The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh, 1973)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films present The Dupes.

criterion logoThe Dupes is a starkly beautiful film tracing the destinies of three Palestinian refugees brought together by dispossession, poverty, and dreams of a better future.  Set in 1950s Iraq, the three men risk their lives within the sweltering confines of a water truck’s steel tank in hopes of smuggling themselves into nearby Kuwait and finding gainful employment.  A masterful adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s acclaimed novella Men in the Sun, The Dupes is one of the first films to address the Palestinian predicament.  Egyptian filmmaker Tewfik Saleh blends social realism, documentary representation, New Wave-style subjectivity, and road movie allegory into a Pan-Arabist production that casts a critical eye on the Palestinian diaspora and its causes.

Disc Features:

A classic of Arabic cinema that remains generally (and unfortunately) unknown in the West, The Dupes is the harrowing tale of 3 Palestinian refugees struggling to survive 10 years after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Palestinian exodus.  Each searches for a means to leave Iraq, enticed by stories of men who smuggled themselves into Kuwait and made small fortunes as drivers and unskilled labourers.  The first half of The Dupes portrays their efforts to find a trustworthy guide while also revealing by flashback their backgrounds and motivations.  Abou Kaiss (Mohamed Kheir-Halouani) is a middle-aged man who enjoyed relative comfort with his family in pre-1948, but is forced thereafter to live in refugee housing without work.  He struggles with feelings of failure and futility until convinced to seek his fortune in Kuwait by an apparently affluent man returned from there.  Abou Kaiss dreams of coming home with pockets full of money and plans to send his son to school and buy some olive trees.  Assad (Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala) is a political activist on the run from authorities.  He is betrayed by a guide who once fought with his father and loses his money for passage.  Consequently, Assad accepts a dowry from a man seeking to marry off his daughter.  While the father views Assad’s plan as foolish (as does Assad’s compatriots), his own desperation is enough to trust that the young activist will return, should he make it to Kuwait.  Marwan (Saleh Kholoki) is a 16-year-old who is obliged to leave school and provide for his family after his brother marries and stops sending money from Kuwait and after his father abandons his family to marry a well-off, disabled woman.  Abou Kaiss, Assad, and Marwan accept the proposal of Aboul Kheizaran (Abderrahman Alrahy) to smuggle them into Kuwait at a discounted rate.  All they must do is twice hide within the sweltering water tank of Aboul Kheizaran’s truck for 6 or 7 minutes while he passes through border controls.

The second half of The Dupes is more linear in presentation, depicting the attempted passage into Kuwait.  Flashback sequences reveal Aboul Kheizaran as a former resistance fighter himself who was castrated as a result of a war injury.  Abou Kaiss, Assad, and Marwan hide in the tank while Aboul Kheizaran races through the first customs office.  He is able to free his passengers from the tank in less time than expected but the confines still leave them exhausted and weakened.  At the second border crossing, Aboul Kheizaran is detained by officials intent to have him reveal details of his rumoured sexual adventures in Basrah.  Only by acquiescing to their badgering with false bravado and promises to bring them along next time does Aboul Kheizaran escape the border authorities, but he opens the tank too late and discovers that the trio have perished.  The Dupes concludes with Aboul Kheizaran driving away from a pile of refuse where he has dumped the bodies of the men.  The scene recalls the film’s epigraph – “And my father once said a man without a homeland will have no grave on the Earth and he forbade me to leave.”

The Dupes is a seminal film in Arabic cinema based on a classic work of Palestinian literature.  Saleh’s film is generally faithful to the source novella, although it concludes with a significant amendment to its conclusion.  Ghassan Kanafani’s story ends with Aboul Kheizaran rhetorically asking his dead clients why they didn’t bang on the tank’s walls.  The act stands as comment on the passivity of Palestinian leadership at the time of the novella, but it no longer spoke to the Palestinian issue in the early 1970s.  In the film, the tank’s occupants do pound on its walls but the sound is drowned out by the drone of the air conditioners cooling the customs offices.  By this amendment, Saleh changes the story’s orientation, symbolizing the Palestinian cause as active and resolute and criticizing the outside Arab community as neglectful of their demands and potentially responsible for their demise.  These criticisms are all the more interesting when one considers the Pan-Arabist nature of The Dupes‘s production – a Palestinian author’s story adapted to the screen by an Egyptian filmmaker as a commission for Syria’s National Film Organization and set in Iraq and Kuwait.

