adrin neatrour writes: Coming off the rails – The concerns and tensions realised in Cairo Station are embedded naturally into the film’s setting at the very junction of life in 1950’s Egypt – Cairo Station – a crucible for the contradictions and strains experienced by a rapidly changing society.
Cairo Station – Youssef Chahine – Egypt 1958 78 mins Fariq Shawqi; Hind Rostrom
Viewed Lumiere Cinema London 12 May 2007 ticket price £6-00
Coming off the rails
Chahine’s movie is a melodrama in an adapted neo-realist form that has an assemblage of concerns sustained by a circuitry of social tensions. The concerns and tensions realised are embedded naturally into the film’s setting at the very junction of life in 1950’s Egypt – Cairo Station – a crucible for the contradictions and strains experienced by a rapidly changing society whose population is exposed for the first time to completely novel external stimuli imported from the West. The exposure takes place within a deeply conservative religious social matrix which at this moment is without coherent response beyond conditioned distrust. Individuals are left free to make their own responses and precarious adjustments to the new psychic demands of Westernism.
The focus of the action revolves around two groups: the male porters in Cairo central station and the women soft drink vendors who sell their drinks illicitly without a license directly to passengers on the trains. These groups operate within the setting of Cairo station which location is the core of the film, a direct visual referent to the movement and upheavals of people, transforming their lives creating new possibilities new dangers for Egyptians. The locomotives themselves, hissing blowing extracting power out of coal and steam, are the engines of change. Wrenching the peasants from the land and transporting the middles classes to new fields of desire and delight. The rail tracks criss-cross multiply and divide lead to and from everywhere diverting directing attracting and expelling. For the bourgeoisie these tracks are empowering allowing them the better to exploit and multiply new opportunities. Chahine’s main focus is to chronicle the new constant of endless movement of people from the country to the town, the relentless pressure of the periphery upon the centre.
One of these pressures is exemplified in the unbridled public appearance and behaviour of the women vendors. In their work none of them wear scarves and they are possessed of a primal sensuality that is typical of their class status and age group throughout Europe but atypical in rural Egypt from where they originate. It is an image however that one suspects that has been imported into this culture through foreign influences – European and American films – projecting public images of woman at odds with traditional Islamic beliefs. These women of Cairo Station are earthy and coarse flaunting their bodies playfully as they make their way through the trains selling soft drinks. There is one scene in particular that is telling. The main woman character having boarded a train in the station, ends up dancing in one of the carriages as a travelling American bebop group let rip. Her dance is unabashedly and unashamedly modern western and physical, and close to the male foreigners emphasises her female anatomy. In Italy or France it might be accepted: but in an Islamic country it is endemically problematic. Chahine has wired this scene into his film because it is the point at which the relentless outer movement of people finally communicates itself to resonates and intensifies in the female body. And it is at this point, the issue of female sexuality, where the Western form of the modern would comes off the rails in Egypt. The dance ends when her boyfriend, one of the porters, sees what she is doing, chases and catches her, and gives her a good beating.
It is this same vendor’s displayed femininity that triggers the main chain of events in the film. One of the characters a recent immigrant who is lame and works at the station selling newspapers covers the walls of the hut where he lives with Western style pin-ups. This masturbatory environment is paralleled by his obsession with a sex slaying case that has blanket coverage in the newspapers: a young woman’s severed body has been found in a trunk by the railway. The lame news seller latches onto the soft drink vendor, whose physicality overwhelms him and whose life becomes reduced to his desire to possess her in the same way that he possesses his pin-up girls. Unable to persuade her to return his ‘love’ because ‘she’ plans to marry one of the porters, his obsessive masturbatory urges overcome him and he sets out to trap and kill her as a way of completion and actualising his fascination with the dead woman in the trunk who is now psychically fused with his frustrated object of desire. The cripple’s plan miscarries. He stabs the wrong women and is eventually chased and trapped outside the station shed on the very tracks that have led him to Cairo.
At this moment when the killer is disarmed and captured – the film’s final sequence – Chahine as director/ writer orchestrates an extraordinary ending to the action so that the film becomes both a provocation to and a manifesto of modernism. The killer is not arrested and taken away by the police. It’s the emergency psychiatric services that have been alerted and who apprehend him, strapping him into a straight jacket before bundling him away. Chahine refuses to see his killer as a simple perpetrator of wrong as would almost certainly be the case in a Western film. Chanhine refuses to demonise the newspaper seller; to cover him with the mantel of evil; the killer is a victim of forces that have deranged him. And it is important to note that throughout the film the lame seller is never simplistically villainised; in Chahine’s treatment of him there is always a residual affective sympathy. Chahine’s statement is the prescient observation that in a real and meaningful sense in the coming maelstrom of change in Egypt it would have to be understood that all were victims, the quick and the dead.