THE DUPES (1972)

Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Sunday May 05

Monday May 06

Lido Cinemas, Melbourne:

Sunday May 12

Monday May 13

Rating: Unclassified 15+
Duration: 107 minutes
Country: Syrian Arab Republic
Language: Arabic (English subtitles)
Cast: Mohamed Kheir-Halouani, Abdul Rahman Al Rashi, Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala
Director: Tewfik Saleh



An excruciating, suspenseful and eminently modern work of political cinema that evokes The Wages of Fear and Kafka in equal measure, The Dupes is one of the Arab cinema’s most astonishing achievements.” – The Film Foundation

Three refugees, representing three generations of Palestinians dispossessed of their homeland, meet in Iraq in 1958 to find safe passage to the ‘promised land’ of Kuwait. Filmed entirely in Syria, The Dupes is directed by an Egyptian social realist filmmaker and based on the 1963 novel Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani, the eminent Palestinian refugee, writer and political activist. The three refugees are played by non-professional actors from Syria and Palestine adding to the film’s heightened social realist style. Only available for decades in very poor, virtually unwatchable copies, Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the Cineteca de Bologna finally accessed the film elements in Syria and debuted this 4K restoration in Bologna last year.

Introduced by Lucia Sorbera at Ritz Cinemas and Lucia Sorbera via video at Lido Cinemas.

“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 moral terms.” – Criterion

A gripping story of hope, tragedy and powerlessness, which is perhaps the defining triad of emotions the dispossessed feel when taking on the world.” – Rio Revuelto

Creates a dense interweaving of past and present and fiction and documentary in this harsh condemnation of the treatment of diaspora Palestinians by their fellow Arabs.” – Electronic Intifada 

By James Vaughan
Alternatively titled The Duped/ The Deceived, The Dupes is the masterpiece of Egyptian filmmaker Tewfik Saleh, whose reputation in the Arab world as one of its greatest auteurs stands in contrast to his virtual invisibility in Anglophone film writing beyond a handful of academic publications. Though his films are difficult to find with English subtitles, what is available reveals a filmmaker of unique historical consciousness, whose oeuvre spills over with complex, contradictory individuals exposed to the prevailing cultural, moral and political winds. Saleh himself was no stranger to historical weather events. After pursuing cinema in Alexandria against his father’s wishes, he went to Paris to complete his studies, returning just after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew the monarchy and installed Pan-Arab socialist icon Gamal Abdel Nasser. Though his first film, Darb al-mahabil (Fool’s Alley, 1955), was made within a few years of the debut of his much more widely recognised and celebrated countryman Youssef Chahine, and though he, like Chahine, was similarly inspired by Italian neorealism’s raw approach to social issues and tendency toward internal moral critique, Saleh was unable to achieve the same consistency of output. He had no interest in manufacturing the glib melodramas that dominated the Egyptian box office in that period, but his work was morally uncompromising enough to also be viewed with suspicion by the Egyptian government. As a result, Saleh struggled for both private and public finance, and his films, once completed, were typically censored. After difficulties with the release of Yaumiyat na’ib fi-l-aryaf (Diary of a Country Prosecutor, 1968), a withering critique of low-level government corruption, Saleh travelled to Syria to pursue The Dupes, a project he’d unsuccessfully sought to get off the ground in Egypt in 1964. The film was an adaptation of The Men in the Sun (1962), a short story by revolutionary Palestinian Marxist, politician, novelist and poet Ghassan Kanafani about four desperate Palestinian refugees. Kanafani would be assassinated along with his 17-year-old niece by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, within months of the film’s release.

Adapted excerpt from an article by James Vaughan originally published as ‘Was I thinking of death?: The 61st New York Film Festival’, in Senses of Cinema, January 2024. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
By Lucia Sorbera
“My father once said: a man without a country will have no grave in the earth.”
– Mahmud Darwish

Al-Makhdu'un (The Dupes/ The Duped), the 1972 masterpiece that Egyptian filmmaker Tawfiq Saleh* adapted from the novel published nine years earlier by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, begins with this quote by the Palestinian world-renowned poet, Mahmud Darwish. This is no coincidence: Saleh, Kanafani and Darwish are three giants in the space that I name ‘The Arab Republic of the Arts’, a transnational network of writers, artists, intellectuals, and filmmakers who, throughout the 1960s, flourished across the Arab world and its diasporas (mostly in Russia and Eastern Europe). Bound by the commitment to questioning the state-centered narratives of progress and modernity encouraged by the postcolonial state’s institutions, these authors brought the lives of poor, defeated and marginal people to the world’s attention, producing politically committed and modernist art, of which cinema was a key component because of its inherent capacity to transcend national borders.

