In Search of Oil and Sand: The last days of Egypt's monarchy in a film

A long-lost film made by the pre-1952 elite sparks timely reflection on historical narratives


In Search of Oil and Sand: The last days of Egypt's monarchy in a film

Six weeks before Egypt's 1952 revolution, a group of friends from the Egyptian royal elite -- including several princes and princesses -- made a short fiction film. Set in an imaginary desert kingdom where Americans and British compete for oil rights, it featured an American damsel in distress, a battle using local Bedouins as extras, and a glamorous ball scene.

After the Egyptian military took over the country just a few weeks later, the film's director burnt its original copy so that the new regime could not use it as negative propaganda against the monarchy. It would have been the end of the royal cinematic adventure if, in the attic of an old villa not far from Cairo's Tahrir Square, one last 8 mm copy of the film had not survived the next six decades, along with other reels of amateur footage from the era.

In the 2012 feature documentary In Search of Oil and Sand, Egyptian and Lebanese filmmakers Wael Omar and Philippe Deeb follow Mahmoud Thabit, a descendent of Egypt's former royal family, as he reconstructs the story behind the film whose last copy he found in the family home attic. The English-language documentary about the film's making offers rare insight into the world of 1952 revolution's losers, told from their perspective.

"A big part of [In Search of] Oil and Sand was to give voice to a group of people who never were really allowed a voice before," says Egyptian co-director Wael Omar, who mentions a revised historical narrative in post-1952 schoolbooks.

In the film, Mahmoud Thabit reads extracts from his mother's unpublished memoires, and visits the film's sole surviving cast member at her home in Alexandria, where the camera briefly captures a shot of a stuffed lion: "I'm a really bad actress!" exclaims a clearly delighted Princess Nevine, as she sees herself on screen for the first time in years.

But co-director Wael Omar is eager not to come across as a monarchist. Instead, he says, In Search of Oil of Sand is more about understanding one's own history.

"Understanding what happened [in 1952], to me, became the road map to understanding where we are today," he told the audience at the Ismailia Film Festival, where the film was screened last June, after winning Best Director in Abu Dhabi last October.  

Omar and Deeb started making their documentary when president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's fourth military president, was still in power. Only after his fall in early 2011 did they feel that they had entered a post-1952 era and were truly free to discuss the events that ended Egypt's monarchy.

"It's only in the last few years [since Mubarak's fall] that a lot of the history -- the actual history -- is beginning to come out and to be discussed," he says. Even books such as one by exiled military leader Saad ed-Deen el-Shazly have started to be declassified.

But it will take time to reconstruct this "actual history", according to the filmmaker, especially in view of decades of historical indoctrination and the ongoing political re-shuffle in Egypt, after popular discontent unseated Egypt's first elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi at the beginning of the month.

In Search of Oil and Sand, and the time period it relates, is more relevant now than ever, says Omar. Since Morsi's military-backed ouster on July 3, Egypt's twittersphere has been abuzz with comparisons of current events to those of 1954, when the Egyptian military largely pushed the Muslim Brotherhood out of politics.

Yet, despite the documentary's relevance, a theatrical release in Egypt is not on the cards, especially in view of current popular support for the army, says Omar. 

Rather, the Middle West Films production, notably made with support from the Ford Foundation, the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute and Abu Dhabi's SANAD film fund, seeks an international audience. It has just been sold to Sweden, and interest has also been shown for the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, Omar has turned his attention further down Egypt's time line -- to the 1960s and 1970s, as the producer of Sherif Nakhla's musical documentary Les Petits Chats, and to 2011 onwards, as the director of When I Stop Chanting, I'll Be Dead.

The latter, still in development, is to be an animated documentary about Egypt's young football fans, known as the Ultras, and their model of revolutionary politics over the last two years.


Alice Hackman


In Search of Oil and Sand - trailer:

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