A few months after announcing his retirement in response to unfavourable production conditions in a television interview last January, the acclaimed filmmaker Daoud Abdel-Sayed – whose films, the last of which was released in 2015, are widely seen as some of the most important in the history of Egyptian cinema – was announced the winner of the Nile Prize, the highest honour the sate can bestow on an artist.
Abdel-Sayed had already received the State Merit Award, the second highest honour, in 2013. A pillar of Egyptian neo-realism who has made films since 1985, Abdel-Sayed is a progressive auteur who wrote most of his own films, which act as provocations to change as well as artistic statements. Unlike other neo-realists, who film on location, he does not simply plant his characters in reality. Rather he attempts to emulate the experience of reality, actually preferring the studio. “Cinema,” he has said, “is where you have the freedom to reproduce reality in a form that may be more complete than reality.”
Yet, like Khairi Beshara and other practitioners of the neo-realist genre, Abdel-Sayed started out as a documentary filmmaker. He made The Advice of a Wise Man on the Affairs of the Village and Education (1976), Working in the Field (1979), and On People, Prophets and Artists (1980). But, unhappy with limited production capabilities and screening opportunities (also like others), he moved onto fiction films.
The Advice of a Wise Man on the Affairs of the Village deals with the importance of education in the Egyptian countryside in a unique style. The camera pans through a village as farmers express their conviction that educating their children is the only way to a better future. On the other hand, the director plays the role of the devil’s advocate through a voiceover by the wise man, Gamil Rateb, who believes that educating the peasants will lead to rebellion and deviance, even the eradication of agriculture. On the screen, we see a hoped-for reality, while the angry voiceover tells us the opposite, and through the ironic contrast between them, the director is communicating the message that it is essential for peasants to seek education because that is the future.
In his second film, Working in the Field (1979), Abdel-Sayed uses an eponymous painting by Hassan Suleiman as a fulcrum for the need to bring about change and progress. In the painting, two bulls in a closed circle pull a small cart threshing wheat. But the director uses the idea of infinite rotation that reproduces the same model forever, to express a revolutionary idea that contradicts stability. In a newspaper article, Abdel-Sayed explained his premise: “Movement in steadfastness is the opposite of movement in evolution.
The era of the ox-pulled plough and the waterwheel has ended, to be replaced by machinery and technology. My hope is that children will not reproduce the lives of their fathers, but will enjoy freedom, well-being, education and greater enjoyment.” Documentary filmmaking was not only a way for Abdel-Sayed to draw closer to reality but also to strengthen his writing skills. The young Higher Cinema Institute graduate who had assisted major directors had the ambition to write his own films. The new cinema, he felt, was subjective and should embody the director’s complete vision.
In 1985, Daoud Abdel-Sayed wrote and directed his first feature film, Al-Saalik (The Tramps), starring such towering figures as Nour Al-Sherif, Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, and Yousra and featuring a cameo by Beshara, whose own debut, Houseboat No. 70 (1982), is regarded as the first neo-realist film. The Tramps follows the arduous journey of two marginalised friends to the top of the social ladder.
In the background of the dramatic changes they undergo, the major transformations that Egyptian society has witnessed since the early sixties come through. In their frantic attempt to adapt and evolve, the two friends lose their humanity and the deepest bond they had ever had, that of friendship. But are they victims, culprits, or both? Abdel-Sayed makes character-driven films where, though they reflect their context, the characters are also responsible for their choices. In Al-Bahths ‘an Sayed Marzuq (Searching For Sayed Marzouk, 1990), also written by him and starring Nour Al-Sherif, Athar Al-Hakim, Lucy and Ali Hassanein, the life of a peaceful employee radically changes overnight. He wakes up one morning in a hurry to go to work as usual only to discover that it is the weekend – and the first time in 20 years that he has left home for a place other than work.
During an extraordinary 24-hour journey, he meets tough people and encounters critical events that make his return to his former self impossible. He moves from the position of the blinkered bull spinning aimlessly around the waterwheel to a whole other creature. different person. Also in this film, written by Abdel-Sayed, the character is the son of the general context, but in the most difficult way he is forced to reconsider his position, role and choices.
Next came perhaps Abdel-Sayed’s best-known film, Kit Kat (1991) inspired by Aslan’s novel The Heron, with a script by Abdel-Sayed, starring Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, Amina Rezq, Sherif Mounir, Aida Riyadh, Nagah Al-Mugi, and Ali Hassanein. Sheikh Hosni, the blind protagonist, is no exception to Abdel- Sayed’s typical character going through a difficult evolution.
