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Remembering Salah Abu-Seif: Egypt’s greatest realist director

The Egyptian filmmaker Salah Abou Seif passed away 22 years ago, on 22 June 1996, leaving behind more than 40 feature films as well as a number of documentaries and short narrative films

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 21 Jun 2018
Salah Abu Seif
Salah Abu Seif
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Until the end of the 1940s and early 1950s, Egyptian cinemagoers viewed those standing behind the camera, including directors, as just elements participating in the filmmaking and no more.

At the time, stardom, fame and the limelight was for those standing in front of the camera, who are seen on the silver screen as characters made of flesh and blood.

Almost nobody stopped to examine the history of those behind the scenes, or the cinematic characteristics they presented. This remained the case until a new generation of directors emerged who found their way to international film festivals, knew how to talk to cinema audiences, and sometimes put their names before those who starred in their films.

At the top of this generation come two famed directors, Salah Abu-Seif and Youssef Chahine, who put Egyptian directors deservedly on the map of the seventh art. Since Salah Abu-Seif’s career preceded that of Chahine’s, it is fair to give credit first to the director who died 22 June 1996.

The cinematic characteristics of Salah Abu-Seif, who was born 10 May 1915, don’t require much effort to notice. Throughout Egyptian cinema history, there has never been a director who was connected to a certain cinema movement or trend like Salah Abu-Seif was to cinematic realism. Both became inseparable.

During 48 years, from 1946 and 1994, Abu-Seif made 40 feature films as well as a number of documentaries and short narrative films, most of which deserve their distinguished place in Egyptian cinema history. This fact drove international film critic Georges Sadoul to choose Abu-Seif among the best 100 world cineastes.

However, Salah Abu-Seif, whose directorial debut was with Always in My Heart (1946), his last film being Mr Dog (1994), didn’t enter the world of cinema with a precise vision or style bearing a certain message. It is true that his birth and upbringing in Boulaq, a quarter of ancient Cairo, made him much closer to the environment of the lower classes and more adept at expressing the reality of his society. It is also true that he was taught at the hands of Kamal Selim, the first realist director in Egyptian cinema.

Abu-Seif mentioned many a time that he was influenced by famous German director Fritz Lang, especially in relation to filming a setting and the capability to create atmospheres. But he needed time before paving a way for himself as a pioneer in Egyptian cinema. Accordingly, Abu-Seif’s cinema can be divided into three main phases: an experimental and exploratory phase; a phase of maturity and resounding success; and then living on past glories, or a phase of decline.

The experimental phase occupied the six years between 1946 and 1952 in which Abu-Seif made eight films in different genres. They included the romantic Always in My Heart, the historical Antar and Abla’s Adventures (1948), the light comedy Love is Humiliation (1952) and the Bedouin drama The Falcon (1950) which was an Italo-Egyptian co-production. Perhaps behind this diversity stoods Abu-Seif’s search for his own independent cinematic personality.

We shouldn’t skim over The Falcon, for it is an important point in this director’s filmography, not only because its events, depicted in a Bedouin setting, were a projection to what occurred in Palestine two years earlier, but also because its interior scenes were filmed in Italy. This allowed Abu-Seif to be close to the "Neo-Realist" movement, launched by Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), and that was taking Europe and Italy in particular by storm. When Abu-Seif returned from Europe, he grew more determined to direct films that satisfied his artistic psyche. At the end of this stage, he made two films through which he moved towards realism.

The first was You Get Your Deserve (1951) then The Foreman Hassan (1952), which is one of his most important films. The critical and commercial success of both films assured Abu-Seif that he was on the right track.

Undoubtedly, Abu-Seif found great interest in the new atmosphere created by the July 1952 Revolution in Egypt. His main masterpieces span the period 1952 until the 1967 defeat. During this period, he directed 20 films, starting with Raya and Sakina (1953) through his memorable A Woman's Youth (1956), Between Heaven and Earth (1960), Don't Put Out the Sun (1961), Not Time for Love (1963) and The Case 68 (1968).

In the majority of these films, Abu-Seif was preoccupied with pressing social issues such as the relationship between social circumstances and the emergence of crime, for example in The Monster (1954); the issue of monopoly and the marriage between power and money, in The Strong Man (1957); the political situation’s influence on social reality in Egypt prior the 1952 Revolution, in A Beginning and an End (1960) and Cairo 30 (1966); women’s freedom on both the emotional and social levels, in The Blocked Road (1957) and I am Free (1959); the issue of political oppression represented in a rural society in The Second Wife (1967); and in The Case 68, calls for change and the fight against backwardness and stagnation.

It is appears that Salah Abu-Seif was, like many others, devastated by the 1967 defeat, and this impact is quite evident in the quantity and quality of his output thereafter. During the following 22 years, he directed only 12 films, including two parts in two films, Three Women (1969) and First Year of Love (1976), and a remake of his own film You Get Your Deserve, in colour under the title The Criminal (1978), and a TV film, Mr Dog (1994).

The best of these films weren’t close to his previous masterpieces. He was living on past glories while new and promising directors began to emerge.

The edge of his prior realism softened in the traditional romantic film A Little Bit of Torment (1969), and he added sensual spice to this genre in Al-Malatily Bathhouse (1973), while The Liar (1975) was similar to dozens of films that dealt with corruption. He directed two historical films, meanwhile: the first, The Dawn of Islam (1970), which he stepped in to direct as a substitute for Atef Salem; the second, Al-Qadisiyya (1982), an Iraqi production that didn't break free from propagandist aims. His Egyptian Citizen (1991) was a melodrama in which dialogue dominated over other cinematic elements.

In spite of a general decline, artistically and intellectually, two films from this period in Abu-Seif's work stand out. The first is The Water Carrier (1977) based on a Yousef Al-Sibai's novel dealing with the absurdity of life in the face of death. The second film is The Beginning (1986) in which he presented a political fantasy focusing on the relationship between the governed and the governor.

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