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Action man
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 05 - 2002


Samir Seif:
Action man
No free time, no time to be bored, such is the cinematic vocation
Profile by Youssef Rakha
Samir Seif's CV describes the contours of a vocation; it describes less the unfolding of a career than the pursuit of an holistic life plan.
An early Cinema Institute graduate (1969), he began directing in 1976 and to date has made 25 features, three of which he also produced. Critical appraisals aside, most were lucrative ventures, a fact of which he is particularly proud. He has worked with film stars Adel Imam, Nour El-Sherif, Yousra and the late Soad Hosni, among others, won five best- director awards, headed the Alexandria Film Festival Jury (1993) and assisted Franklin Schaffner and Spike Lee, on Sphinx (1980) and Malcolm X (1992), respectively.
Seif is eager to point out that his interest in the action genre has always encompassed both theory and practice: he received his masters degree in 1991, his doctorate in 1999 (writing on "Egyptian action films: 1951-75" and "aesthetics and techniques of directing action films," respectively). Now an Institute professor, he has lectured widely, participated in the US Information Service's international visiting programme (1984) and served as a member of the Ministry of Culture's Committee for Film Festivals. On Egyptian television, especially, he has acquired the status of thriller guru, being the most widely quoted authority on the history of the genre.
Seif has directed, in addition, five popular television serials, one television documentary on the late "matinée idol" Farid Shawqi, one play and four musical performances. Besides heading production at the ART satellite network (1997-8) and being part of the 2001 Cairo Film Festival Jury, he has worked as a freelance television consultant.
He maintains thriving collaborations with El-Sherif, Imam and script writer Wahid Seif, author of his last, controversial television offering, Awan Al-Ward (Time of the Roses). "I never planned it this way," he says, "but if you work with somebody so often, that means you work well together, and you end up becoming partners."
Though in Awan Al-Ward, for example, his eagerness to "explode an issue that exists" (that of Muslim-Copt relations) may be seen as a departure from the technical strictures of his calling, Seif insists that he has always sought diversity. And his many achievements -- variety notwithstanding -- do add up to a demonstration of how to champion the cause of a genre, branching out from within rather than leaving it behind.
"Action is my cup of tea," he confesses, "but each new film must present me with some kind of challenge. My ambition is to make the best possible film in whatever genre I am working. If you look at my filmography, you'll see that I've done romantic comedy, farce, psychological thriller -- almost every genre indeed -- as well as action. I am essentially a movie- goer, a movie buff, a cinephile. And you can think of all my work in movie-making, academia and production as a consequence of this fact. Action is simply one of my preferences."
A quiet, sensible and systematic man, Seif has few social demands. "A very ordinary private life," he attests. "I married early; my wife, an educational programme director, is the head of one of the Egyptian television's specialised channels. I have two sons, AUC educated, who are helping out in my production company. And given the time I spend on conceiving and planning projects, and the time I spend in the gym -- for a filmmaker the gym is a physical necessity -- there is little time left for socialising with celebrities... life is short and you always feel there is so much that you want to do, so much you haven't done yet. Since childhood I have been this way, absorbed in one project after another. I have never understood people complaining of ennui, having nothing to do with themselves."
There is something childlike about Seif's earnestness -- an endearing transparency -- conditioned only by what may well be the trademark of the movie maker -- a well-developed sense of self-promotion. But this does not detract from the impression he gives of detached sincerity, an objectivity which turns out to be disarming.
What he says about Awan Al-Ward is a good example: "It was like throwing a stone into a stagnant pond and, through seminars and discussions that went on for months after the screening, following up the ripples. This is important because, the more you avoid a controversial topic, the greater the harm. Muslim-Copt relations are not as simple as people would like to assume, but the strife, largely a function of the last three decades or so, is in my view a result of a lack of information, the fact that people don't know enough about each other, which didn't used to be the case. Wahid Hamed had told Minister of Information Safwat El-Sherif that he had an idea for a serial that might be problematic; I had already been recruited. And the minister said go ahead..."
Seif, it transpires in the course of the conversation, has even fewer political commitments than social attachments. "I am not too fond of practicing politics," he admits, "and I've always entertained a distrust of mixing politics into anything that has to do with literature or art; so I cannot claim, for example, that 1967 broke me in the way it broke people like Youssef Idris and Salah Jahin -- and I don't even mention the many opportunists whom it only allegedly broke -- because I was skeptical from the start. I grew up at a time when art was being utilised as a propaganda vehicle..."
Art for art's and society's sake, then: the pivot around which his life revolves. Cinema for Seif assumes missionary proportions; his interest in film, he avows, is singular. "A passion," he says, "and inexplicable."
Nobody in his family was in any way involved in the arts. He believes that it must have been the "peculiar circumstances" of his childhood that drew him to film. Summer vacations were invariably spent in Abnoub, 9km from Assiut, where life always seemed to have a violent and heroic edge. In Upper Egypt at the time, Seif points out by way of example, no house was without guns. "My vacations instilled in me a love of horse-riding and palm trees; and since, contrary to my schoolday routine in Cairo, there was very little to do, I ended up reading detective novels." In Assiut's two outdoor cinemas, which the young Seif frequented as often as possible, screenings would change twice a week. "I went with my student uncle," Seif recalls. "Many of the films were westerns or thrillers, and the atmosphere they evoked was not that far removed from the atmosphere of Upper Egypt."
