Onsi Abou Seif is the artistic director of virtually all major Egyptian films, he has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers in Egyptian cinema history, but you have to see his freehand sketches to understand why.
I had the chance to have the chance to attend an exhibition on his work and his life, which was held this year in tribute to the El Gouna Film Festival (October 23-31. was even more fortunate to meet the man himself, a talented risk taker and admirably modest coffee lover who was keen to serve everyone himself even though he was the star.
Born in 1943 in Kom Ombo, Upper Egypt, Onsi Abou Seif fondly remembers his childhood: “At that time, the city of Upper Egypt could be described as cosmopolitan. It was famous for its sugar cane, chaired by Abboud Pasha, who also built a refinery there to produce sugar and thus filled the city with houses of various architectural styles housing employees from different backgrounds.
“The town also had a cinema, so close to my house that I joined the club allowing me 30 movies a month for a fixed price and I used to see a movie every day. But it was so Close that in the summer, my friends and I would go up to the roof to listen. We always knew when the stars would start to fight and when there would be a kiss. I had no idea that I would one day be working in the field. “
Diary of a Country Prosecutor
He was studying at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo when the Higher Institute of Cinema was founded. There were 70-100 students in its class, but the newly opened institute would have classes of seven to eight students. “So,” he said, “I asked for a transfer and signed up there. “
His path was clear from the start: “I loved drawing and I could do it well. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I was an artist, but I had the technique in hand and it would help me a lot in my work. In 1967, he graduated from the institute and, a few months later, he assisted Salah Marie on the set of Shadi Abdel-Salam’s iconic classic, The Night of the Count of Years (1969).
“Salah Marie taught me everything about artistic direction and scenography. My mission in this film was to create all the props and props, from drawing the coffins of the ancient Egyptians to overseeing all the sculpture work on the set. It familiarized me with the art of the ancients, being from Upper Egypt, I already had a passion for ancient Egypt, although I was shocked at how little I knew about it compared to Shadi Abdel-Salam, who by pointing to a statue and saying a few words about beauty and faith could totally transform a young scenographer. “
“He had a huge influence on me, and to this day I feel blessed to have met him when I did – during my first film job – and he was part of his circle, which has helped me tremendously and in many ways, although I still consider my work on The Night of the Years as a formative experience, not as my real start as an artistic director.
Abu Seif considers his real beginning to be Yawmiyat Naeib Fil Aryaf (Diary of a Country Prosecutor, 1969), based on the eponymous 1937 novel by Tawfik Al-Hakim. “In 1968, barely a year after graduation,” he says, “the late filmmaker Tawfik Saleh asked me to work with him. It was my real start, and it set the scene for my entire career. It was my first time dealing with real movie studios and connecting with this big industry on the ground. Before that, I had just sat down at the drawing table. Now I had to learn to do things. The blue collar workers were his first teachers.
The night of the countdown
“They were the heirs of a century-old tradition, the carpenter, for example, learning from his father, who in turn learned from his father. They know how to work with what is available and real, not with theories of what should be there. It was very important for me to see how a film is actually made. It was one thing. Another thing was that I got the chance to debut with someone as important as Tawfik Saleh.
From a solid start, it allowed him to be selective from an early age: “After working with Saleh, I felt that I had to choose carefully. If the film was commercial and lacking in quality, I would say no. I felt that if I did otherwise I would betray a great man who gave me invaluable support and forward momentum. So sometimes my choices were limited.
In 1970, he won first prize at the National Film Festival for Delusions of Love by Mamdouh Shoukry, in which he took on the unprecedented challenge of combining color with black and white. He may have been prolific, for example working with Rafaat Al-Mihi on Oyoun La Tanam (Eyes Never Sleep, 1981), portraying a feud between two brothers arguing for their father’s workshop, which Abu Seif seamlessly created. on two separate locations: a real space overlooking the October 6 Bridge, and a studio setting that cannot be seen on screen.
