Monday, October 16, 2017

The Guard's Daughter, aka Bint Al Hares (Lebanon, 1968)


The Guard’s Daughter (aka Bint Al Hares) was one of three feature films to star the Lebanese singer Fairuz, who to this day is considered one of the most popular singers in the Arab world. Making her debut at the International Festival of Baalbeck in 1957, she went on to be a force to be reckoned with in Lebanese popular culture, as well as a personification of mid-century Lebanon’s burgeoning modernity.

Judging from the songs she performs in The Guard’s Daughter, Fairuz’s music is classically Arabic in terms of both melody and composition, and performed by her with an almost ritual solemnity. You might think this would make her an odd fit in the Lebanese pop cinema of the day, which was typically light hearted and colorful. But The Guard’s Daughter serves her well, as it is a film with many faces: a musical, in which Fairuz performs almost a dozen songs, a comedy that presents an affectionate view of small town life, and a cold-eyed political allegory about income inequality and the callousness of the moneyed classes--oh and, finally, a romantic adventure featuring an elusive masked bandit.


The film takes place in the beautiful seaside town of Kfar Ghar, where Abboud, the father of young Nejmeh (Fairuz), is employed as a night watchman to protect the city from thieves. At the film’s opening, he and his partner are summoned before the town’s municipal council, where they are summarily fired, despite having served the city for dozens of years. The reasoning for this is that no thieves have threatened the town in the last five years. The mayor staunchly resists the good sense of those few members of the council who argue that this fact is testament to the guard’s effectiveness rather than their redundancy. The truth is that the move is really a penny pinching measure intended to further line the pockets of the city elders, who are also among the town’s most wealthy citizens.

Abboud, who has struggled to provide Nejmeh and her baby sister with a life of moderate comfort, soon finds himself facing financial hardship and, following his partner Saleh’s lead, heads off to Damascus to work in a shipyard. Actor Nasri Shamseddine plays Abboud with a fierce dignity (he reminds me a lot of the Indian actor Sanjeev Kumar.) You get the sense that he took a lot of pride in his work as the town’s protector. Thus, when Nejmeh visits him on the job at the docks, she is appalled by what she perceives as his diminished condition. She determines that she must get him his guard job back, and comes up with a pretty novel way of doing so.



The next time we see Nejmeh, it is in the guise of the Kafir Man (it’s translated as “Turban Man” in the subtitles, but what she’s wearing is a kafir, and 'kafir" is what the characters are saying), a rifle toting bandit who terrorizes the town’s wealthy and comfortable. While her primary goal is frightening the authorities into rehiring her dad, she can’t resist getting a little payback against the venal fat cats who have made life so hard for hers and the families of her neighbors. As such, she emerges as a kind of Robin Hood figure, cheered on by the common folk and hated by the rich as she carries out a forced redistribution of wealth. This is especially gratifying for us in the audience, as, throughout the film, we have been treated to a series of episodes presenting these villainous cretins at their worst.

Of course, since Nejmeh’s face is covered—but for Fairuz’s piercing and heavily made-up green eyes—everyone assumes that the Kafir Man is, well, a man. And, given this is the Middle East of the 1960s, why would they think otherwise? In any case, this makes things rather complicated when Nejmeh’s dad is rehired and tasked with bringing the Kafir Man in dead or alive.


Directed by Henry Barakat, one of the Middle East’s most acclaimed directors, The Guard’s Daughter is a charming crowd-pleaser. Some viewers might find it a little light on action, but I think that what action there is is handled well—and that Fairuz’s iconic appearance as the Kafir Man provides enough of a comic book thrill to make up for that. It also looks great, highlighting one lush, Technicolor composition after another--a sumptuous look that is perfectly complemented by Assi and Mansour Rahbani’s songs. It was the Rahnbanis who discovered Fairuz and guided her career, as well as composed many of her tunes. That they knew how to write for her voice is evidenced by the numbers in this film, which, as given voice by Fairuz, are hummable at worst and, at best, downright beautiful.

It also should be said that the film’s sometimes whimsical tone is offset considerably by the serious tenor of its populist politics. It’s a credit to Fairuz that, with the help of Barakat, she was able to smoothly traverse these conflicting tones. The woman was obviously a pro, and The Guard’s Daughter serves as a diverting, even winning, showcase for her talents. Whether the film struck any lasting blows for the proletariat is no doubt lost to history.

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