The Legacy of Salah Abu Seif, Master of Realism in Egyptian Cinema

Ibrahim al-Ariss

Salah Abu Seif was concerned with the young Egyptian director Atef Al Tayeb who was about to be admitted to the hospital to undergo a simple heart surgery in the summer of 1995. At the time, Abu Seif was in good health, although upon reaching his eightieth birthday he had decided to retire from filmmaking for good.

A few weeks later, Al-Tayeb died in surgery, an event that left Abu Seif in great sorrow; he later said to me that part of himself was lost. It was no more than a year after the death of Al Tayeb that Abu Seif himself passed away. With their deaths, the school of realism in Egyptian cinema lost one of its main founders and one of its greatest's heirs.

At 81, Salah Abu Seif, remained one of the great masters of the Egyptian and Arab seventh art - cinema. In a period that spanned fifty years, he completed more than 40 films, some of which are considered classics, and most of which added to this great artist's title of "Director of Realism," even though he was known often to have complained about this categorization, within which he felt imprisoned.

At any rate, Abu Seif, who passed away in the last days of June 1996, is not only one of the greatest founders of realism in Egyptian cinema, but one of the greatest artists in Arab cinema, and the father-founder, along with Yusuf Chahine and Toufic Saleh, of the cinematic modernism that caused the greatest revolution in the "seventh art" since the mid 1950s. There are not many contemporary directors who would deny their affinity, in one form or another, with the schools Abu Seif helped establish.

The story of Egyptian cinema and Abu Seif started in his youth: working as an employee in a textile factory, he accidentally met the young director Niyazi Mustafa. Mustaph had just then returned from Germany, having completed a study in cinema at the expense of Studio Misr[Egypt's Studio]. The encounter strengthened Abu Seif's interest in and love of cinema; he therefore approached Niazi Mustapha and convinced the filmmake to hire the young Abu Seif as assistant director. That was the beginning of a journey that continued into the 1990s, originating as a collaborative effort between himself, Mustapha and Kamal Salim in the film Al Azima [Determination], which laid the foundation for realism in Egyptian cinema.

That experience opened opportunities for Abu Seif to direct short documentaries while waiting for the chance to direct his own feature film. But he had to wait six more years before he completed the half dozen films that set him on the road toward the school with whose name he is so closely associated and which gave him his individual identity. When Abu Seif completed "Dayma ya Kalbi" (Always My Heart, 1945-46), "Al Muntakim" (The Revenger, 1947), "Shareh al-Bahlawan" (The Street of the Acrobat, 1949), and "Mughamaraat Antar wa Abla" (The Ventures of Antar and Abla, 1948), he was still searching for his own style, torn between the historical, comedic, romantic and mystery genres.

All these films - despite the success and the distinction of some of them - were like exercises that led him to his real beginnings, as is evident in the first of his great films, "Laka Yaoum ya Zalem" (Oppressor's Day is Coming, 1951), adapted from Emile Zola's novel. Produced in 1951, this film, although based on a foreign novel, showed all the elements that characterized the cinema of Abu Seif afterwards: making use of actors and actresses - Faten Hamama in particular - in unconventional ways; depicting the living conditions of the lower classes in society; showing how relations evolve according to the psychological aspect of the personalities; dealing with crime as a part of social reality, examining its causes instead of its results; and, in addition, utilizing technical elements like light, montage and makeup as factors in portraying the psychological dimensions of events and characters. There is another feature important in the subsequent films of Abu Seif: starting from an apparent criminal act, they analyze it and attempt to draw from it a picture of society, an often pessimistic one that shows man himself in his confusion, his relationships, and his journey.

Thus it can be said that Oppressor's Day is Coming gave birth to Abu Seif's following films: "Al Usta Hassan" (Master Hassan, 1952), "Raya wa Sakina" (Raya and Sakina, 1953), "Al Wahish" (The Monster, 1954), "Al Futwa" (Thugs, 1957). These films are considered - even today - as the best in the legacy of Abu Seif. Perhaps we should note that all these films were born out of social reality. Abu Seif attempted to examine exceptional incidents that often lead to crime or worse (Rya wa Sakina ), masterfully portraying class differences and the tragedy of the descent into hell (Master Hassan), presenting criminal control of the market that dominates the livelihood of the people (The Thugs), and questioning the extent to which the criminal is responsible for his crime (The Monster). Abu Seif knew well how to break with his first and fundamental phase, confined to black and white, into regions of new possibility. Although Abu Seif's realism pleased many realist-oriented critics, he was not satisfied. Disappointing those critics, in 1957 he launched his second, "romantic" phase. Some described this phase as Abu Seif leaving "Al Hara Al Shabia" (The Popular Quarter) to enter the homes of the petty and middle bourgeoisie.

As part of this transition, Abu Seif turned from the worlds of Naguib Mahfouz to those of Ahssan Abed Al-Qudous, ironically enlisting Mahfouz himself to adapt Abed Al-Qudous' major novels for the screen.

