Obituary: Henri Barakat

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The Independent Online
The veteran Egyptian film-maker Henri Barakat left a legacy of 112 feature films made over an extraordinary 55-year-long career.

He belonged to a group of film-makers including the late Salah Abu-Seif, Youssef Wahbi, Ahmed Kamel Mursy and Kamal el-Sheikh who, in the late 1930s and 1940s, injected a wave of realism into the Egyptian film industry that had been lacking since the first Egyptian film was screened in Alexandria in 1896.

The films of these French- educated directors presented lively slices from the daily life of Egyptian society, encompassing a wide diversity of the social classes, geographical and ethnical groupings that made up the rich mosaic of Egypt. Vanguard film-makers like Salah Abu Seif relied on selecting politically and socially controversial subjects, siding with the underdog long before the phrase "political correctness" was coined.

Barakat's realism, however, was inseparable from his films' format, regardless of the content, even in light-hearted pieces dismissed as "an unworthy triviality" by certain critics. They included all types of films, ranging from musicals to crime thrillers, some in the style of the pioneering French films of the 1960s, Hammer-Horror-like movies or Indian melodrama, as well as epic stories, political thrillers and dramatisation of big historic events. He always respected his wide range of audience and their awareness. His cinematography was impressive, even in light comedy. One critic compared his use of cinema to a "quill in a poet's hand".

His best-known film, and his masterpiece, was Doaa el-Karawan ("The Nightingale Prayer"), his 1959 adaptation of the novel by the Egyptian philosopher and author Taha Hussein. Set in the 1920s, it is about the oppression of poor peasant women in the hands of upper-class men. It was a landmark film, and broke away from the norm in Egyptian cinema, providing inspiration to many aspiring young film-makers in Egypt and Arab nations in being shot both in studios and on location - in the desert, the countryside and the mountains. It was also well received by critics, and was nominated for an Academy award as Best Foreign Film in 1959.

Its star was Fatin Hammama, who shared many of Barakat's views on cinema and was known as the Queen of Egyptian cinema. Their partnership, which spanned 30 years and some 40 films, is arguably the best joint contribution to the progress of the Egyptian film industry, influencing the whole of the Middle East. They got together for a final time in 1984 - when Hammama was living in self-imposed exile in Paris after the break-up of her 1955 marriage to Omar Sharif - to make "The Night Fatima Was Arrested", which was a hit in all Arab-speaking nations and later remade for television. Barakat was a star-maker: he discovered many young talents who went on to become box-office stars.

Henri Barakat was born in 1914 in Shubra, the popular Coptic Christian- dominated area of north Cairo. He loved going to the cinema and theatre as well as reading classical 19th-century novels during his law studies at King Fuad I University in Cairo. He graduated in 1935. Barakat always paid fierce attention to details. In 1935, by pointing out many technical errors, the young graduate made himself unpopular with the crew and star cast in his first job, assisting his older brother as he edited the film Antar Effendi; it was a fiasco both at the box office and with critics. The experience induced him to go to Paris to study cinema.

Here he learnt his trade by attending the shooting of many French films and going to the cinema - sometimes four times a day - in order to write a critical study of what he saw. He returned to Cairo when the Second World War broke out, and soon started on his first film, Ashareed ("The Vagabond", 1942), based on a story by Chekhov. It was a box-office success. His next two films were screened in the same year - and alongside "The Vagabond" - in Cairo and Alexandria. (Eight times again in his career did this happen: the years 1952 and 1954 each saw the production of five of his films.)

Barakat kept a close eye on the box office, as he believed that the audience are always right. In one of his rare interviews, however, after receiving the prestigious Egyptian State Award for Arts in 1996, he admitted his disappointment in the decline both of audience taste and of standard of films. Like many critics he pointed the finger at the large video market in the oil-rich Gulf which encouraged directors to produce low-standard films in record time - and to subject themselves to censorship - in order to enter that market; the larger than usual output of films of Henri Barakat, however, maintained a high professional standard.

Barakat argued that the surplus income from his popular films enabled him to introduce new young talent - something the film financiers dislike - and to make films with a serious social message like Al- Harram ("The Sin"), based on the novel by Youssef Idris, which was well received in Cannes in 1963; or his last film, Mwatin Tahtal Tahquik ("A Citizen under Investigation", 1993), seen as a protest against the violation of civil rights.

In the last half of his career, Barakat was dubbed Sheikh el-Mukhergine ("The Patriarch of Film-makers"), "The Nightingale of Egyptian Cinema", "the Father of Romantic Cinema", "The Poet of the Silver Screen". An Egyptian journalist called him "The Master of Poetic Realism". He excelled in screen adaptations of novels by Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Dumas, and was the winner of several awards - three from the Catholic Film Institute in 1958, 1959 and 1961, and others from the New Delhi and Berlin film Festivals.

Because of his "poetic realism", Barakat's films had a strong influence not only on film-makers in Arab countries, but also on the social trends, fashion and life-style of hundreds of thousands of middle-class Arabs.

His funeral at Our Virgin Lady of Peace Catholic church on the Nile Bank in Central Cairo was, in the words of an Egyptian columnist, "a poetic march across half a century in the history of Egyptian cinema".

Henri Antoine Barakat, film-maker: born Cairo 11 June 1914; married (two daughters); died Cairo 27 May 1997.