In Cairo his grandfather would "park himself at the retired men's café" while the future director attended a matinée -- on his way to school. His love of cinema turned into a determination to become a film director when he encountered two books on filmmaking that made him aware of "that invisible but all- important person behind the scenes"; and to prove his academic worth -- Seif had consistently received top grades -- he enrolled in Cairo University's Faculty of Economics and Political Science, applying for the newly established Institute without his parents' knowledge.
"This was in the mid-1960s," he recounts. "The two books made me feel as though I'd merely skimmed the surface and I decided to become a filmmaker at a very early age. You can imagine the reaction in a conventional family that had nothing to do with the arts. I had always been an excellent student, so it was doubly shocking. At the Faculty of Economics my colleagues," Seif mentions, among many others, Ahmed Youssef Ahmed, Osama El-Ghazali Harb and Osman Mohamed Osman, "would all go on to become university professors; nobody could sensibly claim that I was joining the Institute because my credentials had not placed me in a more prestigious faculty.
"The Institute had just come into being, something I read about in magazines, Al-Kawakeb especially. A total of 16 students were accepted that year, only 16; and none of them had made it through before graduating from university except me. When they finally found out, my family's reaction wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, though. My uncle was the vice dean of the Faculty of Law, and he was asked to talk to me. I was very persuasive about my chosen path, and he managed to convince them."
Filmography
Circle of Vengeance, 1976; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1977; Satan in Town, 1978; The Savage, 1979; The Suspect, 1981; Stranger in My Home, 1982; The Ghoul, 1983; Beware the Khitt, 1984; Streets of Fire, 1984; The Last of the Respectable Men, 1984; The Haunted, 1985; The Tramp, 1985; Time of the Wolves, 1986; The Tiger and the Female, 1987; Lost in the Moulid, 1989; The Devil who Loved Me, 1990; The Dancer and the Politician, 1990; Most Wanted, 1991; Shams El-Zanati, 1991; Flame of Vengeance, 199; Of Time and Dogs, 1996; The Pleasure Market, 1999; Fish Tail, 2000
Genre loyalties established themselves early: "My concern was that, while some of the best films to come out of Egypt in previous decades were action films -- the early works of Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu Seif and Kamal El-Sheikh could by and large be classified as action -- the genre was often perceived as second-rate. I thought it was an important, seminal genre; and I found support for this view when I realised that in America and Europe critics wrote books about such films, that they were treated seriously. This is why when my first full-length feature, Da'irat Al-Intiqam (Circle of Vengeance), won the best director award in the Ministry of Culture Competition, the predecessor of the National Film Festival, I felt vindicated. I had established that the action film could be a work of artistic value.
"At the Institute I stayed at the top of my class, eventually joining the staff; my contribution to the academy was intended to entrench action, provide it with credibility and representation. My job, I thought, and still think, was to demonstrate my initial point about action films in terms of both theory and practice. Da'irat Al- Intiqam was also the beginning of my collaboration with Nour El-Sherif, as producer and actor; it was my directorial debut and his first production. I had met him while assisting Hassan El- Imam on Al-Sukariya (Sugar Street, 1972); and the phenomenal commercial success of the film altered the film industry's view of Institute graduates, who until then had been thought of as commercial liabilities. The commercial significance of Institute directors became apparent after the success of Da'irat Al-Intiqam."
Seif remembers his Institute years as "a cinematic spring that sated my hunger." Cultural centres and cineclubs were in their heyday, he says; and the atmosphere in which Institute students -- contemporary names like Ali Badrakhan, Khairi Bishara, Atef El- Tayib and Dawoud Abdel-Sayed among them -- competitively accumulated knowledge and experience was intense and vibrant. Of his teachers -- Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu Seif, Shadi Abdel-Salam as well as non-cinematic figures like Louis Awad and Salah Taher -- he singles out Helmi Halim and Hassan El- Imam. And "international encounters" proved equally stimulating, Elia Kazan and Renee Clair being but two of the names he mentions in this connection. He made an award-winning graduation film (Mishwar, based on a short story by Youssef Idris), assisted Youssef Chahine, Youssef Francis, Helmi Halim and (notably) Hassan El-Imam, wrote film criticism in cinema publications and toured Egypt's provinces, presiding over seminars on film appreciation -- a habit he has maintained. While "learning the supreme importance of popular success," Seif complemented his "lovingly thorough" research in the history of Egyptian cinema with an academic interest in the history of action elsewhere, championing the cause of the French polar director Jean-Pierre Melville (d. 1974) and becoming an expert on the history of Hollywood.
"My films are often accused of being foreign oriented, but you only need to go to Minya or Assiut to realise how much they affect grass-roots people, how they become part of everyday life. For me, in the end, that is all that counts."
Seif sips his Earl Grey tea, his hands still, his eyes alert.
"What I learned from Helmi Halim and Hassan El-Imam -- and this is something I could have learned from John Ford too -- is that popular and not necessarily commercial success is more important than artistic success, because it enables you to keep going. It establishes your reputation with the audience. I am essentially a movie-goer myself, I don't compete with my actors whose star status gives my films credibility -- in my early movie- going experience I too was unaware of the role of the director -- and my work, my whole life would be worth nothing if it didn't endorse a positive movie-going experience for the people it is directed at, regardless of what the select few might think."
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