The collaboration between Abu Seif and Mahfouz goes back to the beginnings of Abu Seif's film career which also marked Mahfouz's start as a scriptwriter. Abu Seif was always pleased to point out that cinema has laid the basis of the longstanding friendship between himself and Mahfouz, and it is he who introduced Mahfouz to the craft of writing film scripts when they met during the second half of the 1940s, a period during which Mahfouz knew nothing about cinema. Oddly enough, although Abu Seif worked with Mahfouz, and used his scripts, among Egyptian directors he was the least interested in making Mahfouz's novels into films. Needless to say, Abu Seif broke new ground with his film versions of Mahfouz's famous two novels, "Bidayat wa Nihayat" (Beginning and End) and "Al-Qahira al-Jadida" (The New Cairo). These two are considered among the best of Abu Seif's films. Despite this, the grand cooperation between the two was largely confined to scripts Mahfouz wrote based on other novelists, AmeenYusuf Gharab and Ihssan Abed Al-Qudous in particular.

The collaboration between Abu Seif and Al-Qudous occupied the second half of the 1950s, a period during which Abu Seif directed "Al Wisada Al Khalia" (The Empty Pillow, 1957), "La Anam" (I Do Not Sleep, 1957), "Al Tarik al-Masdud" (The Closed Road, 1958), "Ana Hurra" (I Am Free, 1959), and then one part of "Al Banaat wa Al-Sayf" (Girls and Summer, 1960). Although, through these films Abu Seif made the transition from the "popular quarter" to the homes of the bourgeoisie, it is wrong to suggest that he introduced radical changes in either cinematic language or technique characterization. Instead, an analysis of these films tells us that Abu Seif continued what he started earlier, namely a focus on the psychological development of his characters not as an independent process but as a response to social conditions. In the end, he also attempted chronicling the development of class consciousness out of individual experience.

Clearly, what concerned Abu Seif more than other directors, whether his cinema was realist, romantic, common or bourgeois, was the individual in his struggle with social conditions. The individual caught in the dilemma of livelihood, whether a saint or criminal, sinner or a victim, is in the end a product of social conditions. The "ego" makes me the "other." That is what Abu Seif used to say. This is what he also expressed in two films in particular, that can be considered a summary of all his cinematic worlds: "Shabaab Imra'a" (A Woman's Youth, 1956), and "Bayn Al Sama' wa Al-Ard" (Between Heaven and Earth, 1959). In each of these films, Abu Seif positioned his characters in a closed orbit and moved on to study them like a chemist studies his materials under microscope, leaving us in the end to ask: Is the adulterous woman (Tahia Karyoka) in A Woman's Youth basically evil, or have the circumstances under which she lives made her so? Even though the film ends in "punishing" the woman, can't we suggest that there is some hidden sympathy with her in Abu Seif's film?

Though by the end of the 1950s Abu Seif appeared to have said "all that he had," the 1960s witnessed a second takeoff. At the same time, he vacillated between several schools and levels. The decade of the 1960s, marked by a great beginning with the film Beginning and End, a work that was his first encounter with the novelistic world of Naguib Mahfouz, concluded with a notable historical film, "Fajr Al-Islam" (The Dawn of Islam). In the period separating the two great films, Abu Seif directed eight films, some of which are considered pinnacles in the history of Egyptian cinema: "La Tatfou' al Shams" (The Sun Does Not Go Down), adapted from a novel by Latifa Al-Zayyat; "Al Qahira 30" (Cairo 30), adapted from Al Qahira Al Jadida (The New Cairo) by Mahfouz; Al "Zawjat al Thaniyya" (The Second Wife); and finally "Al Qadiyya 68" (The Case 68), the film that leveled one of the harshest critiques of socialist policies in those days.

During the last period that preceded his retirement from filmmaking, Abu Seif directed two films, which could be added to his great films: "Al Saqamaat" (Water-Supplier is Dead, 1977) and "Al Muwaten Masri" (The Citizen is Egyptian, 1991). Water-Supplier is Dead is based on a work by the writer Yusif Al Sibaai; The Citizen is Egyptian is adapted from a novel by Yusuf Al Kaeed. These two films sum up the artistic history of Abu Seif in its entirety.

He said to us one year before his departure, while monitoring the last days of Atef Al Tayeb with concern: "Isn't it time for me to rest after my sons became the masters of current cinema in Egypt?" The sons he was referring to included Atef Al-Tayeb, of course, and also Khayri Bishara, Muhammad Khan, Ra'fat Al-Mihi, Ali Badrakhan, and others. At the outset of the 1980s, this writer gave these directors a name with special meaning: "The sons of the street, the sons of Salah Abu Seif and Coca Cola." This characterization used to amuse Abu Seif, though he objected to including "Coca Cola" in the subject matter.

Ibrahim Al Aris is a Paris based noted Arab film critic. His articles appear regularly in several Arabic-language publications, including the London-based daily Al Hayat and the London-based weekly Al Wasat.

Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 15, February 1997. The author granted this translator and Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate, edit and publish this article.

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