Obituary: Salah Abu-Seif

Adel Darwish
Wednesday 26 June 1996 23:02
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Salah Abu-Seif was known as the father of realism in Egypt's film industry, which controls the cinematic taste of some 150 million Arab- speaking filmgoers and television viewers in the Middle East and beyond.

His legacy of 41 motion pictures transformed Arabic-speaking film. His ideas and cinematography have been emulated over the past 20 years throughout the Middle East, especially in Syria and Tunisia where there are budding film industries, by two generations of film-makers - many of whom were among Abu-Seif's students at the Egyptian Film Institute which he helped to establish in 1960.

Abu-Seif was born in 1915, in Cairo's ancient quarter of Boolaq, to landowning parents from Upper Egypt. He was 12 years old when he saw the first full- length feature film made by an Egyptian, in 1927, at a local movie-house - earlier films were imports accompanied by Egyptian narrations, or made by Europeans living in Egypt.

As the son of a conservative family, Abu-Seif graduated from the Cairo College of Commerce and Economics in 1932, while at the same time working as a freelance reporter following movie stars. But it was at his day job as a clerk in a factory that he met the Egyptian film-maker Niazy Mustapha, who was on a shoot there. Mustapha made him a film editor.

In 1939, Abu-Seif won a scholarship to study film in Paris. Within five years of his return in 1942, he had established himself as one of the most avant-garde second generation film-makers in the country. He pioneered shooting on location - though he also used reconstructions - in places none of his predecessors had dared to visit, like ghurza (the equivalent of old Chinese opium dens), brothels and impoverished areas whose existence had never been officially acknowledged.

His choice of bold subjects like polygamy in Islamic society and corruption among the clergy brought him into conflict with the Al-Azhar, the official Muslim Church in Egypt. His first film, Number 6 (1942), a black comedy about the financial exploitation of families hit by a sudden death, was banned after the Muslim Church argued that the subject offended the sensibility of the Muslim majority.

Such harsh and absurd censorship engraved itself on Abu-Seif's mind; on his 80th birthday last year he decided to retire, saying he would only return to film-making when the censorship board passed his proposed new script. He did, however, receive many Egyptian, Arab and international awards.

His most remarkable pictures, which told the social and political history of the less fortunate classes, were adaptations of heavyweight novels - by Emile Zola and the Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz, who said that working on a script with Abu-Seif was one of his most enjoyable experiences.

Critics loyal to Colonel Nasser's dictatorial government used the fact that Abu-Seif made literary adaptations to undermine him as a film-maker, claiming that he could not invent a story by himself. But his "realism" was highly symbolic, concealing a progressive political message which bypassed the censors. His adaptation of Mahfouz's A Beginning and an End (1960), showing injustice in society, sent a chill through the ruling classes: the main character, a proud army officer - played by Omar Sharif - is seen persuading his sister, whose earnings as a prostitute paid for his education and elevated him to the ranks of the elite, to jump in the Nile while he stands calmly smoking until she drowns.

The film was made when Egypt was ruled by Nasser's Free Officers Organisation. Later on, Abu-Seif was accused of turning against realism and going for the box office instead by adapting soft-porn novels, for example The Vacant Pillow (1957), which starred the Arab world's then most popular singer, Abdel Halim Hafez.

The claim is dismissed by Egyptian arts scholars like Emad Abdel Hadi, who states that Abu-Seif's "romantic movies" present popular subjects and hot love scenes within a frame of social realism; but his critically acclaimed avant-garde films of the 1980s were financial disasters, as filmgoers turned into video viewers more attuned to soap opera than to Salah Abu-Seif's realism.

Salah-el-Dine Massoude Abu-Seif, film-maker: born Cairo 10 May 1915; twice married (four children); died Cairo 23 June 1996.

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