Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 13, 2017

The Nile Hilton Incident; Whose Streets

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

Regrettably I was not able to write a review two outstanding films that opened in New York on Friday night. If you are looking for worthwhile alternatives to “Dunkirk” or “Detroit”, you cannot do better than to make time for “Nile Hilton Incident”, a narrative film that is playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Quad Cinema, or “Whose Streets”, a documentary showing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe theater at Lincoln Center and at Sunshine Cinema. It is quite likely that these will be finalists in my pick for best films of 2017.

As a big fan of film noir, I would have highly recommended “The Nile Hilton Incident” as the sort of work that captures the best of a genre that is woefully underrepresented in popular culture today. Directed by Tarik Saleh, a Swedish filmmaker of Egyptian descent, its closest relatives are the Swedish detective stories written by Marxists such as the Wallander series. In such tales, the enemy is often some powerful capitalist who can rely on his cronies in the police department or the military to look the other way when they are carrying out some crime. It is up to a decent, hard-working detective to set things right. (This is fiction, after all.)

In the opening scene of “The Nile Hilton Incident”, a Sudanese cleaning lady at this Cairo landmark is pushing her cart down the hallway when she hears a woman screaming from inside a room just before the killer makes his escape. She recognizes him from the far end of the hallway as a past visitor to her room and someone to be feared. As such, she beats a hasty retreat in the opposite direction from him.

The following day, the cops survey the crime scene led by chief Noredin Mostafa whose first impression would lead you to believe that he had little in common with the high-minded, incorruptible Wallander. Inspecting her dead body, he finds a billfold filled with money that he pockets. This sort of behavior is par for the course in his department that is led by his uncle Kammal who openly discusses payoffs at headquarters.

Noredin Mostafa is a chain-smoking, sad-eyed man in his forties who lives alone. A widower, he is seeking companionship but like people everywhere in the world is forced to rely on computer dating because social ties have broken down, especially in metropoles like New York or Cairo. When putting together his profile for a dating service with a tech-savvy friend, he seems ready to walk away in disgust.

He is played by Fares Fares, a Swedish actor originally from Lebanon who is outstanding. He moved to Sweden to escape the civil war and soon became a successful actor in Swedish and American films, including Kathryn Bigelow’s awful “Zero Dark Thirty”. Unlike her film, “The Nile Hilton Incident” is very much from an Arab viewpoint and immersed in Egyptian culture. With his basset hound features, Fares will remind you instantly of Victor Mature or Robert Mitchum, two film noir icons who often played the same kind of role: a tarnished, world-weary detective walking a tightrope between the needs of honest citizens who have been wronged and the powerful elements of Egyptian society who use the state to protect their interests—including the cops.

In the course of his investigation, Noredin discovers that the culprit is likely a parliamentarian and real estate developer who is used to getting away with all sorts of crimes, and in this case possibly murder. Just as he begins to uncover clues that make the developer a prime suspect, his uncle tells him that the case is closed. The dead woman slit her own throat in an act of suicide.

At this point, Noredin decides to jump off the tightrope and into the ranks of the downtrodden. The dead woman was kept by the real estate developer and likely killed by him in a crime of passion. As his investigation proceeds, the protests in Tahrir Square are beginning to mount and at this point Tarik Saleh’s film becomes a perfect blend of film noir and social criticism of the fetid core of Egypt’s ruling class.

Highly, highly recommended.

“Whose Streets” is in part a look at the protests that followed in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri but much more than that. It is a sensitive and revealing look at the activists who helped to build the movement and the kind of lives they live. Under economic pressure that would break most people, they have an indomitable thirst for dignity and respect that was so sorely missing in this town ruled by a racist police department.

The film profiles seven subjects and devotes most of its attention to Hands Up United’s cofounder Tory Russell, Brittany Farrell, who is a nurse and young mother, and David Whitt, a recruiter for Cop Watch. These are young, articulate and idealistic people who are part of an emerging civil rights movement that may be more powerful than that of the 1960s for the simple reason that it starts on a higher level. The goal is no longer desegregation but social and economic equality, starting with the expectation that cops don’t have the right to shoot you in cold blood because you are walking down the middle of the street like Michael Brown.

Director Sabaah Folayan was well-equipped to make such a film. She is an African-American who grew up as the daughter of a single mom in South Central Los Angeles, a part of the city that has to deal with the same issues as Ferguson. She attended Columbia University as a premed student and graduated with a degree in biology. But she was drawn to community organizing soon after her graduation but with much more of an emphasis on struggle than another Columbia University graduate who worked as a community organizer, one Barack Obama.

Folayan teamed up with Damon Davis, whose father was a member of the Black Panther Party and mother was a sharecropper. A native of St. Louis, he was able to become part of the struggle from the outset. Wikipedia reports:

In Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, while awaiting the grand jury decision on whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, Davis created a public art project on storefronts boarded up in anticipation of unrest. Working with store owners, he wheatpasted the plywood-covered windows of participating stores with a series of posters developed from his photographs of hands in the “hands up” gesture Brown was allegedly making when Wilson shot him. Davis described the project at aiming to create “something visually appealing, just to give the people hope, and let them know we stand with them.” Mic called the project “the most powerful street art in America.”

In 2016, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego showed the photographs from the project in an exhibit called “Damon Davis: All Hands on Deck.” An original window board from the Ferguson installation is part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

As I have stated in the past, I consider documentary filmmakers of the past to be part of an informal vanguard that will ultimately become the party that leads a revolution in the USA. You should consider Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis the vanguard of the vanguard.

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