"He was an artist with the rank of a poet. His camera was full of ideas and feelings," says Islam Belal, a protégé of late director Raafat El-Meehy.
With the death of El-Meehy, a considerable chapter of the world’s rebellious international cinema movements has been closed, revealing the loss of a risk-taking and challenging artist.
El-Meehy’s work will be remembered for not only accurately depicting society, which many did, but also for giving due care to document the changes occurring to individuals. As he understood and lived the macro changes in the country, he expressed micro alterations in human beings.
Known for pushing fantasy into his films, El-Meehy hoped to go beyond obvious harsh criticism of society and state, a school of thought many of his generation perfected. He utilised fantasy to draw parallel societies, escaping the shackles of censorship and offering the viewer a challenging perspective on their community.
A one of a kind risk-taker
Fellow scriptwriter Bashir El-Deek commented to Ahram Online about El-Meehy, saying, "He was able to diversify and write every type of script, starting from usual types, like Ghorob wa Shorouk (Sunset and Sunrise, 1970), to reaching works that included fantasy, like El-Sada El-Regal (Misters, 1987).”
El-Deek is one of the 1980s most successful scriptwriters, offering works that violently criticised the reign of former President Anwar El-Sadat, and his "Open Door" economic policies.
In 1974, El-Meehy collaborated with Kamal El-Shiekh in Ala Man Natleq El-Rasas (Whom Should We Shoot?), attempting to answer “what has happened?” after seeing a nation triumphing in joy and pride fall into despair and moral crisis. The film argued that a new class of fat cats and technocrats benefited from the 1970s policies and accumulated disproportionate wealth.
Still from Al-Afokato (1983, The Attorney), written and directed by Raafat El-Meehy
Renowned director Ali Abdel Khaliq also remembered El-Meehy. "I have been friends with him for 40 years since he headed the New Cinema Group, which produced my 1972 film Ughnia ala El-Mamar (Song on the Passageway)."
Abdel Khaliq refers to El-Meehy as an intellectual. "He was originally a English literature graduate and had writing talents as well as published some short stories before joining the Higher Institute of Cinema, where he wrote his first script, Gaffet El-Amtar (The Rain has Gone Dry) in 1967.”
Gaffet El-Amtar was one of Egypt’s first semi-independent films, directed by the newcomer from communist Moscow, Sayed Essa, and starring Shukry Sarhan and theatre legend Samiha Ayyoub.
“I also witnessed Raafat work as a film director, in Oyun La Tanam (Sleepless Eyes) in 1981, an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. After he finished the script, which he worked on for two years, he asked me to direct the film, but I was busy, so he did it himself. Thus he began his journey to author and direct his films," Abdel Khaliq continues.
The 1980s marked a new transition for El-Meehy, as he took the place behind the camera in films that he wrote. At this point he joined Egypt's new realism generation, one that also included prominent award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Khan.
"Everyone had a trend that he wanted to apply. Raafat knew what he wanted since the 1960s. He always liked adventure and to work on risky ideas," Khan commented to Ahram Online.
Still from Gaffet El-Amtar (1967, The Rain has Gone Dry, written by Raafat El-Meehy
O Captain! My Captain!
In the 1960s, El-Meehy quit his government teaching post and joined forces with the godfather of Egyptian realism, Salah Abu Seif, to study scriptwriting.
Decades afterward, El-Meehy wanted to establish a space where he could provide filmmaking tools to the younger generation. He established his own Academy for Cinema Arts and Sciences, which offers a two-year programme of evening classes in four specialisations: scriptwriting, directing, graphic design and acting.
Mohamed Khan explains that El-Meehy's academy encouraged other independent filmmakers to form groups, workshops, and centres to transfer their experience to others.
"The state-run Cinema Institute wasn’t — and still is not — enough. Other alternatives should exist," Khan commented.
On the same note, Sameh El-Siriti, deputy of Egypt's Cinematic Syndicate, told Ahram Online that El-Meehy will be remembered not only by his work, but by his students who will cherish his school of thought and work to develop his ideas.
One of his students and a graduate of the academy is Islam Belal. In an email communication with Ahram Online, the young director — who received first prize in the Arab Spring Festival for his 2014 film, Human Being — shared his appreciation of El-Meehy as a teacher: “What has died is only the body, but the spirit, the love of innovation, and the works are remaining.”
“Cinema was his beloved; he adored it with no limits. To him the respect of the audience was more valuable than having his name on the film poster. I have no doubt that he is one of the most important filmmakers in Egypt, next to Salah Abu Seif and Youssef Chahine,” Belal continues.
Still from Oyun La Tanam (1981,Sleepless Eyes), written and directed by Raafat El-Meehy
He goes on to describe his late mentor saying that he believed that a true artist shouldn’t only depend on his talent, but must develop and add to it through studying and education. “So he decided to establish an academy carrying his name in a deep-rooted Galal studio.”
Galal studio is one of Egypt’s oldest film studios, which was established by Egyptian director Ahmed Galal in 1942.
Belal’s recollection of El-Meehy’s reinforces his dream to create a new generation of filmmakers, talented, professional and brave enough “to present their dreams and pain in a renewed revolutionary cinema that helps build a better country.”
“For him, teaching was the honest transmitting of enthusiasm and positive experience to students, even if the outcome was one brilliant student who could be a new addition to the Egyptian culture and film industry.”
Belal is currently teaching film directing in the academy and reflects on how El-Meehy's work affected him in dealing with younger students. "I deal with them (the students) as if we were fellow interns. I make sure I deliver every piece of information, something I feel will complete El-Meehy's dream to create a new generation of filmmakers.”
Still from Gheroub Wa Sherouk (Sunset and Sunrise, 1970), written by Raafat El-Meehy
Another faithful student of El-Meehy is Neveen Shalaby, who told Ahram Online that she met her professor in 2003. "He was set to interview me. I was both terrified and excited. He was very decisive, but had a loving heart."
She added that he encouraged her through her academic years. "In my second semester, I excelled at the film editing course. El-Meehy knew about my financial troubles, so he excused me from the fees, in exchange for doing editing work at the academy, and I began assisting my fellow classmates." Shalaby adds how after each work and every success, the relationship between the mentor and student intensified, comparing it to a father-daughter link.
"He then asked me to study scriptwriting with him. When he got ill, his wife, scriptwriter Ola Ezz Al-Deen, continued the course."
Shalaby asserts that Raafat's academy was never a commercial or investment project. "It is a place where cinema lovers gather. I learned from El-Meehy to be a complete human being and to feel the pleasure of giving back to others," she concluded.