Saleh’s story-telling is multi-faceted.  Generally speaking, the film follows a realist style, however its casual transitions between the present and past give it a New Wave sensibility.  The Dupes becomes its most politically didactic in a sequence of archival material meant to convey the complicity of various Arab nations to the Palestinian plight, revealing the director as a master of montage, documentary, and experimental filmmaking all at once.  Together, these techniques serve a film that functions in a highly allegorical manner.  As Mohannad Ghawanmeh observes, The Dupes preserves Kanafani’s themes of “complicity and treachery of Arabs, including Palestinians themselves, against Palestinian liberation and self-determination; the futility of escapism and the imperative to stand to aggression through conscious and active resistance; the loss of land as tantamount to the loss of manhood; and the championing of secular resistance.”  The 3 generations (or half-generations) of men seeking transit to Kuwait are clearly representative of the generations within the Palestinian diaspora.  Saleh often allies Abou Kaiss and Marwan together onscreen, thereby expressing a new generation’s need for paternal role-models and leadership while also demonstrating the failure of an idyllic nostalgia to respond to present challenges.  The pair are the film’s clearest victims, taking action against their impoverishment in effort to improve the conditions of both themselves and others, but The Dupes is an evocative statement on the Palestinian diaspora, avoiding familiar Western oppositions between Arabs and Israelis and making a strong, compelling statement about human suffering in explicitly morals terms (even if some are critical about some perceived simplifications about the roots of these conflicts).

DupesThe Criterion Collection’s selection of Arabic cinema is modest.  The Dupes is a generally accepted masterpiece of Arabic cinema and would be significant step forward in the Collection’s efforts to better represent these industries, particularly given its Pan-Arabist production and the criticisms made within the film.  As one of the first films to address the situation of Palestinians, it is a trove of historical and political content to mine for special features in a disc edition.  And with the Collection’s only filmic connections to the Middle East being Iran, The Dupes would offer an important initial step into the national cinemas of Syria and, more significantly, Egypt.  Comparisons to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) are natural, providing some kinship within the Collection.  As far as a cover treatment goes, the above image of the the 3 men atop the truck’s water tank is a common one associated with the film.  Setting this images at the extreme bottom of the disc edition’s cover and leaving the remainder as negative space would offer a graphically compelling image, with the marginalization of the trio on the cover complimenting the social and political conditions the film explores.

Credits:  The back cover summary is adapted from a common synopsis of the film that may originate from Arab Film Distribution’s webpage. Viola Shafik was selected to provide a commentary for her knowledge of Arabic cinema, having authored Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity and Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and NationFareed Armaly‘s video interview is referenced in his film program for the Saleh retrospective he curated at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary ArtNadia Yaqub was chosen to provide a booklet essay for her wonderful essay The Dupes: Three Generations Uprooted from Palestine and Betrayed” in Josef Gugler’s Film in the Middle East and North Africa: Creative Dissidence.  This proposal also owes debts to Mohannad Ghawanmeh’s post on Cinema Arabiata and The Africa Film Project’s comment on MUBI, as both were highly informative and insightful.

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2 thoughts on “The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh, 1973)

  1. FW April 22, 2015 / 2:30 pm

    Just came across this post — well done and very good package, hits all the points. It’s hard to believe the film hasn’t been decently produced in general, let alone in a Criterion package.

    • spinenumbered April 22, 2015 / 5:54 pm

      Thanks FW. I totally agree on there needing to be a quality edition of The Dupes!

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