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Friday, 15 November 2019

Remembering Ezz Eldin Zulfikar: The romantic film pioneer

Director Ezz Eldin Zulfikar (28 October 1919 - 1 July 1963) established a trend with his grand masterpieces and poetic spirit

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 7 Nov 2019
Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar
Director Ezz Eldin Zulfikar
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In east Abbasiya, Cairo, director Ezz Eldin Zulfikar lived his early childhood and youth, although some sources say he was born in Sinnuris, Fayoum governorate. Although his father, a police chief inspector, was constantly moving from one governorate to the other, the Zulfikar family house remained one of the famous buildings in the Abbassiya neighbourhood. The street in which they lived bears the family name to this day.

On 28 October 1919, Ezz Eldin was born, the second among five siblings. His brother Mahmoud, who would grow up to be a director and actor, was seven years older. They were followed by brothers Kamal, Salah (the famous actor) and finally Mamdouh. Ezz-Eldin’s childhood shaped his personality, for he was attracted to sports in general, especially wrestling, swimming, and gymnastics in which he won some school championships. He was an avid reader and loved to listen to classical music. He was into buying every new record released in Egypt; a hobby he cherished until his death.

Ezz Eldin was introduced to the cinematic world at the age of nine when his elder brother Mahmoud took him to the cinema theatre to watch Arabic and foreign films. His passion for cinema was evident when he would watch three films in a row. If he particularly liked one movie he would watch it several times.

After high school, he joined the Military College to please his father, although Ezz Eldin didn't object to the idea itself, for he saw that learning military studies would widen his perceptions. During that period, he was acquainted with a number of prominent figures that shaped Egyptian politics later on, such as presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat, and Tharwat Okasha and other members of the Free Officers Movement, who mounted the July 1952 Revolution. 

Despite being a distinguished officer, a tragic event shook Ezz Eldin to the core. His father, to whom he was very close, died. Ezz Eldin suffered  a psychological crisis and doctors advised him to change his lifestyle and career.

At that point, Ezz Eldin remembered his strong friendship with director Kamal Selim and their cinematic discussions. Through Selim he got to know a number of coevals who became directors: Mohamed Abdel-Gawad, Salah Abu Seif, Kamel El-Telmissany and Fateen Abdel-Wahab, who had just resigned from the Armed Forces and began working in cinema. 

Although it didn't occur to Ezz Eldin to work in the cinema -- although his elder brother Mahmoud was already working in the cinema -- he accepted his friend Abdel-Gawad’s invitation to work as an assistant director. He resigned from the Armed Forces, starting a new phase in his life.

He used to describe himself as a fatalist. He used to love and devote himself to every field in which he worked; whether in the army with its discipline and strictness or in the cinema with its vastness and freedom.
Working as an assistant director didn’t last for a long time; it was only for three films. Ironically, Abdel-Gawad would later become an assistant director to Ezz Eldin. 

Zulfikar decided to make his debut as a director after he gained the secrets of the trade in a brief time.

 Zulfikar chose a tragic story for his debut,The Captive of Darkness (1947), which he remade in The Black Candles (1962). It was well received in cinema theatres and by art journalists. His following films, such as Abu Zeid Al-Hilali (1947) and Immortality (1948), received mixed degrees of success.

After Ezz-Eldin tried his hand in directing the musical comedy The Owner of Piastres (1949), he decided his next film would be I am the Past, even if it made him stay at home without work, which was what actually took place. For 15 months, he searched for a production company to be enthused about it until Studio Misr’s manager gave him the green light.

The film, which was released in 1951, succeeded thanks to its formula based on tragedy coupled with suspense, without dismissing the emotional thread, which was always a soft spot in the majority of Zulfikar’s films. According to what he used to say, he felt that he began to present the cinema which he desired. Perhaps the success of I am the Past drove actor Yehia Chahine to write and produce the film Ask My Heart and chose Zulfikar to direct it.

There was nobody but Zulfikar to direct a story about a fiery love story between a famous actor and a delicate girl. Ask My Heart, which was released in May 1952, can be regarded as a gradual immersion in the cinema of emotions – so to speak – which Zulfikar was its standard-bearer in his subsequent films. However, this approach didn’t prevent Zulfikar from directing other genres; all of which were characterised by compactness while displaying a refined cinematic language asserting Zulfikar’s stamp. It was evident in Night Train (1953), I am departing (1955) and The Second Man (1959), among other films.

These rich years in Zulfikar’s output both artistically and personally coincided with the July 1952 Revolution. Due to his military background, he considered himself one of the Free Officers even if he hadn't participated in its events. The Free Officers felt the same way about him.

Consequently, the revolution’s government gave him its trust. He became its cinematic mouthpiece as much as Abdel-Halim Hafez was its historian through his songs. When they wanted to record a revolutionary event Zulfikar was ready with My Heart is Restored to Life (1957) based on a novel written by an ex-officer, the novelist Youssef El-Sibaai. When Nasser wanted to commemorate the Tripartite Aggression of  1956, Zulfikar was assigned to do this in Port Said (1956), produced by the film star Farid Shawki upon state assignment.

The political leadership wished to record the Algerian people’s struggle, embodied by Djamila Bouhired. Zulfikar was supposed to direct a film about it but he suffered a health crisis and instead Youssef Chahine filled in for him. The same thing happened again, but on a bigger scale, with Saladin (1963) with all its political projections, receiving the state’s full support and Zulfikar working for years on this project. However, sickness prevented him from directing it and Youssef Chahine, again, was the substitute.

It has always been pointed out that Zulfikar was a romantic film director, whose name was connected with this genre more than any other Egyptian director, including director Henri Barakat who preceded him, became his contemporaneous and continued after Zulfikar’s death. However, Zulfikar with his grand masterpieces and poetic spirit established a trend of which he was its knight and left a model to recall whenever there is a new attempt to direct a fully developed romantic film. He was similar to a stereotype for any time and place.

Despite this advantage bestowed upon us as viewers by Zulfikar, it is unfair to confine his output to the romantic genre. It is true that he was the filmmaker of outstanding achievements: I am Departing, Among the Ruins (1959), River of Love (1960), based on Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and to which we can add Immortality, Ask my Heart, and My Heart is Restored to Life. Thus, six films out of his 33, including My Heart is Restored to Life, included personal feelings blended with the patriotic revolutionary preoccupation of an entire nation. Revolutionary behaviour, after all, is a romantic act in its highest form.

If Zulfikar was just a romantic director, what can we call his comedy musicals such as Everybody’s Singing (1947) and Street of Love (1958); his suspense films in Night Train and The Second Man; his tragedies The Road of Hope (1957) and A Woman on the Road (1957); social films Stronger than Love (1954) and Fleeing from Love (1957); or his outright comedies A Vacation in Inferno (1949) and An Appointment in the Tower (1962)? It is true that some of these aren’t on par with his masterpieces in the romantic genre but it is also true that there are some other films that are sufficient to be the façade of a big director.

Zulfikar died at the ripe age of 44 on 1 July 1963, with his mind full of dreams if realised along with his previous filmography, he would have been on top of the list of directors in Egyptian cinema history, uncontested.

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