Return of a citizen
“Of course, I’ve had successes and failures, but I’m proud of every movie I’ve made. What I mean by failure is that it wasn’t appreciated or valued, but for me the point was that no movie had to look like the other. Every film I make is a unique experience, and I think that shows on the screen. It also means that I can learn not to repeat failures. So, I don’t see a movie more important than another, although of course there is a movie that is loved more, on which you spend more time and effort.
Also in 1981, he worked with Ahmed Yehia on The Court Ruling and with Salah Abu Seif on Al-Qadisiya, the latter describing the great Islamic battle in which Arab General Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas defeated Persia. He has also worked with Henry Barakat on Lailat Al-Qabd ala Fatma (The Night of Fatma’s Arrest, 1984), with Faten Hamama and Shokry Sarhan, and with Samir Seif on Al-Halfout (The Nobody), with Adel Imam , Elham Shahine and Dit Saleh.
Abou Seif was the artistic director of Youssef Chahine’s breathtaking Adieu Bonaparte (1985), which takes place during the French Campaign (1798-1801). He will work again with Chahine on Alexandria: Again and Forever (1990) and L’Autre (1999).
“Working with Chahine is a powerful experience because we would both be experimenting all the time. Two crazy people, not one. But it is rewarding because he is not a traditional person and he will sacrifice everything for his work. He was also the producer, and he spared no amount of money or effort once he felt it was in the best interests of the film – even if it meant cutting my salary in the process. He laughs.
Alexandria: again and again
After collaborating with Daoud Abdel-Sayed on his first film Al-Saalik (Les Vagabonds, 1985), Abou Seif also collaborated with the director on his most popular film, Kit Kat (1991), the memorably poignant story of a blind man in a Classroom with Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz with Sherif Mounir, Amina Rizk, Aida Riyad and Najah Al-Mogi. It took Abdel-Sayed five years to find a producer for the film, recalls Abou Seif, in part because no one was willing to fund the construction of a bespoke lane – until Chahine donated. of the alley that had been built for Adieu Bonaparte – and producer Hussein Al-Qalla reused it.
Abou Seif spent six months visiting Boulaq, a similar neighborhood, daily to soak up the scene, and he won three awards for Kit Kat: the Film Association, National Festival and Film Festival awards. of Alexandria.
He also worked with Abdel-Sayed on Ard Al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams, 1993), Joy Stealer (1995), for which he received the National Festival, Film Society and Egyptian Society awards for the art of cinema, as well as Ard al-Khouf (Land of Fear, 2000), Rasael Al-Bahr (Messages from the Sea, 2010) and Qudrat Gheir Adeiya (Extraordinary Capacities, 2015).
In 1988, Abou Seif worked with Khairy Beshara on Youm Mor wi Youm Hilw (A Bitter Day, A Sweet Day) and Mohamed Khan on Zawget Ragol Mohem (The Wife of an Important Man), the latter with Ahmed Zaki and Mervat Amin . Later that same year, he also directed Ahlam Hind wi Camilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia) with Khan, with whom he first collaborated on Awdet Mowaten (Return of a Citizen) in 1986.
He worked with Yousry Nasrallah on his first Sariqat Sayfiya (Summersaults, 1988) and his second feature film Mercedes (1993). Through it all, Abou Seif has seen the industry radically transform.
“I’m not an expert in new technologies, my ultimate passion is to take a pencil and sketch, and when I draw a line that I don’t like, I go back and draw it again. Until now, I did not use a device to make my designs. But in the field of materials, there has been a huge evolution which allows us to be more courageous with our scenographies. I even built a model of the hills of Al-Muqattam, since it was possible. “
“The old designs were more amazing because there was always a question of how it was possible to create them with such limited materials. There were always obstacles on the set, but I was finding solutions. finally realized that these solutions would never have happened to me if I had not faced the obstacles … “
* A version of this article is published in the November 5, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly