With only seven feature films, Tawfiq Saleh (1926-2013) carved out an almost matchless stature. He is considered one of the pillars of Egyptian realist cinema. His active years as a director were confined between 1955 and 1980 in which he directed seven short films and seven full-length feature films. He died aged 87, after decades without due appreciation.
It is very rare to really find a director, and an Arab director for that matter, "with such an early critical awareness reflected in his work that encompasses the Arab societies in crises," to quote BBC online. His demise, which coincided with that of his close friend and well-known film critic, Rafiq El-Sabban, marks the end of an era of high-flying aspirations, crushed dreams and harrowing defeats, at least in field of cinema. Renowned internet world cinema site, the Internet Movie Database, describes him as "the only one in Egyptian cinema that may be considered purely 'Third Worldist.' All his films have dealt with themes of social injustice, underdevelopment, political abuse and the class struggle."
Saleh was born 27 October 1926 in Alexandria to an Egyptian doctor (head of the Quarantine) and a Palestinian mother. Due to the profession of his father, Tawfiq and his brother Suhail moved a lot. He graduated from the English Language Department at Alexandria University and then travelled to Paris on a scholarship. He gained experience in directing through working on three films as an assistant director. On his return, he began a lifelong friendship with Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in 1953, to form with others — notably the great actor Ahmed Mazher — what they called "Al-Harafeesh" (the have-nots of the alley). What was expected from the collaboration between the two giants Mahfouz and Saleh was much more than what actually materialised. They collaborated only on Darb Al-Mahabil (Fools' Alley, 1955), which back then was miserably received at the box office but after five decades is considered one of the best 100 Egyptian films. While some thought that Saleh was the most suitable director to work on the Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, this didn't come to pass. Actually, he was assigned to direct the first part, Bayn Al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk), but he was deprived of the chance because he wanted to rewrite the script made by the production manager in the Cinema Organisation in the 1960s. Saleh presented many scripts to the Cinema Organisation, but they were invariably locked in drawers. This situation was repeated in Syria.
His two most significant and yet controversial films are Al-Mutamarridun (The Rebels, 1967) and Yawmmyiat Na'eb fi Al-Aryaf (Diary of a Provincial Magistrate, 1968).
The Rebels was adapted from a story by Salah Hafez, produced in 1966 and for two years, following the censor's orders, several modifications were implemented, such as shooting new scenes and changing the ending by orders of the censor. The film looks at how oppressed societies repeat mistakes of their oppressors when they lack knowledge of the past and a future vision. The film was screened at last only to meet huge criticism because its content didn't sit well with the audience's mood. They saw its tone as defeatist.
In its turn, Diary of a Provincial Magistrate, was adapted from a story by Tawfiq Al-Hakim. More than 100 members of the Socialist Union were invited to a private preview of the film after the censor and the minister of the interior loathed it. Afterwards, President Gamal Abdel Nasser saw it and told the Cinema Organisation's chairman that he would double the budget of the organisation if it produced four films of this calibre annually. That drove the organisation's officials to be antagonistic towards Saleh.
Still, Saleh's masterpiece is Al-Makhdu'uun (The Duped), which he adapted from a novel by the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani, entitled Men Under the Sun. The film was shot in black and white, mostly in Syria with a few shots in Basra in 1971. In a deceptively simple manner, the film narrates the stories of four Palestinian characters who became refugees after the Nakba (the Catastrophe, on the declaration of independence of Israel in 1948) or actually human excess baggage in every Arab country. Each character represents a different generation and profession and narrates its predicament in a monologue. Three of them were compelled to take a gruesome path after the loss of their homeland, and what a path they take! They decide to be smuggled to Kuwait from the Iraqi border by an impotent driver in a ramshackle water tank vehicle. However, the most emotionally disfigured character is the driver/smuggler. They trust him and at the same time he loathes himself, aiming at accumulating wealth as a substitute for his impotence, caused on a guerrilla mission. He convinces his "passengers" to stay inside the tank at every border checkpoint he passes through in the punishing heat of August. At the Kuwaiti checkpoint, a lax official forces him to relate a story about his virility, which is a lie. After passing through the border and discovering that the passengers died of suffocation, the driver throws their corpses as leftovers and continues on in his vehicle. Some critics saw this complex character as embodying all Arab rulers who are ruthless seekers of wealth (or any other material desires) regardless of what their populace wants, driving them to an abyss. We should not forget that the film was made after the Naksa (the Setback — the Six Day War in 1967 when the Arab armies were defeated by Israel).
The Duped won six international awards, the first of which was the "Le Tapis d'Or" in Carthage, Tunisia.
Saleh epitomised the wandering Arab intellectual. After he left Egypt due to cronyism and narrow-mindedness and harsh censorship, he went to Syria to be faced with the same rotten bureaucratic system to the extent that at some point authorities ordered him to leave Syria within 48 hours. Some intellectual friends convinced the interior minister to revoke the decision, and Saleh was be allowed to stay until his contract ended. Later, being jobless, his debts mounting, he was obliged to accept a job teaching cinema in Iraq.
Before coming back to Egypt he directed his least successful film, Al-Layialy Al-Taweelah (The Long Nights) about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a young revolutionary. It was aimed to be the first in a series of propagandist films commissioned by the top Iraqi leadership. The irony is that Saleh didn't receive a nickel from it, for President Hussein considered that the film was made for him, and thus that it did not deserve a reward.
Saleh said once that one of his dreams since he was in Paris was to find a cinematic language that could be described as especially Egyptian. He was quoted as saying, "Cinema is a tool for change not a [tool] for instilling backwardness and titillating the emotions of the audience before sleep with all the wishes of happy dreams."
In all his films he presented a problem without offering a solution, portraying his protagonists — even if they were reformists — as losers in the end, according to the renowned Lebanese cinema critic Ibrahim Al-Arees. Saleh said: "Art isn't an answer. It's a question."
It's a pity that a director with such lofty ideals and moral weight was always known outside his country far more than inside. Hashem Al-Nahhas, a well known documentarist and critic, mentioned that the Tunisians were the first to recognise Saleh's worth and drove the Egyptians to be aware of it. One of the reasons for this situation was his forced immigration for about 15 years from 1969 until 1984. The bitterness that he felt at the hands of the censor during President Nasser's era, in addition to disregard by his colleagues, was more than he could swallow.
Despite the intellectual differences between the authors whose works he adapted to film, he was committed to retaining the original narrative framework of these works. At the same time, Saleh's films bear his distinctive mark.