The Eloquent Artist – Culture – Al-Ahram Weekly
With the death of Shadi Abdel-Salam on October 8, 1986, Egyptian cinema lost one of its most outstanding figures. Artistic director, costume designer and story adviser as well as screenwriter and filmmaker, Abdel-Salam is internationally recognized for his long narrative gem Al-Mummia (The Night where we count the years, 1969), which won the FIPRESCI prize at the Festival du film de Carthage and the French Georges-Sadoul prize (given each year to a French film and one or two foreign films), among others. But he also played an indispensable role in historical films such as Andrew Marton’s Wa Islamah (Oh Islam!, 1969), Saladin (1963) by Youssef Chahine and Amir Al-Dahaa (The Crafty One, 1964) by Henry Barakat.
A documentary by filmmaker Ahmed Rashwan titled Shadi: Onshoudat Al-Baath (Shadi: The Resurrection Anthem) aired on Al-Jazeera documentary channel last week. Inspired by some of Al-Mummia’s visual elements, Rashwan begins his film with shots of the pillars and murals of the Luxor temple, showing the faces of young scholars of Egyptian art who appear to be studying these monuments by drawing, a introduction as much to the life of Abdel-Salam as its philosophy. Abdel-Salam’s character emerges through interviews with some of his colleagues and students. These include Art Director Onsi Abu Seif, who produced the imitation sarcophagi and props, making them identical to the originals, for Al-Mummia by making some of the imitated sarcophagi and props look identical to those of ‘origin. They also include Rahma Montasar, who was assistant to the film’s editor Kamal Abul-Ela and was also married to Abdel-Salam’s student, the late Salah Marei, one of cinema’s most talented production designers and art directors. Egyptian.
Rashwan also interviewed filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah as he was Abdel-Salam’s neighbor and friend, and perhaps Abdel-Salam was one of the reasons Nasrallah fell in love with the glamor of the cinema in adolescence. Studying his film project, Rashwan also interviewed Mahmoud Mabrouk, professor of sculpture at the Faculty of Applied Arts and Ahmed Nabil, documentary filmmaker, as well as film critics like Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour and Oussama Abdel-Fattah. He mixes these interviews with rare footage of Abdel-Salam working on some of his projects, scenes from his films or films he has contributed to, and an archival audio interview with him talking about some pivotal milestones in his career. .
After studying history and philosophy in England, Abdel-Salam returned to Cairo to study architecture at the Faculty of Fine Arts, but began working in the field of cinema. The first big step in his career was when he became artistic consultant in the historical film Pharaoh, directed by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz. The film, which tells the story of Ramses XIII, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966 and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967.
Rashwan explains the circumstances that led Abdel-Salam to make his iconic long narrative film, Al-Mummia at length. When the famous filmmaker and leader of the Italian neorealist movement Roberto Rossellini traveled to Egypt to work on a historic film project, he met the Minister of Culture Tharwat Okasha. Okasha may have been intrigued by the neorealist movement and wanted Egyptian cinema to follow. He asked her to name three projects that could be the seeds of a mega state production. Al-Mummia was one of his nominations. For a while the project was not approved as some officials thought the film was against the idea of pan-Arabism, until Abdel-Salam met Mustafa Darwish, the director of the Censorship Authority, who then approved the script.
Traditionally, such a documentary should include biographical information on the subject, and Rashwan mentions Abdel-Salam’s birthplace which is Alexandria, and as his family origins in Minya in Upper Egypt. This is significant because these two places may have influenced Abdel-Salam’s perception of himself, Egypt, and the world. This is part of the discussion of his intellectual project, which can be understood from Al-Mummia and his narrative short film Al-Fallah Al-Fasih (The Eloquent Peasant, 1970). The first film wasn’t about a tribe raiding ancient Egyptian tombs, but rather the resurrection of the protagonist Wanis who happens to be a member of that tribe. On the other hand, the other film is mainly about justice, inspired by an ancient Egyptian papyrus. As interviewees suggested, Abdel-Salam saw history as a trigger to discuss timeless and courageous questions about identity and power, even under totalitarian rule.
After winning some recognition from some critics abroad with several international awards, Abdel-Salam mentioned that he had no choice but to accept a desk job, when Okasha asked him to launch the experimental film center. He believed he couldn’t work in commercial cinema as a filmmaker, but he managed to build a group of new graduates who shared his passion for human concerns and artistic cinema.
Abdel-Salam’s origin was where Akhenaten chose to establish his new headquarters, a few hundred miles north of the ancient capital, Luxor. Akhenaton was the film that Abdel-Salam died before filming, but he worked for months on the preparations for the film. Rashwan includes some of the casting plans of the actors who were supposed to star there like Sawsan Badr. The film contains one of the most important debates that has arisen on several occasions since Abdel-Salam’s departure: Akhenaton, his latest project, should it be directed by another filmmaker or should it be kept as it is and left only as part of its museum at the Bibliotheca? Alexandrine. It seems that most of those interviewed in the film are in favor of keeping Akhenaten’s sketches and props in the museum.
Towards the end of the film, Rashwan investigates the attempt to complete the Akhenaten project when filmmaker and producer Karim Gamal El-Din, owner and director of Studio Misr from 2000 to 2020, had an ambitious plan to restore Studio Misr’s status. . , once a major pillar of the Egyptian film industry, and felt at the time (over 12 years ago) that more than 15 years of preparatory work by Abdel-Salam and his colleagues should not be wasted . However, the project did not see the light of day due to many factors. One of them was the belief of Abdel-Salam’s students and friends that the project should not be undertaken by anyone else and perhaps when Salah Marei died no one was even able to continue this important project. Unfortunately, most students and even fans of Abdel-Salam doubt any attempt to pursue this project, it seems that Akhenaton will forever remain Abdel-Salam’s unmade film.
Rashwan ends his film with a very moving quote from Nasrallah, who says that Shadi was looking for the real Egypt when he dug into the pharaonic era, and he concludes, “Shadi is larger than life.” There is no doubt that Sharif Al Wissemi’s score helped make this meeting so moving.
*A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.