Blindness here is not only the physical inability to see, but the failure to perceive changing times. Sheikh Hosni is full of illusions about what he can do despite his disability, and he thinks he can stop time by ignoring its constant movement. Only when he realises the truth as it is can have a reconciliation with himself or others. Despite the overwhelming nostalgia, the film does not advocate drowning in the past and ignoring reality, but rather the best options for positively coping with it. In Kit Kat, rather than going out to Imbaba where the action takes place, Abdel-Sayed had by art director Onsi Abu Seif build a set that worked rather more effectively for being fully controlled.
Ard Al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams, 1993), the only one of Abdel-Sayed’s films not written by him (but by Hani Fawzi) and starring Faten Hamama, Yehia Al- Fakharan, Hesham Selim, Ola Rami, Mohamed Al-Tagi, and Amina Rezq, was Egypt’s Academy Award nomination that year. It is a movie about dreams and ambitions, and whether we strive to realise our own dreams or the dreams of others. Nargis (Hamama) embarks on her evolutionary journey by discovering that the dream she was striving for does not belong to her and that she does not have to fulfil the dreams of others.
On the other hand, her journey’s companion Raouf (Al-Fakharani) discovers that there can be something really worth living for. They are a mother struggling to travel to America to fulfil her children’s dream of emigration, leaving behind her own mother and her life, and a lonely man who decides to ignore reality and live in his own aimless bubble. Each gives the other’s life new, different, and humane meaning.
Sareq Al-Farah (The Stolen Joy,1994) is another film based on a novel of the same name by Khairi Shalabi, with a screenplay by the director, and starring Maged Al-Masri, Lucy, Abla Kamel, Mohamed Heneidi, Hanan Turk, and Hassan Hosni. The film follows the love story of two young people in a poor and neglected community in the shantytowns on the outskirts of Cairo, not far from the high-rise buildings of the city centre. But their love, which started in childhood, must get past numerous difficult confrontations due to the stressful circumstances of their lives.
On their journey to defend their spontaneous, impulsive relationship, they go through harsh experiences that rob them of their innocence, but they discover new, more mature and powerful meanings of love, such as tolerance and acceptance. It is a movie about testing human emotions under the harshest conditions, and in the background there are many references to the wealth gap, inequality and lack of opportunities. Abdel-Sayed does not abandon his social consciousness even in a romantic movie.
Ard Al-Khouf (Land of Fear, 1999), starring Ahmed Zaki, Farah, Sami Al-Adl, Ezzat Abu Ouf, Hamdi Gheith, and Abdel- Rahman Abu Zahra, depicts the identity crisis of Yahya, a police officer who takes on a secret mission among drug dealers. For many years he has to disguise himself as a drug dealer, and in the end he is not sure whether he really is one. The film ranked 48th on the list of the 100 best Arab films, and also won three awards at the Cairo International Film Festival in 1999: the Best Arab Film Award, the Best Screenplay Award, and the Silver Pyramid.
In Mowaten we Mokhber we Harami (A Citizen, a Detective, and a Thief, 2001), circumstances bring together three people from incompatible worlds. Each reflects a different social group: the citizen, the detective, and the thief. It stars Khaled Abul-Naga, Salah Abdallah, Hend Sabri, and Shaaban Abdel-Rehim. Through their interaction, they discover that what they have in common is greater than each’s ideas about themselves. The film won three awards at the National Festival of Egyptian Cinema in 2002: Director, Best Actor (Salah Abdallah) and Best Actress (Hend Sabri)
Yahya, the doctor who becomes a fisherman in Rasael Al-Bahr (Messages From the Sea, 2010) not only goes through his own journey from Cairo to Alexandria, during which many of his perceptions about himself and those around him change, but also witnesses the drastic changes in society as he goes back to the Alexandria of his youth. The film stars Asser Yassin, Basma, May Kassab, Mohamed Lutfi, Salah Abdallah, and Nabiha Lutfi. It was selected as Egypt’s 83rd Academy Award nomination and won the best actor award at Carthage Film Festival 2010 as well three awards at the National Festival of Egyptian Cinema in 2013: Best Director, Best Actor (Asser Yassin) and Best Supporting Actor (Mohamed Lutfi).
Finally, in Kudurat Gheir Adiya (Out of the Ordinary, 2014), starring Khaled Abul-Naga, Naglaa Badr, Ehab Ayoub, Hassan Kami, Abbas Abul-Hassan, and Ahmed Kamal, Dr Yahya is searching for what he thinks are supernatural abilities in humans, until he finally finds what he seeks in a remote place on the sea, where he meets a girl with extraordinary abilities.
However, while staying for a while in this place, he meets different people, each with their own story through which Dr Yahya discovers that they reflect the extraordinary abilities of seemingly ordinary people. The scientist reconsiders his concept of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and thinks that he could have extraordinary abilities himself. He changes by experience and realises that the reason for his first failure in his scientific research stems from his inaccurate conception of human capabilities.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.