The first film by an Arab woman to be selected and screened at the Cannes film festival in 1974, Saat El Tahrir Dakkat (The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived) by Heiny Srour, chronicles the anti-colonial struggle of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (al-Jabhah al-Sha'abiyah li-Tahrir 'Uman wa-al-Khalij al-'Arabi, PFLOAG). Recently restored by Nadi Lekol Nas, Srour’s documentary closed the last edition of the Lebanese Film Festival and was recently screened in New York as part of a series focusing on the theme of decolonization in cinema.
The film’s opening sequence sets the stage by pitting the voices of a guerrilla choir against the crumbling remnants of the British empire, to which their song is unforgivingly dedicated. “The only possible dialogue with the occupier is the armed one,” goes one of the song verses, alluding to the limitations of diplomacy. Sounds of explosions and firing machine guns on a black screen precede still images of peasants, workers, students, armed men and women: the protagonists of the insurgency. The director then zooms out to contextualize the PFLOAG’s military campaign within the continuum of internationalist anti-imperialism. A shot of the map of the Mashriq, whose oil reserves were at the time owned for one third by Britain, frames the liberated region of Dhufar within the bigger geopolitical picture of the Gulf. Bordering on South Yemen, then a socialist republic, the southern Omani region was the epicenter of an emancipatory project that sought to liberate the whole Gulf from the yoke of Anglo-American colonialism. The latter relied on the complacent subservience of Arab despots happy to sell their countries and people to the highest bidder in an Anglo-Sultanic allegiance that remains in place to this very day.
Srour’s documentary depicts an armed struggle devoid of testosterone or muscular militarism, where every single aspect of society is patiently subverted. Land and water are collectivized, cooking is no longer the exclusive prerogative of women, and education is not just for men. Rather than religiously waiting for the fateful day of liberation, it is the practice of everyday life that is organically revolutionized. The fight against British neo-colonialism, patriarchal hierarchy, tribal divisions, Arab collaborationism, and cultural integralism is conducted collectively. Never is a single aspect considered or dealt with separately, something mirrored in the very narrative structure of the documentary, which is in fact devoid of individual protagonists. A polyphony of voices and stances coalesce into a mosaic where the very matrix of domination is questioned and dismantled. There is neither a cute, innocent child with whom the audience can sympathize and cleanse its conscience, nor a hero with whom to identify. There are no cartoonish villains to moralistically simplify the structural nature of injustice. There is not even an ending, except the material one imposed by the film’s length, for however defeated and forgotten by history are the struggles chronicled inSaat El Tahrir Dakkat, they have lost none of their urgency and relevance.