The Dupes is about three Palestinian men forced to migrate, illegally, to Kuwait in order to survive. They are refugees following the establishment of Israel, living in difficult and impoverished conditions. Abou Kaiss is a middle-aged family man with two sons to support. His land and his trees from which he earned his living as a peasant have been requisitioned by Israel. After much agonising he decides to try and get to Kuwait where he has heard money can be made even though he cannot imagine money as better than trees. Assad is a young man engaged to be married without any economic future. He flees after being accused of a form of treason. Marwan is the youngest of the migrants. His eldest brother was working in Kuwait and had been sending money home to his family, but this ceased when his brother fell in love. His father, in despair, walks out on the family leaving Marwan, the next oldest child, with the burden of supporting his mother and four younger siblings.
Each man journeys to Iraq ready to cross from there into Kuwait. The price the established smugglers seek is too high for Abou Kaiss and Marwan. Assad, having been duped by the smuggler who brought him to Iraq, is suspicious of the Iraqi smugglers and reluctant to pay their price with the conditions they attach. By chance Marwan meets a fellow Palestinian called Abou Kheizaran. He agrees to take Marwan for a much lower price if the latter can find some other men to make the risk of human smuggling economically viable for Kheizaran. Marwan persuades Kaiss and Assad, whom he has met at the same hotel, to join him. Together they embark on a perilous journey by water truck under the charge and care of Kheizaran.
Kheizaran is another Palestinian exile living and working in Kuwait for a wealthy employer. We learn that Kheizaran was badly wounded fighting for Palestine and his wounds cost him his manhood; whether this means his penis or testicles is not made clear. We know only that he is impotent. He is embittered and has sold his soul to money and, as he repeats, the more he makes the more he wants. He has a religious conversation with Assad on the road and they debate if he is an angel to the 3 men or not. Assad concludes that angel or not Kheizaran is their chief.
The film is full of religious images and fatalistic philosophy. The traditional Palestinian world rubs up against the modern world dominated by war and money. In such a world men are reduced to being rats; the big rats prey on the smaller ones and so on. There is little honour or trust between men; relationship are replaced by pecuniary interest. The land is forsaken and "a man without a homeland will have no grave in the earth".
So the four men embark on the drive from Bassra into Kuwait during which Kheizaran must smuggle them through two checkpoints. The journey is undertaken in the morning when the traffic is less and the scrutiny of vehicles reduced because of the rapidly increasing temperature. Kheizaran has calculated how long it will take him to negotiate each checkpoint and the calculation is to the minute. The 3 men must hide in his water tank at each crossing and the tank, which is empty, is a furnace in the desert heat. The difference between life and death in such circumstances is seconds as the average human can survive for 3 minutes without air and up to 10 minutes with air in extreme heat.
The first crossing works according to Kheizaran's plan but even then the men are shown to be suffering horribly. At the second crossing Kheizaran is delayed by a bureaucrat interested in the spurious stories he has heard of Kheizaran's amorous adventures in Bassra. The tension during this scene is as fierce as the sun; it is almost noon and the delay costs Kheizaran a minute or two. But this extra minute or two is too long for the 3 men. Kheizaran opens the water tank as soon as it is safe to stop after the check point. I held my breath. A bead of sweat from Kheizaran's face fell onto the tank and fizzled so hot was the outer surface of the tank. From within the tank there was no sound or movement; the men were dead.
The final scene was wrenching as Kheizaran dumps their bodies on a rubbish tip and, as we see the arm of Abou Kaiss reaching upwards, distorted and grotesque, the opening lines about a man without a homeland having no grave in the earth are repeated with the most ominous effect.
The Dupes/Al-Makhdu'un reminds me of The Wages of Fear/La Salarie de la Peu in terms of its structure - a long slow build establishing characters before a nail biting climax that ends in tragedy. The two films are similar in theme too; the perils men will face in order to make money to survive. The film is a tour de force even though its slow beginning taxes the viewer. Made in 1973 it is contemporary in its concerns about the Palestinians, illegal migration by economic refugees and the risks they have to endure to make their journeys. The film is a salutary reminder that whatever the cost illegal migrants are to their host countries, the costs are sometimes much higher for them and those who never succeeded in their journey.