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Monday, 06 July 2020

Director Mohamed Khan: The mark of genius

To mark the passing of filmmaker Mohamed Khan on 26 July 2016, Nahed Nasr sought out cinematographer Said Shimi, Khan’s lifelong friend

Nahed Nasr , Monday 5 Aug 2019
The mark of genius
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Views: 2102

“Honouring the name of Said Shimi does not only spotlight one of the most important cinematographers in Egyptian cinema, it also spotlights his generation… It brings to mind Mohamed Khan, Atef Al-Tayeb, Ali Abdel-Khaleq, Khairy Beshara, Daoud Abdel Sayed and others. As if Said Shimi and his achievements are the representation of a whole generation…”

Thus critic Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour’s introduction to a commemorative book issued during the last round of the Ismailia Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts, which honoured Said Shimi. Born in 1942, a year after the late filmmaker Mohamed Khan (1942-2016), Shimi has spared no effort to celebrate the legacy his lifelong friend and collaborator in the last three years. He has produced books and photo exhibitions – the latest being an exhibition of dozens of archival photos, most never before seen, at Lamasat Gallery, which opened on 26 July, the day Khan died – as well organising seminars and screenings. Shimi is no doubt driven by loyalty to his friend, but his efforts reflect the importance of the two artists’ generation and the influential school of filmmaking associated with it, the Egyptian New Wave, or Egyptian neorealism, which transformed Egyptian film.

The mark of genius

The second volume of Khan’s correspondence with Shimi (1959-1977) appeared with Al Karma Books early this year, and won the Cairo International Book Fair best book award in the arts category (the third is to appear later this year). The book includes not only the letters the two friends wrote to each other while Khan was in London but also Shimi’s commentary, and it sheds light on the artists’ aspirations and the conditions of the film industry at the time. According to Shimi, the project of collecting those letters in book form started shortly before Khan’s death:

“Once, while we were together at our favourite café, he asked me if I still have the letters he used to send me. He wanted to have a look at photos of an old girlfriend he had met in Denmark in the 1960s, which he sent me with one of those letters after they broke up.” But when he saw the letters Khan thought of collecting them. “He wanted people to know more about his difficult journey from being a young cinephile who wants to be a writer to the filmmaker he became. He was too busy with his last film, Before the Summer Crowds to do anything about it, though, then he died. That is why, although he never asked me to, I decided during his first memorial service to realise that dream of his. For me those letters are more than a memory. They are the reference that helped me find out about world cinema before I had access to the films. And now I believe they can work as an eye-opener for the younger generation, telling them about our time and our struggles. It is pure cinema, not just a kind of biography.”

The mark of genius
Shimi with film director Mohamed Khan

Shimi remembers how when some of the French New Wave films were screened for the first time in Cairo during a 1964 in a French Film Week, he felt as if he’d seen those movies before, but in words through Khan’s letters. “The neorealism of the French New Wave was a great influence on us, Khan and me and other young filmmakers at that time, even unconsciously.” Leaving the studios behind and taking the camera to the streets of the city ran counter to the traditions of Egyptian cinema at that time. But Khan and Shimi dared to break the rules, and others followed. Shimi speaks of the adventurous part of Khan’s personality with great admiration and caution at the same time:

“I was against his desire to leave London and return to Egypt because at that time, in the early 1970s, I was becoming somewhat well-known while I studied at the High Cinema Institute, and I realised that for Khan it would difficult as he did not have the Egyptian nationality. But Khan was adventurous enough to come back anyway.” Before their first full-length feature, Darbet Shams (Sunstroke, 1980), they made a series of experimental shorts including The Watermelon (1972): “Darbet Shams was his first but my seventh feature film as a cinematographer. It was very difficult to find an enthusiastic producer to take part until the film star Nour Al-Sherif decided to be the producer and the star. Maybe it was our good luck, but also the Egyptian film scene was in need of new blood to take it from the studios to the streets of the city.”

