This article appeared in the January 5, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh)

The one cinematic moment I encountered in 2023 that is seared into my mind is from The Dupes, the recently restored 1972 film by Egyptian director Tewfik Saleh. The novella Men in the Sun by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani is the kindling for the film, a blazing, black-and-white thriller about three Palestinian refugees attempting a treacherous desert crossing from Iraq into Kuwait in the 1950s. They’re taken along by a shady man—himself a Palestinian, now employed by a businessman in Kuwait—driving an empty water truck back to his boss. The escapade involves a Herculean challenge at two junctures: while the driver stops at border checkpoints to get his papers stamped, the three men must hide in the water tank for seven or so minutes, with the summer sun beating down on the gleaming metal.

At the end of the film, at the second checkpoint, the driver is held back by immigration officers—purely for their fun. They tease him about women and sex, as he looks nervously at his watch, and we, the viewers, bite our nails in fear of the fate of his stowaways. Sizzling in the heat, the black Schrodinger’s Box of the truck recalls many contemporary tragedies of desperate border crossings—but it also captures, through the language of cinema, something fundamental about the banal violence of borders and bureaucracy. As Saleh cuts between the inspection site and the truck parked outdoors, he also cuts between two entirely different—and yet spatially proximate—experiences of time. For the bureaucrat, in his office, time is to waste; for the precarious refugee, stateless and exposed to the elements, every moment is both interminable and fleeting. Few movies have distilled with such embodied urgency the cruel dissonance of frittering away one’s life while others have hardly any of it to spare.

As we start a new year in the midst of a bloody war in Gaza, I take this image with me as a reminder that the sun is hot, time is short, and, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, “where life is precious, life is precious.”