On the evening of Thursday 24 April, a commemoration was held for late Egyptian filmmaker, Tawfiq Saleh at the Falaki theatre at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Saleh, a pioneer of realism in Egyptian cinema who passed away on 18 August 2013, was honoured in the presence of his family, friends, filmmakers and followers of his work during the opening of 'Post-2011 Cinema in Egypt: Challenges and Opportunities', a four-day conference organised by AUC’s film department.
"Our keenness on holding this commemoration is not only because Saleh was an important icon, but because he was also an artist with a vision and principle who introduced a cultural project for the Arab world," film director and professor Arab Loutfi said during the conference.
Loutfi continued to explain that in spite of receiving little appraise from Egypt during his lifetime, Saleh was acknowledged as an avant-garde and became a reference for neorealist cinema.
"In 1972, the Damascus International Film Festival was being established, with the hope of creating neorealist cinema in the Arab world that would be introduced as an alternative cultural project," Lotfi added.
Arab gave example of Saleh's film Al-Makhdu'uun (The Duped, 1971), as an example of the cinematic approach that has become an inspiration for other filmmakers, underscoring Saleh's role as a pioneer in the industry.
The Duped was then screened and followed by a discussion. Al-Makhdu'uun was adapted from a novel titled 'Men Under the Sun' by the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani, and is considered to be Saleh's masterpiece. The film won six international awards, including the Le Tapis d'Or in Carthage, Tunisia.
Apart of Al-Makhdu'uun Saleh has directed other six feature films, all between 1955 and 1980. In all of his works he dealt with class struggles and social injustice.
Among other movies by Saleh are Darb El Mahabil (Fools' Alley, 1955) created in collaboration with Nobel Prize winner in literature Naguib Mahfouz; Yaumiyat Na’ib fil-aryaf (Diary of a Provincial Magistrate, 1968), based on a story by Tawfiq Al-Hakim, renowned Egyptian novelist and playwright; and Al-Mutamarridun (The Rebels, 1967), based on a story by Salah Hafez, a movie which was subjected to many modifications requested by the censors before the film could see the light of day.
“[Tawfiq] Saleh’s films cannot be separated from the slogans of the January 25 revolution: 'Bread, Freedom and Social Justice'. All of his films, except the last one [Al-Layialy Al-Taweelah (The Long Nights), tackled issues of freedom and social justice,” prominent film critic Mohsein Weify commented during the discussion.
Weify explained that Saleh was concerned with creating a cinema framework which would absorb such themes without jeopardising cinematic dramaturgy.
"For Saleh, cinema was never a means of tickling people’s emotions or a mere bedtime story but rather a tool for change, an invitation for people to observe reality and start questioning it," Weify added.
According to Weify, during the early stages of his career Saleh faced a great deal of opposition from his fellow colleagues in the cinema industry who felt he should be prohibited from making films since he was not a member of the Egyptian cinema syndicate.
It wasn’t until the syndicate head at the time, filmmaker Ahmed Badrakhan, recognised Saleh and praised his work that this opposition began to subside.
Saleh's son Mohamed confirmed this initial opposition and added that his father was “treated as unwanted in the field during the majority of his career.”
It took a few decades and unfortunately Saleh's passing away to shed light on a vast body of his cinematic work. Mohamed mentioned that as the conference was being held in Cairo, Al-Makhdu'uun (The Duped) was scheduled to be screened at the Centre for Palestinian Studies in London.
"I think it’s great that after 42 years, a film by a failing director is still screened and taught," Mohamed Saleh added sarcastically as he moved to many other stories about the late filmmaker.
"In the 1990s, the French government wanted to honour my father and give him a medal for his work. Coincidently, two days prior to the ceremony George Habash [the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP] was denied treatment in France because the group was declared a ‘terrorist’ organization. In response, Saleh turned down the award saying he refused to be honoured by a country that leaves a Palestinian man to die while claiming to be friends with Arabs.
"Yes, my father has passed away but I still see him present with us, and he will continue to be," Mohamed concluded.