speeches in addition to dramatic twists and action, even if the style wasn’t above using effects that today I would call melodramatic. Eventually I realized the heroes of these films presented qualities that we don’t recognize in the majority of people and that, as a consequence, there is a risk that audiences wouldn’t be able to identify with the characters, who are too perfect. 

This is why today I think, even if this isn’t everyone’s opinion, that a film like The Dupes is extremely mobilizing. Under what conditions can we say a film is mobilizing? When it inspires the overthrow of a situation. Traditionally in revolutionary films, it’s the strong characters who provoke change. Not so, of course, in The Dupes. It primarily focuses on weaker people who seem crushed by fate, but shown in such a way that the audience can’t help but learn from this depiction and become more aware of the problems through it. Rather than give examples of positive heroes, I prefer to explain to spectators why the ordinary people they see on the screen experience these difficulties. If we want to change the situation, it may be more useful to reveal the causes for this suffering rather than prioritize extraordinary people. My method consists in trying to touch people, in trying to move them emotionally in order to get them to think. On the whole, I feel my generation was fed too many big words to not be wary of overly virtuous speeches – ones that, in the past, served to hide the truth more often than not. We’ve been fooled too often. It’s important to give people a sense of the whole picture, the true course of events, so that they can act with a complete awareness of the situation. I’ve seen Palestinians cry in Damascus during screenings of The Dupes, but I’m convinced that they know the film shows the truth. 

Rather than speak of a “mobilizing film,” I would prefer to speak of a revelatory film. That’s not to say, however, that I’m an advocate for films that are open to any interpretation. No, absolutely not. In my films, and in The Dupes in particular, there’s a very clear position, right down to each scene. When I rewatch Struggle of the Heroes, I’m ashamed! Although it’s a film I worked very hard on, one that I rewrote three times, I made some commercial concessions in order to be sure that it would reach a large, illiterate audience, and I put an emphasis on the dialogue because I thought that people would not always understand the image by itself, that they were used to listening to Nasser for three hours. Today, I no longer think it’s necessary to make concessions when you want to make a mobilizing film. Already in The Rebels, I tried to give the film both artistic and political value. I’m not opposed to some romanticism but only so long as it’s a healthy romanticism that gives hope for the future. There are films that mobilize because they are exhilarating, and there are others that mobilize because they invite reflection. The Dupes belongs to the second group.

In the past, there was a certain kind of revolutionary film that was often formulaic, which remains true today. Perhaps the Palestinian question, owing to its complexity, will contribute to the emergence of a more elaborate aesthetic, one that’s especially insistent on the notion of contradiction and that draws attention as well to the diversity of approaches to revolutionary cinema (as indicated by Hassan Abû Ghanima in the interview in the first section of our book5 ). Yet even in The Dupes, don’t you think it would have been good to include a “positive” character in the midst of the misfortunes faced by the protagonists who could propose an active approach? Are you absolutely opposed to such a character in a film?

Like I said earlier, there was a positive character in The Dupes: Selim. But he was killed very early in the film, in the same way that the Palestinian resistance was suppressed for a long time before reappearing in 1965. I’m not radically opposed to positive characters in a film. But it’s true that I don’t really like this type of character. It’s very good to rely on them when you can, as long as the result is valuable and we do so intelligently. I prefer not to use them but I understand that others do differently. For the time being, I choose to practice a cinema of unveiling, a cinema of awareness. I’m more interested in denouncing the suffocating policies practiced by the majority of Arab regimes today. If censorship makes it difficult for me to denounce them as such, I can at least attack them indirectly by portraying the people who suffer their misdeeds. For me, the real heroes are those who for more than twenty years have endured the prevailing situation in the Middle East. When I was young, I was convinced in a someway romantic way that heroes could fight effectively against the system. Today I realize that it’s the systems in the Middle East that more often crush the people. This is why in my eyes, the heroes today are the ones who have the courage to resist, even if they do not always achieve concrete results. My duty as a filmmaker consists in furnishing the arms of critique, the intellectual means to understand what happens so that the spectators are not “had” by what they’re told. I don’t believe at all that The Dupes is a negative film because it talks of failure. My position is a little like the mother who warns her child, “If you do this, this is what will happen. If you go into the woods, you will be eaten by the wolf…”

Interview conducted in May 1976

(4) Al-makhdu’un [The Dupes] (Tewfik Saleh, 1973)

  • 1[Translator’s note: In 1962, the Ministry of Culture and Guidance in Egypt formed the General Cinema Foundation to produce high-quality feature films.]
  • 2Author’s note: On other films by Tewfik Saleh and his opinion on Egyptian cinema in general, see L’Afrique littéraire et artistique, note 26.
  • 3[TN: An English translation of this novella can be found in Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories, trans. Hilary Kilpatrick (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998).]
  • 4[TN: I have not managed to source any additional mention of this script. No discussion of the script or of Kanafani can be found in either of the biographies of Chahine I consulted, Ibrahim Fawal’s Youssef Chahine (London: BFI, 2001) and Mirvet Médini Kammoun’s Youssef Chahine, Caméra de tous les combats (Manitoba: Centre de Publication Universitaire, 2010). It is possible that Saleh is misattributing the script to Chahine. Roy Armes, in his encyclopedia Arab Filmmakers of the Middle East (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010), lists an adaptation of this Kanafani story directed by Yassine El Bakri in 1973. My thanks to Mathew Beauchemin for bringing this alternative title to my attention.]
  • 5[TN: See “Entretien avec Mustapha Abu Ali et Hassan Abu Ghanima,” by Guy Hennebelle and Tahar Cheriaa, in La Palestine et le cinéma, p. 38-44. See also the essays written by Abu Ghamina in the same volume, p. 30-38.]

Images from Al-makhdu’un [The Dupes] (Tewfik Saleh, 1973)


This article was originally published in La Palestine et le cinéma, ed. Guy Hennebelle et Khemaïs Khayati (Presses de l’imprimerie, 1977), 132-40.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.