The established art director Salah Marei, passed away at the age of 63 after a strenuous battle against cancer, leaving behind an immense body of work. Having worked in around 30 feature films, Marei signed off his career with the independent film In the Last Days of the City by Tamer El Saeed, which he had volunteered to help out with. He was also a professor in the High Institute of Cinema, teaching the history of architecture and art direction and inspiring many students.
Among his first experiences in the field were with Shady Abdel Salam, who is considered his mentor, in his film El Momia (The Mummy). The film critic Kamal Ramzy remembers Marei in Al Shorouk newspaper as a young man absorbed for hours working on sketches in Abdel Salam’s atelier in 26 July street. He describes him as one who believed that interior design and art direction are integral parts of the film.
Attention to the minutest of details
El Saeed’s recollection of Marei reinforces his fascinating attention to the minutest of details. “By changing little things he could change the mood and spirit of the place,” El Saeed said “He took notice of every little aspect, even the door knobs, keys and keychains.”
When trying to locate the apartment most suited for the film, Marei and El Saeed looked at 60 or 70 apartments. Even when deciding upon the colour of the walls, Marei chose between 20 colours to find one that matched the skin tones of the two actors, the slightly fair-skinned Khaled Abdallah, and Laila Samy, who has a bronze skin tone.
His involvement did not stop at the interior design, Marei helped out the crew when shooting outdoor scenes, despite their insistence that he should take some rest.
“I knew he was sick lately, and wanted him to rest. I hoped he would survive because he’s extremely strong,” El Saeed said.
Marei has worked with several directors such as Ali Badrakhan in his film El Goua (The Hunger), Youssry Nasralla in El Madeena (The City) Radwan El Kashef in his film El Saher (The Magician), Raafat El Meehy in Kaleel Men Al Hob Katheer Men Al Onf (A little bit of love and a lot of violence) and Osama Fawzy in Beheb El Cima (I love cinema).
One of his most famous works is the alley in Badrakhan’s film El Goua, which is based on stories from Naguib Mahfouz’s El Harafeesh. The film was set in the 1880s during the Fatimid era in Cairo and captured the period accurately in set and costume. He also arranged the set so that the sun would hit the walls of the alley throughout the morning.
The scriptwriter Mohamed Hassane recalls spending around three months in Alexandria prior to shooting the film El Batal, set in 1919 during the revolution. “We roamed around the city every day to look for streets and alleys that could fit that period. We used to take notes about which streets would fit and if there was a lamppost that was out of place,” Hassane remembers nostalgically . “During that time I was very sick for two days and he didn’t leave my side, providing me with medicine and food.”
Acts of kindness
Such acts of kindness were mentioned by everyone who knew him. He also acted in Sherif El Bendary’s short film At Day’s End voluntarily , out of interest in the project. “I knew he was just doing it to help me out,” said Bendary. “He was such a well-rounded and knowledgeable person in all aspects of filmmaking, like photography, lighting and design.”
The short film captures a mundane day in an old man’s life, where he obsesses about finding a neck brace. Throughout his performance he captures the profound state of a man faced with the reality of his aging body and the changes that befell his son - and perhaps also society at large - in a silent but powerful performance.
A humble nature
Marei was honoured and awarded many times in his life, yet despite all his professional achievements he retained a humble nature.
“You would never notice him when you get into a room,” Hassane said. “He would be standing alone, perhaps lost in thought, and would never boast about his knowledge or abilities.”
“He was my professor in film school and so I didn’t know how I could direct him if I didn’t like his work.” El Saeed said “He urged me to fight with him if I didn’t like what I saw so we fought a lot, but it was constructive and we found solutions. But he was humble and would say someone else was right if he found that to be the case.”
“I’m lucky to be the last person who worked with him,” El Saeed continued “Last October when I showed him a few of the scenes we shot he was moved to tears. He hugged me and told me he wanted to thank me for having him make the film.”
Salah Marei passed away on Thursday, 3 March, 2011