A medium shot frames the tightly-clad rear of a woman stepping out of her luxurious car with a poodle. A man, mesmerized, follows her into an elevator and ends up stranded “between heaven and earth” for hours, tightly packed in with an entire cross-section of Egyptian society.
This is how the late Salah Abu Seif, whose primary concerns in his 41 feature films were crime, injustice and class consciousness, did comedy: raw, overpowering, real – and edifying.
Abu Seif, born 100 years ago today, entered cinema just as a truly Egyptian-controlled film industry was emerging, crying out for something less frivolous than the mostly Hollywood-inspired productions of the early years of the century.
Abu Seif was born in Cairo’s Bulaq district, and his father, a well-off man from Beni Suef, died at a young age. After graduating from the school of commerce in 1932, he worked as a clerk at Mahalla’s Spinning and Weaving Company, while also doing part-time film-related journalistic work. His love for cinema started when he was young and he devoted much time to reading about it.
A visit to Mahalla by young director Niazi Mostafa, who was making documentaries on companies owned by Banque Masr, led Abu Seif to Studio Misr, which had just recently been founded by the bank. He started off in film editing in 1934 and then got himself hired as assistant director for Al-Azima (The Fortitude, 1939) by Kamal Selim – often considered the first realist Egyptian film.
The same year, he got a scholarship to go to Paris and get a degree in cinema. He returned in 1942 before completing it because of WWII.
A 23-minute film called Nimra 6 (Number 6, 1942) was his first work of fiction and it starred comedian Ismail Yassin. Concerning fortune tellers and a family swindled after the death of a relative, it was banned after an intervention by Al-Azhar.
Many don’t know that Abu Seif’s passion was for documentaries, however, and that he made a lot of nonfiction films starting in the 1940s and 1960s, many of which were state funded. In 1958, for example, he and Naguib Mahfouz made a documentary for the Ministry of Social Affairs about workers’ rights, titled Nahno Mogtamaa Gadid (We Are a New Society).
He said that making documentaries required a knowledge of society, economy and politics, and he wanted his films in general to contrinute to the country’s development and education.
His first feature, Dayman fi Alby (Always in My Heart, 1946), was a remake of Mervyn LeRoy’s romance Waterloo Bridge (1940), but in 1949 he directed the first Egyptian-Italian co-production, Al-Sakr (The Falcon), which was made alongside an Italian version of the same film.
The interiors were shot in Rome’s Cinecitta, and so Abu Seif became familiar with Italian film production methods. Following his return, it was obvious that he was influenced by the neorealist cinema that had sprung out of postwar European cities, a movement that involved filming on location and often using non-professional actors to depict poverty, oppression, injustice and desperation.
Already concerned with the plight of the working class, Abu Seif would go on to pioneer such techniques in Egypt, filming in places no one had before, in the films he made in subsequent years – often considered among his best. His Lak Youm Ya Zalem (Your Day Will Come), an adaptation of Emil Zola’s Therese Raquin, was a breakthrough in this regard. Al-Osta Hassan (Master Hassan, 1952) and Al-Fetewa (The Tough, 1957), both starring “king of the third class” Farid Shawky, deal with the daily struggles of workers.
In 1956, Abu Seif’s Shabab Emraa (The Youth of a Woman), starring Shoukry Sarhan and Tahiya Karyoka, was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes Film Festival. Bayn al-Samaa w al-Ard (Between Heaven and Earth) came in 1959, and Al-Qahira (Cairo 30), a critique of nepotism, corruption and classism based on a Mahfouz novel, in 1966.
As his career progressed, he moved away from solely depicting the working class and began teaming up with the legends of Egyptian literature, such as Ehsan Abdel Qoddous, who wrote the book on which the progressive feminist film Ana Hurra (I Am Free, 1958) was based. And it’s said that the friendship between Mahfouz and Abu Seif was one factor that pushed the former to conquer the scriptwriting world.
In 1986, Abu Seif directed Al-Bedaya (The Empire of Satan), about plane crash survivors who find refuge in a desert oasis. A dark comedy, it denounces the monstrous face of capitalism. From his work, Abu Seif’s inclinations were obviously socialist, although in his 1968 movie Al-Qadeya 68 (Case 68) he harshly criticizes the politics and corruption of the Nasserist era – the film was banned.
His 1969 film, Shi min al-Azab (Something of a Torture), leans toward fantastical melodrama rather than realism, but has an interesting perspective on artists in the late Nasserist period and a great performance from Souad Hosni.
Many of the legends of cinematic realism in Egypt are considered disciples of Abu Seif, among them Khairy Beshara, Mohamed Khan, Raafat al-Mihi, and of course the late Atef al-Tayeb. They were known as the sons of Salah Abu Seif. He taught many filmmakers from Egypt, such as Khan, Tayeb, Mihi, Inas el-Degheidy and Ashraf Fahmy, and other Arab countries at the film institute. He once told Rose al-Youssef magazine, that as a professor he strove to be friends with his students so they could see eye to eye on the future of cinema.
Although he was less prolific in the last two decades of his life, Abu Seif carried on making films until 1994 and died in 1996, a year after Tayeb passed away during a heart surgery.