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The bold and beautiful
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2019

The remarkable Egyptian filmmaker Osama Fawzi passed away last week. Born in 1961, the brother of producer Hani Girgis Fawzi and the son of producer Girgis Fawzi, whose credits on his death in 1986 included over 20 films, Osama graduated from the Higher Institute of Cinema in 1984. He assisted such old-school directors as Niazi Mustafa and Hassan Al-Imam but also worked with younger, more experimental auteurs like Yousry Nassrallah and the late Radwan Al-Kashef. He thus acquired both classical technique and an interest in daring subject matter. Fawzi ended up making only four films, but they were so significant and influential and significant film critics and cinefiles widely see him as a central figure in recent Egyptian cinema.
Under the influence of 1980s neorealists like Mohamed Khan, Atef Al-Tayeb, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed and Khairi Beshara, Fawzi made his debut Afarit Al-Asphalt (The Ghosts of Asphalt), which premiered and earned a special Swissair award at the Locarno Film Festival in collaboration with novelist-screenwriter Mustafa Zikri in 1996. Set in the lower middle class suburb of Helwan, it is the story of a group of microbus drivers: Sayed (Mahmoud Hemeida), his father (Gamil Ratib) and his close friend Ringo (Abdallah Mahmoud). No classic plot developments underlie the story, which relies on character traits such as Sayed's ambition for upward mobility expressed in his desire to marry a college girl from the neighbourhood. Rather than focusing on the social-economic suffering of the working class like previous films dealing with such subjects, Fawzi and Zikri take an artful distance. They also add a fantastical element through the Arabian Nights stories about Haroun Al-Rashid and his vizier Jaafar told by the barber (Hassan Hosni), which bleed into the drama towards the end, marking the start of Fawzi's movement towards magical realism.
This imaginative tendency took root in his second and arguably most significant film, Gannat Al-Shayateen (Fallen Angels Paradise, 1999) — another collaboration with Zikri, produced by and starring Hemeida — in which he moved away from the neorelist style. Based on Jorge Amado's The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, this courageous experiment premiered at Locarno and won over 17 awards at, among others, the Cairo and Damascus film festivals. Taking place over 24 hours following the main character's death — Hemeida plays a dead man for 79 minutes, for which he received the best actor award at the Alexandria and National film festivals — it is the story of an upper middle class professional — with a wife (Menna Al-Batrawi) and daughter (Caroline Khalil) — named Mounir Ramzi who abandons his position and becomes Tabl, a pimp and addict living among thugs and prostitutes. Tabl's three sidekicks Adel (Sari Al-Naggar), Boussy (Salah Fahmi) and Nonna (Amr Waked) were played by American University in Cairo graduates performing their first roles.
In order to accommodate the funerary arrangements in Amado's book, Fawzi made the dead man a Copt like himself. (Fawzi converted to Islam before his marriage to actress Salwa Khattab, which lasted three years). The life of Egyptian Christians was not something he ever shied away from. Written by Hani Fawzi (not to be confused with the director's brother), Baheb Al-Cima (I love Cinema) — which became a controversial film due to its portrayal of a fanatical Christian patriarch — he portrayed a Christian family whose head, a school inspector named Adli (Hemeida) forbids his wife Neamat (Laila Elwi) to paint and his small son Naim (Youssef Osman) to indulge his love of cinema. Set in 1966-67, at the height of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser's authoritarian period, it is an entertaining critique of patriarchy — linking Adli to Nasser — as well as a kind of homage to Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988).
Fawzi's last film, Bel Alwan Al-Tabeaya (Natural Colours) — also written by Hani Fawzi — deals with the issue of religious fundamentalism forbidding nude painting at art college. It focuses on a young, talented artist, Youssef (Karim Kassem), who joins the Faculty of Fine Arts and soon becomes embroiled in the complex relations binding teachers and students. This wasn't as alluring as Fawzi's previous three films, but it had the same courageous spirit and focus on crucial questions.


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