Egyptian Godfather Of Realistic Cinema: Salah Abou Seif
Along with Youssef Chahine, Abou Seif is one of the defining figures in Egyptian cinema. He received a commercial degree from the Ecole Supe ´ rieure de Commerce (Upper Commercial School) in Cairo. He was always fascinated by the cinema. During the production of a documentary about the cotton mill where he worked, he made friends with the director and his staff and convinced them to influence his transfer to a film studio where he was hired as an assistant editor in 1934.
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He gradually worked his way up to head the department. By 1946 he convinced the studio he had enough training to direct a feature film. Daiman fi qalbi/ Always in My Heart (1946) is an Egyptian adaptation of the American film Waterloo Bridge, the story of a romance between a soldier and a ballet dancer who meet on Waterloo Bridge, lose track of each other, and finally meet again on the bridge.
While Always in My Heart might seem quite traditional to Western audiences, Abou Seif’s realistic presentation of human emotions was not usual in the Egyptian cinema of that period. He retains a romantic theme in his second film, Al-muntaqim/ The Avenger (1947), the story of a marriage between a wealthy doctor and a poor young nurse. In his third film, Mughamarat Antar wa Abla/ The Adventures of Antar and Abla (1948), he fully establishes the basic elements of his style.
Guy Hennebelle presents this early style as a series of dualities relating to presentation of character, thematic development, aesthetics, and techniques . Abou Seif’s characters come from two opposing worlds: the rich and the poor. These categories might be further developed beyond monetary privilege to such other attributes as the weak and the strong,
Hennebelle indicates that Abou Seif’s films always have a moral resolution that can often be generated by the cohesiveness of the poor in response to injustice. Abou Seif’s concern for the poor permeates his style as well. His visual style and the performances of his actors appear much more realistic when set in the homes of the poor than in the palaces of the rich.
Hennebelle traces Abou Seif’s developing concern for the lower classes and his progress from the Egyptian cinema’s stylized melodramas to this filmmaker’s stay in Rome in 1950 . His incorporation of elements of neorealism, an approach in Italian cinema that attempted to portray the world of postwar Italy realistically and which emphasized the lives of poor people and real settings, changed his career and greatly influenced the development of Egyptian cinema.
With ten of the films he made from 1951 to 1966 (Lak yawm ya Zalim/ Your Day Will Come, 1950; Al-usta Hassan/ Foreman Hassan, 1953; Raya wa Sakina / Raya and Sakina, 1953; Alwahsh/The Monster, 1954; Shabab imra/ A Woman’s Youth, 1955; Al-futuwwa/ The Bully, 1956; Al-tariq al-masdud/ The Alley, 1958; Bayn al-sama wal-ard/ Between Heaven and Earth, 1959; Bidaya wa nihaya/ Dead Among the Living, 1960, and Al-qahira thalathin/ Cairo ’30, 1966) Hennebelle sees Abou Seif combining the lessons of Italian neorealism with his own view of the world to create films that deeply explore contemporary Egyptian society.
Two of these films, A Woman’s Youth (1955) and The Bully (1956), exemplify many of Abou Seif’s stylistic and thematic concerns. As Lizbeth Malkmus and Roy Armes suggest, Abou Seif combines melodrama and comedy in A Woman’s Youth where a young man who has been seduced by his landlady is saved through the intervention of family members both real and surrogate and by his true love . In The Bully the melodramatic plot examines the concept of futuwwa, which Malkmus and Armes explain is a chivalric term for brotherhood that has degenerated in modern Egypt into a name for a social system based on the power of a boss over his workers.
In this film the central character comes to the city and tries to work with others to change the system. Unfortunately he becomes seduced by the lure of the very power system he has tried to subvert. While Abou Seif’s concerns clearly lie with the poor in both of these films, he demonstrates the complexity of any moral position and the difficulty of maintaining such a stance when surrounded by temptation. He continues to examine the difficulty of remaining moral in the midst of corruption in such later films as Al-kadhdhab/ The Liar (1975) where a reporter thinks he can escape the false world presented by the media. But he realizes his life in a poor neighborhood is no better. He lies when he hides his real identity, and his new neighbors are also liars.
Again Abou Seif demonstrates the fact that the poor are no more naturally good by reason of their poverty than the rich are naturally evil. The only way to really effect change is for the whole neighborhood to participate as they do at the end of this film. Abou Seif has, for the most part, continued to explore contemporary Egyptian society. He occasionally presents historical periods as in Fajr alislam/ The Dawn of Islam (1970) and the film made in Iraq, Al-Qadisiyya (1980). But Abou Seif’s real contribution to Egyptian cinema is his successful integration of Western realism into his country’s cinema.