The cultural orientation of Arab filmmakers in that period, especially after the 1967 Arab defeat in the Six Day War against Israel, is closely aligned with Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s anti-imperialist Towards a Third Cinema (1969), the Manifesto inspired by the Marxist imperative to transform rather than merely interpret the world. In this context, Tawfiq Saleh’s work stands out for its capacity to look, in a manner that is simultaneously sharp and empathetic, at the consequences that state politics have on individuals, especially the most vulnerable. While Al-Makhdu'un is a film about Palestinian people – their exile, their suffering – it is different from other films produced after 1967; it is far more than a mere celebration of the then intensified Palestinian resistance. It is equally, if not more so, an excruciating meditation on the suffering that war, occupation, displacement, poverty, and migration impose on poor people. In sum, it is a pioneering effort to relate the Palestinian condition to a universal human condition.

Al-Makhdu'un was produced in Syria by the National Film Organization – a body created after the 1963 coup, dependent upon the Ministry of Culture but financially and administratively autonomous – whose mission was to promote cinematic culture in Syria. It is the thirteenth film (among them both short and full-length films) directed by Saleh, at that time a well-established filmmaker who had already realised adaptations of novels into films, particularly novels by Naguib Mahfouz, who was his close friend.

Saleh was a big admirer of Kanafani (to whom the director gifted a 60mm print of Al- Makudu’un, which is now preserved by Kanafani's Foundation in Beirut). Saleh worked on this film from 1964 to 1971 (Cheriaa, 1971), almost eight years, and, when he finally had the opportunity to realise it, he diligently followed the thread of the novel, often using the same phrasings and words chosen by Kanafani. Saleh dedicated long sequences with close headshots to digging into the biography and psychology of each one of the four main characters: the old peasant Abu Qais, nostalgic for his youth and his lost land; the young Assad, who wants to escape an arranged marriage and make his own life; the little Marwan, forced to leave school and find a job, after both his eldest brother and father abandoned the family to selfishly find their own individual way out of misery; and Abul Khayzaran, a driver disillusioned with life and only obsessed with the desire to make money. They are four Palestinian men from different generations facing the long-term consequences of the 1948 Nakba (the Palestinian ‘catastrophe’, when 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes, following Israel’s Declaration of Independence). Each one of them pursues his own dream of redemption, all motivated to overcome the misery of the refugee camps in the West Bank, where they don’t belong and are seen as just a burden. Charmed by the rumours about other migrants’ success, Abu Qais, Assad, and Marwan resolve to put their lives in the hands of Abul Khayzaran, an unscrupulous driver who negotiates with them a price to hide them in the water-tank of his truck and smuggle them through the desert to Kuwait, where they long for a better future. Although the cruelest destiny awaits the three migrants, Abul Khayzaran is no less tragic than they are. Frustrated by the loss of his virility on a battlefield, he tries to compensate for his loss with money, only to turn into the unfortunate executor of an unpronounced death sentence for the migrants. Some critics have interpreted this character as a metaphor for the Arab political leaders, recklessly driving their people towards the abyss (Taha, 2023). It is plausible that this is how both Kanafani and Saleh judged the relationship between the Arab political leadership and the people, especially after the 1967 defeat, and their artistic work might reflect these political views.

Filmed in Syria and Iraq, the story is not set in Palestine and is different to other Arab films dedicated to Palestine at that time: neither the land nor the national struggle is at the center of the narration. However, both lie in the background as a memory: be it the memory of a sensual object of desire (‘whenever I’m lying on the ground, I can smell the scent of my wife’s hair when she’s just had a cold bath. The same fresh, dewy scent’, says a young Abu Qais in one of the numerous flashbacks that characterise the plot of both the novel and the film); or as a traumatic memory (in the flashback about the battle where Abul Khayzaran was injured and he laments: ‘what’s the benefit? I have lost both manhood and nation’). As with the novel, with the exception of these passages, which prepare the scene for the real subject of the story, it is the people rather than the land or the struggle who are at the core of the filmmaker’s interest. They are refugees who, in a successful attempt to blur the borders between history and fiction, appear in archival footage early in the film.

An aspect of the film that deserves more attention is the then still rare deconstruction of the link between heroic masculinity and war. There are no war heroes in this film. War does not glorify men, it emasculates them. In this film women (who are mothers and wives) remain in the background, yet they are always active: they bake, sing, give birth, breastfeed and observe with apprehension the decadence of their men. None of the women in the story encourage their sons or husbands to leave. On the other side, none of the male characters present the stereotypical traits of hegemonic masculinity. On the contrary, they are fragile, teary, nostalgic, and destined to be defeated.