The mark of genius
Shimi with film director Ashraf Fahmy

Despite differences in their personality, Shimi says, the love of cinema bound him and Khan. After Al-Harreef (The Street Player, 1984), they stopped collaborating. But their friendship remained. They were both part of the New Cinema Group, whose early productions included Ali Abdel-Khaleq’s Oghnia Ala Al-Mama (A Song on the Passageway, 1972), photographed by Shimi. He remembers Abdel-Khaleq fondly:

“He was one of my favourite directors to work with, especially because he trusted me when I was in my beginnings. I worked on 18 of his films.” Most of Shimi’s 180 features, indeed, were made by filmmakers of his generation. Atef Al-Tayeb, he says, always presented him with challenges: “It was very creatively motivating to work with him.” Nader Galal was “an adventurous child playing with movies. Working with him was like an endless journey of discovery”. Khan, for his part, “was always organised and very well-prepared.  But once we were on the street with the camera, his eyes never missed an unplanned sight that could add to the scene”. With all these filmmakers, mutual understanding was the keyword, but such understanding had to do with a generation’s unity of vision: “All were aware of the importance of experimentation and of producing something new to show their very own local reality.” He, for one, never stopped taking his camera out on the street.

The mark of genius
Shimi with film director Atef Al-Tayeb and actor Said Abd El-Ghani

Shimi became the first Egyptian cinematographer able to work underwater, teaching as well as practising underwater photography. “It was a very old dream of mine. I remember in one of my early letters to Khan even before I became an established cinematographer that I asked him to send me catalogues of cameras that can shoot underwater. And his replay was, ‘Don’t you think you should start with the land!’” But since childhood Shimi had been in love with the American competitive swimmer and actress Esther Williams’ films, especially the 1940s and 1950s series known as  Aaquamusicals, which featured elaborate synchronised swimming and diving performances. “She was one of my generation’s stars. But I was also 11 when I watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Richard Fleischer. It was a masterpiece. And that is how I think the idea of exploring the underwater world lived in my mind.” He realised his dream to turn the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat by Egyptian missile boats in 1967 into a film in Inaam Mohamed Ali’s 1993 The Road to Eilat, in which he directed the underwater scenes. Downtown Cairo had inspired him, but so did Sinai now. And in ver 27 books on the history and techniques of cinematography through his career, Shimi documented his experience in both.

He also wrote a book about Al-Tayeb, recently republished by Al-Hala: “I love to write about those filmmakers who were very close to me. I like the idea of their memory, their achievements, and most importantly their journey living on and influencing the younger generations.” He has no autobiography lined up, however: “I have never thought about writing a book about myself. But I am there in my books about all of these talented and creative people in my generation. We all share the same story of the big dreams and the efforts to realise them. I always wanted to have the most convincing picture in the context of the drama. A picture that touches the senses and the mind of the viewer is what I sought with my camera. A picture that translates the vision of the director, which I share”. It is true that he worked on some films only to make living, but in the films he liked the most that is what he believed.

The mark of genius
Shimi shooting underwater

Teaching – at the High Cinema Institute and other film schools – is another field that Shimi fills with love. He is especially fond of his experience with young filmmakers in the provinces. “I taught in many Egyptian governorates from Aswan to Alexandria during film festivals or in other workshops and for free. I believe that people there are badly in need of knowledge and very eager to learn. We as Cairo dwellers have a big responsibility towards those young people all over the country who are deprived of the opportunities we have the access to”. But wherever he teaches and whoever his students are, the most important idea he keeps in mind is to tell his students about the importance of having a clear and honest vision: “Technicalities are easy to learn. But filmmakers should have two things: a visual culture which they accumulate by reading, seeing films, having a connection with visual art and other forms – this is the greatest source of imagination – and vision. For Shimi, the most important thing that made a difference in his generation is that their target was to create an Egyptian cinema representing society: “What many young filmmakers nowadays lack is a clear vision. Technology has made the process of filmmaking easier than before. But technology alone cannot result in great cinema that reflects us, the people and their reality…”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The mark of genius


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