The Dupes (1972) opens with a close-up of a human skeleton and the distant figure of someone making their way across the burning desert. The credits end with the warning: “A man without a country will have no grave in the earth.” Tewfik Saleh’s film is wedded to death from the start, a scorching blast from a time when the Palestine question was no less tragic but perhaps more hopeful.
It has been almost three weeks of relentless bombing of Gaza by Israel, with no signs of an end. More than 6,000 Palestinians have died but there is no time to dig graves. The dire situation of Palestine charges the already fraught atmosphere of Saleh’s film, which is playing as part of the Restored Classics section at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (27 October-5 November). It’s based on a 1963 novella by the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, Men In The Sun, about three Palestinian refugees who undertake a fraught journey from Basra in Iraq across the border to the promised land of Kuwait.
The Dupes was one of the first films to take a definitive pro-Palestine stance. Director Saleh was Egyptian and the film was funded by Syria’s National Film Organization. There are no Israeli characters in the film, though mentions of Zionists are frequent. The Arab nations are also criticised, both as historical actors and as part of the film’s plot. There’s a brilliant montage of still images showing political leaders in the aftermath of the 1948 Naqba that displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Abou Keïss’ narration over this speaks of the betrayal of his people: “Talks, talks, talks… discussing nonsense… They bought you and sold you. You have been waiting 10 years over their words. For nothing. You have the Zionists before you and the traitors behind.”
Abou Keïss (Mohamed Kheir-Halouani) is the oldest of the three refugees, the only one with clear memories of the Naqba. Assaad (Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala) is the most charismatic of the trio, a young man on the run for his part in armed struggles. And there’s baby-faced schoolboy Marwan (Saleh Kholoki), whose father has divorced his mother and left him with the responsibility of providing for his mother and three siblings. These three converge on a corrupt smuggler in Basra, the closest this film comes to comic relief (there are no song sequences either—unusual for an Arab film of that era—though there’s a haunting a cappella refrain sung by a boatman). The smuggler is discarded in favour of Palestinian Abou Kheizarane (Abderrahman Alrahy), less shady and charging less to get them across the border.
There’s a catch, though. Abou Kheizarane drives a water tanker for a rich patron. His plan hinges on the trio getting into the tanker at the two border checkpoints and sitting quietly for the six minutes it will take for him to get the formalities done. In the 50 degrees Celsius desert heat, this is not a sauna (as Abou Kheizarane jokingly calls it) but a potential death trap. The expertly ratcheted tension recalls another great film about four men and a truck, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear (1953). There’s also the possible influence of The Battle Of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s revolutionary 1966 film: in Bahgat Heider’s high-contrast black and white photography with its haunting faces, and the way Salhi El Wadi’s score resembles Ennio Morricone’s at times.
Through disruptive, associative editing, Saleh conveys a sense of perpetual displacement that matches the characters’ own experiences. A flashback with Abou Kheizarane in a hospital cuts abruptly to a black screen, lit a second later with the striking of a match. Abou Keïss lifts a handful of rich soil as a happy younger man; when he puts it down, he’s an old, broken refugee. Sometimes the editing is on allegorical lines: Two separate conversations with Assad are cross-cut, both involving foreigners and about rats.
Throughout the film, there are reminders of how little has changed in the lives of the Palestinian people. The radio is “a prophet… (that sows) the seeds of nonsense”. Abou Keïss wonders whether he should have accepted defeat and eaten “the flour of the UNRWA”. Above all, there is the idea the film begins with: people on the move, without a country. In an interview on 24 October in The Drift magazine, Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, says: “Nobody who’s kicked out is ever allowed to return. Every Arab, every Palestinian knows that. Nobody driven into Egypt will ever come back to Gaza or any other part of Palestine. Most of these people, of course, have already been displaced.” The Dupes shows us the first generations of the displaced, and indicates why Palestinians continue to see their nation shrink today.