The piano tunes wander about the confines of the packed hall, as an album of photos unravels in the background.
Her smile is a ceaseless element of her photos, and speaks volumes about her vibrant soul, which was staunchly committed to celebrating life, cinema and people. The juxtaposition of music and photography conveys both the grief over her passing but concurrently celebrates her larger-than-life character.
This perhaps explains why family and friends of the late Egyptian-Lebanese documentary filmmaker Nabeeha Lotfy chose the title “A life loving soul” for a commemorative event held 17 June, exactly one year after her passing, at the Cairo Opera House.
We are at an evening celebrating Lotfy’s life and featuring established pianist Yasser Mokhtar, also the late director’s son, who thanked the audience for their presence saying, “I’m happy we’re together tonight and that we're celebrating my mother’s memory with her loved ones.”
The evening began with a film about Lotfy followed by a music segment with pianists Mokhtar, Sara Darwish, Mahmoud Mekhemar and Iman Nour Eldin, harpist Manal Mohei Eldin, and contrabass player Alaa Abdalla. The programme included Faure's Elegie, Bach's Sicilienne for two pianos, Lecuona's Malagena, Piazzolla's Oblivion, Gershwin's 3 Preludes, among other works.
Yet, the full picture of Lotfy's life and passions came through the film. In the 25-minute long documentary about Lotfy, directed by Lebanese filmmaker Eliane Raheb, Lotfy discusses the particularities of her vocation: from Sidon where she was born in 1937, to Cairo where she would settle in 1955 following her expulsion from the American University in Beirut after her participation in a demonstration against the Baghdad Pact.
Welcomed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser along with other students to complete their studies in Egypt, Lotfy fell in love with 1950s Cairo where she would also meet her future husband doctor Ali Mokhtar, recounting how it was “abound with people with different [political] orientations, including Arab nationalists, socialists and communists.”
In Cairo, she pursued a degree in Arabic Literature at King Fouad I University that she completed in 1957, before having a short encounter with journalism and then joining the Higher Film Institute in 1960. Lotfy was the first ever woman to join the school’s directing section, where she was taught by iconic directors like Youssef Chahine and Helmy Halim.
In the film, Lotfy remembers how filmmaker Mohamed Karim, who was the school dean at the time, had a lasting impact on her, especially as he was the director of the first film she ever watched, El Wardah El baydah (The White Flower, 1933). She had watched the film back in Sidon and it somehow “remains alive in my memory to this day. I can even remember its songs,” says Lotfy.
Graduating from the Film Institute in 1964, Lotfy worked as an assistant director for television and fiction films, working alongside directors like Saad Arafa, Mamdouh Shoukri, Khalil Shawqi, and Fatin Abdelwahab. It was not long before Lotfy moved away from the confines of commercial cinema, and joined Egyptian director Shadi Abdel Salam at the department for experimental film at the Egyptian Film Centre, shifting to documentary filmmaking.
Harpist Manal Mohei Eldin performs at a music concert celebrating the late documentary filmmaker Nabeeha Lotfy. (Photo: Ahram Online)
In 1969, she embarked on her first filmmaking experience under the supervision of Abdel Salam himself which culminated in her 10-minute film Sala min nawahi Misr al-atiqa (Prayer from Old Cairo, 1972), in which she went on a spiritual journey via the churches of Mar Gerges.
“My childhood was full of encounters that pushed me towards pursuing this idea,” explains Lotfy. “My aunt lived in a house in old Sidon and I remember how the living room overlooked a mosque courtyard. We’d sit there, listen to Quran recitation and the athan (the call to prayer), and i was overwhelmed by those sounds.”
Throughout the following decades, Lotfy would mould a repertoire that comprises tens of documentary films about Egypt, its class struggle and rich heritage, as well as the Arab torment and the Palestinian struggle. All her life she was preoccupied with people's social grievances and wanted to make films about them, and so she did.
One milestone in Lotfy’s career, as she asserts in the film, was the New Cinema Group that she co-founded in 1968 along with other neorealist filmmakers including Khairy Beshara, Ali Badrakhan, Ahmed Metwalli, Mohamed Khan, Atef El-Tayyeb and others.
Influenced by social, political and ideological changes of the time, and especially the ascension of leftist and progressive trends in the Arab region and the world, this generation of filmmakers came together and produced two films: Oghniyya Aala Al Mamar (Passageway Song, 1972) and Zelal Fil Janib Al Akhar (Shadows on the Other Side-1974)—both of which centred on the 1967 defeat.
Lotfy also reflects on her chef d'oeuvre Li’ann al-guzur lan tamut (Because the Roots will Never Die, 1975), in which she narrated the Tel Al-Zaatar massacre in east Beirut, and which comprised scenes filmed before the camp's displacement, and scenes unearthed after, supplemented with testimonies from women and children who survived the massacre.
From east Beirut, we move to Cairo where Lotfy celebrated the city's cultural heritage in her film Sharia Mohammed Ali (Mohammed Ali Street / Remains of a Certain Time, 2003), as she took a tour of one of the oldest streets in Cairo, focusing on the changes that unfolded in the street that once hosted Egypt’s artists and dancers in the 20th century.
Lotfy also wandered about Upper Egypt producing more than 20 films that spoke of the Egyptian people, their social struggle and their infringed rights. In Ila ayn? (Where To? 1991) for example, she discussed the issue of girls dropping out from schools. In La’b ‘iyal (Children’s Games, 1990), she observed the imagination of children in Upper Egypt as they create toys out of everyday objects.
While her films tackled different subjects across the Arab region, they were united by Lotfy’s artistic philosophy which is best captured towards the end of the film when she says, “I still believe in equality until this very day, and cannot accept any form of discrimination between people.”
The film closed with what looked like a celebration of one of Lotfy’s birthdays; a beautiful ending which as we remember Lotfy one year after her passing gains more meaning: It attests to and speaks of people who continue to inspire long after they depart, and Lotfy is undoubtedly one of those souls.
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