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Remembering Ahmed Badrakhan: Egyptian pioneer of musical film

Egyptian film director and screenwriter Ahmed Badrakhan was born on 18 September 1909 and died on 26 August 1969

Ashraf Ghabrib, Wednesday 25 Sep 2019
Ahmed Badrakhan

It is absolutely impossible for any cinema historian to disregard the prominent role of the pioneer director Ahmed Badrakhan in establishing the Seventh Art in Egypt in the 1930s. He was credited for directing a number of important Egyptian musicals.

Badrakhan was the first in many cinematic fields; the first to be sent to learn cinema in Europe, the writer of the first book in Arabic about cinema in 1934; the scriptwriter of the first film produced by Studio Misr which was the first musical starring Umm Kalthoum in her film debut; and the first director of the composer Farid Al-Atrash and his sister Asmahan, and singer Abdel-Ghany El-Sayed.

Badrakhan was of Kurdish descent and his family originally came from northern Iraq. His great grandfather migrated to Egypt in the 19th century and resided in the Saladin’s Citadel area, which is one of the oldest quarters in Cairo. His father was one of the Egyptian military men known for competence and patriotism. Many a time he clashed with the British occupation authorities due to his support to his Egyptian compatriots’ struggle, especially during the 1919 Revolution.

This patriotic spirit was what his son, Ahmed Ali Shaker Badrakhan, has inherited. Being fluent in French after graduating from Collège De La Salle, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law, fulfilling his father’s wishes, who was preparing him to be engaged in politics.

However, the young man was attracted to something else that was the cinema. He was an avid cinema-goer since he was 12 years old. Then he moved to acting and joined the Acting Institute established by the pioneer actor Zaki Tuleimat and was taught by another pioneer, George Abyad.

Afterwards, he was interested in writing about cinema issues and kept calling for establishing a cinema industry in Egypt through a number of articles in several well-known periodicals at the time. This, in turn, raised the attention of the renowned economist Talaat Harb, who asked Badrakhan to make a study about establishing a big studio that was to become Studio Misr. Not only this, but Badrakhan was selected to be the head of the first group sent by the studio to study cinema in France where he learned in the IDHEC in France and was trained at the hands of the best experts.

While studying in France, Badrakhan wrote the script of Wedad, the first film Studio Misr was to produce and was released in February 1936. It was supposed that Badrakhan was to direct it but he had a dispute with Ahmed Salem, the studio manager, who chose the German director Fritz Kramp for the task. However, in the following year, the film star, Umm Kalthoum, the most famous songstress, chose Badrakhan to direct The Chant of Hope, as compensation. Thus, Badrakhan’s cinematic career commenced and continued until his death on 26 August 1969. (Some sources mention erroneously that it was on 23 August). He left a legacy of 41 films constituting some of the most important Egyptian cinema classics.

After the success of The Chant of Hope, he directed his second film Something out of Nothing in 1938 starring the singers Abdel-Ghany El-Sayed and Nagat Ali; showing one of his main artistic interests, namely the musicals. Suffice it to say that he directed all Umm Kalthoum’s films except Salama (1944, Togo Mizrahi). He directed nine films for the singer and composer Farid Al-Atrash, the most prominent of which are: Al-Atrash’s cinematic debut in The Triumph of Youth (1941), and The Last Lie (1950).

He made three of singer Mohamed Fawzi’s most successful films as well as films for other singers, such as Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb, Abdel-Aziz Mahmoud, Nour Al-Hoda and Nagat Al-Saghira.

He also directed the only biographical film about the most famous singer and composer in the Arab world in the 20th century, Sayed Darwish, in an eponymous film in 1966.

Badrakhan was distinguished in presenting the film song that was based on bedazzlement, huge décor and panoramic shots that were close to stage direction, especially in dance numbers which filled his films. But this didn’t make him hold back his lyricism, especially that he was the songwriter of some his films’ songs.

In another field, Badrakhan had his obvious contributions in the national film genre. For instance, he was the director and producer of Mustafa Kamel (1952), which narrated the life of the famous nationalist activist of the late 19th century and early 20th century. The film was met with stiff intransigence from the censorship upon its release and it was only saved after the 1952 Revolution.

Badrakhan also directed God With Us (1955), which dealt with the Egyptian army’s tragedy in the 1948 War.

This filmmaker had varied experiences that can’t be overlooked. In the comedy film genre he made Afrah (1968) which was Naglaa Fathi’s debut as star; in the melodrama: A Storm over the Countryside (1941) and A Passionate Night (1951) which was Mariam Fakhr Eddine’s debut; in the detective: Who is Guilty (1944); and the social: The Innocents (1944), and The Other Half (1967).

As for the masterpiece of his romantic films, it is definitely Nadia (1969) starring Soad Hosni. He died during the editing process which was completed by his son Ali who became one of the most important Egyptian directors in the last third of the 20th century.

It is noteworthy to mention that Badrakhan had other contributions to the cinematic profession. He was head of the Egyptian Cinema Professions Syndicate for a number of times and director and one of the founders of the Higher Institute of Cinema. 

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