In Search of 'Oil & Sand': Abu Dhabi Review

Sand - H 2012
Hour-long peek into recent Egyptian history is engrossing and distinctive, but doesn't do full justice to its lively subject-matter.

Philippe Dib and Wael Omar's documentary, world-premiering in Abu Dhabi, accompanies Egyptian aristocrat Mahmoud Sabit as he delves into the history of his family and country.

A prime example of that old showbiz dictum about leaving audiences wanting more, Philippe Dib and Wael Omar's UAE/Egypt co-production In Search of 'Oil & Sand' is an engrossing but tantalizingly partial treatment of vividly rich material. Clocking in at just under an hour, this delve into Cairo high society around the time of Egypt's 1952 revolution uses the making of an elaborate home movie as a prism to examine wider historical and cultural issues. While such a length is ideal for serious-minded TV channels, a longer cut would have opened more doors in terms of festival exposure following its Abu Dhabi bow, and possibly even theatrical distribution in receptive territories.

With the recent upheavals in Egypt currently providing documentarians and fiction film-makers with such plentiful subject-matter, Dib and Omar's examination of a long-overlooked historical footnote now offers a fresh perspective on the country's troubled history. Their impressively articulate guide is the film's executive producer Mahmoud Sabit, a cultured middle-aged aristocrat whose father Adel was a cousin of King Farouk - deposed in the military coup six decades ago - and also the controversial young monarch's head of protocol.

Having gone into European exile as a child, Sabit junior returned to Egypt in the 1990s and now resides in a rambling, somewhat dilapidated mansion right on Tahrir Square, epicenter for the more recent revolution that unseated long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Here Sabit slowly rakes through his formerly well-connected family's vast and dusty archives, piecing together events surrounding the making of desert melodrama Oil & Sand.

Shot immediately before the 1952 revolution, this amateur production featured Sabit's mother Frances Ramsden, who had previously appeared opposite Harold Lloyd in Preston Sturges' The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) during a brief Hollywood career. Sabit reads about the film's larkish shoot in her unpublished diaries, and unearths silent, black-and-white 8mm reels which give some flavor of the content. He returns to the picture's locations and also tracks down the last surviving member of the main cast, feisty octogenarian Princess Nevine.

Sabit and Nevine, both speaking impeccably British-accented English and exuding a certain old-school brand of drily no-nonsense upper-class humor, prove highly rewarding company and could probably each be the focus of full-length interview-based documentaries. As it is, Dib and Omar - the latter also taking care of editing duties in collaboration with Omar Khodeir - use them primarily as eyewitnesses to history, the pair having enjoyed/endured "a front-row seat at a revolution."

The rights and wrongs of that revolution, its impact on the wider region and the geo-political world situation over the ensuing decades, are only briefly touched upon in a picture which could profitably have examined such matters at greater depth. But even at the present curtailed running-time, scriptwriter Rasha El Gammal should really have found a way to explain that the "clips" from what is ostensibly Oil & Sand don't depict the actual movie - which was made in color and sound on 16mm, but destroyed before completion - and are closer to "making of" footage.

Dib and Omar mock up intertitles to complete the silent-movie effect, with amusing but regrettably misleading results. The impression we get is that the enterprise was a quaint bagatelle, which their movie then freights with what seems to be excessive and even prophetic significance in terms of the Middle East's subsequent exploitation by external powers. The directors also err by their over-reliance on Omar Fadel's score, distracting us from individuals and materials which can speak perfectly eloquently for themselves.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (Documentary Competition), October 16, 2012.

Production company: Middle West (in co-production with Sarakene Ltd)
Directors / Producers: Philippe Dib, Wael Omar
Executive producer: Mahmoud Sabit
Screenwriter: Rasha El Gammal
Director of photography: David Golia
Music: Omar Fadel
Editors: Omar Khodeir, Wael Omar

Sales agent: PBS International, Boston
No MPAA rating, 58 minutes