Tawfiq Saleh’s distinctive perspective makes the film unique in its own genre, and it is not surprising that Martin Scorsese listed Al-Makhdu'un among his first priorities when, in 2007, the Martin Scorsese Foundation launched the World Cinema Project, with the specific aim to try to safeguard, protect, restore, and disseminate films that for various reasons were not protected or safeguarded. The whole restoration process took years, especially due to the challenges encountered in locating the best material (ideally the original camera negative) for restoration. It was a long journey that, over three years, took the curators from Bologna, where L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory operates, to Damascus, where the original negative is preserved, and where a series of legal restrictions, combined with the ongoing civil war and dictatorship in the country, did not even allow the restoration team to ascertain the condition of the film; then to Paris, where a printed copy was located, only to discover that it was partially out of focus; and, eventually, to Bulgaria. The director of the team that curated the restoration of the film for L’Immagine Ritrovata, Cecilia Cenciarelli, said in an interview (Cenciarelli and Sorbera, 2024),‘I launched a search through FIAF (a network of world films archives) to find the element [the negative]. The Bulgarian National Film Archive had a 35mm negative in their storage. This is very symbolic of how cinema works.’Months after the completion of this project, the tone of her voice still revealed the excitement at this finding, which determined its success: ‘It was not an original camera negative but a deep negative. This deep negative was very good.’

The journey of the film mirrors that of its director, who had a migrant life and a transnational career, living most of his productive years away from Egypt, his home country, and mostly in Syria and in Iraq. It is true that, as remarked by the critics, Saleh was a social realist, and an uncompromising filmmaker, whose style is very heavily influenced by Russian montage. However, as Dr Cenciarelli observes: ‘He was a social realist in a different way to other social realists at the time ... this is evident even to the audience. During the projection in Bologna, a member of the audience noted that the film is a sort of “Alfred Hitchcock meets Eisenstein” (2024).

The style of the film is extremely powerful in its juxtaposition of the wide shot landscapes of the desert and the Shatt al-Arab (the point where the Tigris and the Euphrates merge), and the close ups when the film zooms in on the shanties where the protagonists live with their families, zooming into their faces when the narrative moves towards psychological introspection. This technique brings the viewer intimately into the lives of the refugees, whose fate is not narrated through a nationalist lens, and not even as an Arab political problem, but rather as a universal human defeat. This is perhaps what Saleh wants to convey through his candid and brutal representation of the migrants’ corpses, abandoned in the desert, with their mouths open and the limbs stiff. It is a macabre representation that has numerous precedents in art history, from the medieval ‘Triumph of Death’ genre of painting during plague outbreaks, to Goya’s The Disasters of War, to the multiple representations of war by Picasso.

If one had to choose a word to describe The Duped, the one I find the most appropriate is “humanist,” because, besides the specific story, the film places the human experience of displacement at its center and it is a profound meditation on the position of human beings in history, its scandalous violence, and the impossibility of  individual salvation.  

Cenciarelli, Cecilia, Interview by Lucia Sorbera, Phone, 8th February 2024.
Taha, Hesham, ‘Tawfiq Saleh (1926-2013)’, in Al-Ahram Weekly, 29 August 2023.–-.aspx
Octavio Getino y Fernando Solanas, ‘Toward a Third Cinema’, TRICONTINENTAL. N.14. October 1969. P.107-132, reprinted in Black Camera : The Newsletter of the Black Film Center/Archives 13, no. 1 (2021): 378–401.
Cheriaa, Tahar.  ‘Tewfik Saleh’, in Dossiers du cinéma: Cinéastes, edited by Jean-Louis Bory, Claude Michel Cluny, Casterman, Paris 1971.

*The author would like to thank Dr Cecilia Cenciarelli for sharing information about the restoration process and Cineteca di Bologna for making available a copy of the restored film for preview.
Restored in 2023 by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna in collaboration with the National Film Organization and the family of Tewfik Saleh. Special thanks to Mohamed Challouf and Nadi Nekol Nas. Funding by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. The 4K restoration used a 35mm dupe negative preserved by the Bulgarian National Film Archive (Bulgarska Nacionalna Filmoteka) and was completed by L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory

Director: Tewfik Saleh; Production Company: National Film Organisation (Syria); Script: Gassan Kanafani, Tewfik Saleh from Kanafani’s 1963 novel ‘Men in the Sun’ ; Photography: Baghat Heidar; Editors: Farin Dib, Saheb Haddad; Sound: Zoheir Fahmy; Music: Solhi El-Wadi;

Cast Mohamed Kheir-Halouani (Abou Keïss), Abderrahman Alrahy (Abou Kheizarane), Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala (Assaad), Saleh Kholoki (Marouane), Thanaa Debsi (Om Keïss0

Syria | 1972| 107 mins | 4K DCP | B&W| Arabic with English subtitles| UC15+

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