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Remembering Egyptian filmmaker Salah Abou Seif

On 22 June, 1996 the Egyptian filmmaker Salah Abou Seif passed away leaving behind more than forty films and a legacy in Egyptian cinema that many have since emulated

Menna Taher, Friday 22 Jun 2012
Salah Abou Seif (photo source: Ahram)
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On 22 June 1996 the Egyptian filmmaker, Salah Abou Seif, passed away at the age of 81 leaving behind more than forty films and a legacy in Egyptian cinema.

Not only did he contribute immensely in shaping Egypt's cinema and is considered the father of Egyptian realism in cinema, but he has also taught a generation of filmmakers, who include Atef El-Tayeb, Mohamed Khan, Dawood Abdel Sayed and Aly Badrakhan. 

According to the film critic Hassan Haddad in the Akhabr El-Khalij publication, many filmmakers emulated his cinematic style in certain films. Haddad likened Ashraf Fahmy’s film El-Wahsh Dakhel Insan (The Monster Inside A Human Being) to Laka Youm Ya Zalem (Your Day Will Come) and Aly Abd El-Khaleq’s El- Fetwa (The Tough) to Shader El-Samak (The Warehouse of Fish)

As a tribute, Atef El-Tayeb, his student, named his protagonist Hassan in Sawaq El-Otobees, after the protagonist of one of Abu Seif’s most famous movies, Osta Hassan.

Salah Abou Seif was raised in a poor family in the notorious neighbourhood of Boulaq. In his youth he read extensively in cinema and different fields and wrote film critiques for different publications. His career in cinema began when the Egyptian director visited the textile company in which he worked for a documentary and saw the breadth of Abou Seif’s cinematic knowledge.

Since then Abou Seif worked in Studio Misr, first as an accountant and then as a film editor for ten years. He also directed several short documentary films, including one about traffic in Alexandria and another on the noises of Cairo. 

His feature film debut came in 1946 with the film Dayman Fi Qalby (Always in My Heart) and has since made a plethora of films dissecting Egyptian society. 

During his shooting of El-Sakr (The Falcon) in Italy, he came to see Italian neo-realism; a movement that erupted in Italy post WWII where, after the big studios were destroyed, the filmmakers left and went to shoot on the streets to capture the impoverished side of Italy.

In Egypt, Abou Seif is also considered the filmmaker that brought the life of the struggling Egyptian to light, since before him films depicted the impermeable lives of the bourgeoisie. 

What is considered his first important film is Osta Hassan (Foreman Hassan), which includes several key elements that can be traced in all of his films. Not only does the film depict classicism, but also its psychological impact on individuals. 

He managed to emphasise classicism through the film's editing, such focusing on a refrigerator or a lamp from a poor house and in the next frame focusing on the same objects in a rich home. This also can be traced to his influence from Soviet films, which he did not deny.

In many of his films sexuality is also directly linked with the power and class struggle, as usually the oppressing power preys on the oppressed through sexual domination. This can be seen in films like Osta Hassan (Foreman Hassan), El-Wahsh (The Monster), El-Qahera 30 (Cairo 30) and El-Zoga El-Thanya (The Second Wife)

He did differentiate sometimes: for instance, the characters of Soad Hosny in the films El-Qahera 30 and in El-Zoga El-Thanya, were both sexually sold to the oppressing power, yet in the former she gave in and in the latter she showed strength and made a cunning plan to loosen herself from the mayor's grip.  

Another element related to the dominance theme is loss of human dignity at the sight of money. 

One iconic shot in his film El-Qahera 30 (Cairo 30) is of a man selling himself to garner a high positioned job. He allows himself to get married to the boss' mistress with the condition that he have visiting sex hours. During this scene, Abou Seif captures an angle that shows that the man has grown horns.

This shot has been used extensively on social networking sites to reflect upon politics.             

There are also archetypes that can be seen in many of his films, like the conniving seductress or the oppressive mayor, however, through the films these characters vary and do not stick to a certain mold. 

Though some of his films are somewhat pedagogical, it is his depth in character development that makes the films believable. The slow slide towards corruption is quite believably depicted in his films. 

Abou Seif has also tapped upon the lives of the bourgeoisie in his films adapting the novels of Isaad Abdel Qudous, so one cannot strictly limit his films to the struggle of the working classes. In films like this he concentrates more upon the inner struggles of the characters rather than the social pressures that affect a person's behaviour. 

Because of his highly-politicised leaning he has faced trouble with censorship authorities. For instance, for his film El-Osta Hassan, he had to add the sentence that implies that humility is one of the most important virtues, while in his film, El-Wahsh, he had to write at the start of the film that the events happened long before.

The film that received most trouble with authorities was Al-Qadia 68 (The Trial 68), which was banned in Egypt until it got international recognition. 

The film discusses the psychological impact of the defeat against Israel in the 1967 war. In a segment on Nile Cinema titled Negm El-Youm (Today’s Star) his son revealed that during the film's premiere there were thugs waiting outside the cinema hall and beat up Salah Abou Seif and his son, who tried to defend him. 

Some of the important and internationally-recognised films of his career are El-Wahsh and Shabab Imaraa, which were both selected in the Cannes official competition in 1954 and 1956, respectively. The Adventures of Antar and Abla was also entered in the Cannes official competition in 1949. 

Other than the Cannes Film Festival, he participated in other major international festivals, like the Venice Film Festival and the Berlinale. 

Another important factor about Abou Seif is that he brought Egyptian literature onto the screen, and can be credited with bringing the famous novelist Naguib Mahfouz to the film industry. He has adapted many films from Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan Abdel Koudous novels.

It is also quite known that Abou Seif contributed to his screenplays because he firmly believed that the script is the main component of a film. 

In Nile Cinema's Negm El-Youm, one filmmaker said that Abou Seif used to write 300 scenes rather than 120 scenes and then crop out the unnecessary. Aly Badrakhan noted that his work as an editor has made him a master of looking into the details of a scene. 

22 June marks six years since his death however, his films are still being re-interpreted, with the relevance of today's political situation extremely palpable.

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