Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tawfiq Saleh, director of the filmversion of Kanafani's Men in the Sun, 1926 -2013

A few days late, but certainly not too late, I want to pay tribute to the Egyptian filmmaker Tawfiq Saleh, who passed away in Gaza on 18 August. Saleh is considered to be one of the great names of Egyptian cinema. He was also one of the most politically engaged, which brought him in constant trouble with the censors.
He was born in Alexandria in 1926 and graduated from the English literature department of Alexandria University in 1949. When still in college, he directed a play: A Bullet in the Heart, hosted at the French Friendship organisation. He then received training in theatre and cinema in France and stayed there about two years.
Back in Egypt he wrote the scenario for a Fool's Alley (Darb al-Mahâbil) and made acquaintance with the writer (and later Nobel Prize winner) Naguib Mahfouz, which was the beginning of a life long friendship. Mahfouz, who at the time had already written some scenario's that had been filmed by Salah Abu Seif, wrote the final version of A Fool's Alley. The film was released in 1955 and resulted in a National Prize for Directing, but unfortunately failed to be a success with the public. It is, however, nowadays considered to be one of the most important Egyptian movies of the '50s.
After A Fool's Alley failed to be a financial success there were several years that Saleh was not able to make films, but in 1962, with the help of his collegue Ezzedin Zulfikar, he was able to make The Struggle of the Heros (Sirâa al-Abtâl), a story about a cholera epidemic in a village in the years '40. Some years later the Organisation of the Egyptian Cinema was created and thanks to this organism Saleh was able to make three films in four years. In 1968 'The Alleyway of mister Bulti' (Zuqâq al-sayyid al-Bulti), which as it was a very political film that consequntly was badly mutilated by the censors. In the same year he also produces an adaptation of Tawfiq al-Hakim's famous novel 'Diary of a Provincial Prosecutor (Yawmiyyât Nâ'ib fil-Ariâf). However 'The Rebels' (Al-Mutamarridun, 1967), based on a story by journalist Salah Hafiz that tackles the shortcomings of the 1952 July Revolution, was banned altogether in Egypt.
It was because of the constant quarrels with the censor that Saleh moved in 1970 to Syria. There he released in 1972 'The Dupes' (Al-Makhdu’un) produced by the Syrian National Film Organisation, based on the famous novel 'Men Under the Sun' by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, a story of Palestinian workers who try to enter Kuwait clandestinely in order to find work, but on the way get suffocated in a tanker truck. This last film is considered one of Saleh's finest works and a masterpiece of the Egyptian cinema. It got many prizes on festivals, but was banned in several Arab countries as it was critical of the hypocrisie of Arab regimes.
 Later in the seventies Saleh moved on to Iraq. There he made The Long Days (Al-Ayyam al-Tawila, 1981), a film that looks into the youth of Saddam Hussein and was produced by the Iraqi Theatre and Film Organisation. Not much later Saleh returned to Egypt where he became a teacher at the Film Academy.

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