There is a certain stinging pathos about Rami Abdel Jubbar’s documentary tribute to the (now defunct) Egyptian-produced “Ramsis car.
Even to individuals, owning a car means status: social (and literal) mobility.
Think then what the significance of a domestic car industry is: The plight of America’s ailing SUV manufacturing industry illustrates this significance perfectly.
These ridiculously thirsty vehicles – their drivers are modern day cowboys conquering the wild west of American suburbs – have been the first casualties of the rocketing world oil prices which are sucking the energy out of the American dream of the big house, the big car, the big life.
Think then, what a domestic car industry meant for post-revolution Egypt. It is little wonder that we are told in Abdel Jubbar’s film, “Ramsis Car, that the first things newly-independent states create are a new national anthem, flag and car-manufacturing industry – Egypt was no exception in its desire for these totems of liberation.
The film opens with grainy images of Gamal Abdel Nasser – a figure who, like Fidel Castro, remains symbolic of strength, independence and defiance despite the darker aspects of his rule lurking in the shadows of his legacy.
We watch Nasser proclaiming that Egypt will eventually become entirely self-sufficient, will manufacture everything from sewing needles to rockets, as his audience quite literally dance with joy.
An outrageous, utopian claim – no nation is entirely self-sufficient, after all – it reflected the buoyancy, optimism and courage of a nascent state exulting in the thrill of its first steps. The Ramsis car would ultimately pay the price for this bravado, the film tells us.
Abdel Jubbar combines talking heads with a pastiche of film images from the time – set to rock and pop anthems from the period – as well as interviews with Ramsis owners who, against all odds, continue to drive these dinosaurs today.
The Ramsis was not even 100 percent Egyptian made: many of its components were imported from West Germany (the car itself was based on a German car, the Prinz), the interior the only entirely locally-produced part of the car.
An un-automated production line meant that only five cars were turned out a day. The 550 cc cars themselves were boxy, utilitarian, ugly – a Mogamaa on wheels – but little matter, for this was Egypt’s first Popular Car, a slice of national pride available for only LE 200.
One speaker, an author, explains in emotive terms the significance of the car to her family in a narrative extract.
Abdel Jubbar sets this narrative against a recreation of an early 1960s Egypt family motoring in the Ramsis. These images are interspersed with a lingering shot of the book on the bonnet of a Ramsis, next to a cup of coffee. This sequence was arguably the weakest part of the film, the slightly mawkish simulation failing to evoke the spirit of the time.
The introduction of a locally-assembled Fiat car in 1962 was a fatal blow to the Ramsis, which could not compete with a car manufactured according to international standards, even though the latter was priced at LE 700.
Abdel Jubbar places this in the context of Egypt’s 1967 loss of the Six Day War against Israel, a defeat which had a cataclysmic effect on the national psyche by exploding the myth of Egypt’s proud invulnerability.
The death of the Ramsis car – Volkswagen bought the NSU factory which produced the car only to close it down – is presented as the inevitable victim of the gap between Egypt’s ambitions and its technical know-how.
One of the interviewed commentators says that the Ramsis project was launched too soon, while Egypt still lacked the expertise necessary for such an endeavor.
What makes this particularly poignant is that the same pattern of failure produced by mismanagement and bad planning repeats itself today and locally-produced goods continue to be spurned for superior, foreign-produced, alternatives. Exacerbating this is the vacuum created by a distant, characterless political leadership and the corruption, hopelessness and sense of fatigue which plagues contemporary Egyptian society. Not even the myth of greatness is left, and other ages – Pharoanic, Nasser’s epoch – provide the sense of self which seems to have gone astray in modern Egypt.
But the loyalty remains, as is exemplified by the modern-day Ramsis car owners in Abdel Jubbar’s film.
One driver touchingly boasts that he has criss-crossed Egypt from the North Coast to Sinai in his Ramsis – no other car has served him as well – and we see a flock of Ramsis cars parading through Cairo’s streets, relics of a lost age.
Abdel Jubbar’s film is a fascinating study of this little-known aspect of Egyptian history which he uses as a jumping off point to comment on society in general.
While the film is generally well-executed, I had reservations about the soundtrack: Abdel Jubbar’s choice of songs by Bob Dylan, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix among others failed to catch the mood presented so well by his choice of visual images, and in some cases jarred uncomfortably.