With the death of Atef Al Tayeb, the Egyptian cinema lost one of its prominent figures, a director who contributed, along with others, to the tradition of neo-realism, a school strongly represented during the 1980s. Tayeb’s legacy -- scores of films -- dared to explore a wide range of issues, ranging from the cultural and economic to psychological.
Hardly 48 years old, Tayeb died after a bypass heart surgery. Shortly before his death, he completed his latest film, "Jabr al Khawater" (Consolation). At the 1997 International Egyptian Film Festival, Tayeb was awarded a best director prize for his film "Layla Sakhina" (Hot Night).
Along with several fellow directors, Tayeb attempted a renewal in Egyptian cinema, utilizing present contributions, artistic traditions and realistic issues. In translating this approach, he started like many others by making short documentary films and then moved toward fiction pictures. He started with "Al Ghira al Katila" (Deadly Jealousy) , and then "Sawak al Autobis" (The Bus Driver), a work that attracted the attention of audiences and critics, and established him as one of Egypt’s great directors.
"Sawak al Autobis" ushered in the onset of neo-realism, paving the way for a new generation of directors to renew Egyptian cinema. "Sawak al Autobis" depicts the tribulations of an Egyptian family caught unprepared in dealing with the effects of "Egypt’s open door policy," the move from a state-controlled economy to economic liberalization during the 1970s and 1980s. The members of this family are engrossed with their own interests, bypassing others and ridding themselves of any family or moral commitment that may stand in the way of achieving their goals. Deviating from this culture of infitah, the Arabic term for "open door policy," was the eldest son, who chose to stand by his sick father and struggle to keep the factory from being put up for foreclosure. The critics chose "Sawak al Autobis" as one of the ten best films produced after the 1952 revolution, according to director Radwan al Kashif. It has earned several Egyptian awards and the First Award in the Delhi Festival.
Tayeb did not shun politics, even the most controversial topics such as political prisons and those sought and pursued by government on false grounds. In "Al Bar’i" (The Innocent), the conscript (Ahmad Zaki) uncovers a lie--the deception used by the government in the prison to mobilize conscripts and instigate them to torture prisoners , telling them they are enemies of the nation. This theme led the Egyptian authorities first to ban the film and then to delete the last part of it.
With the loss of Atef al Tayeb, many Arabs seem to have a date with sorrow: not only did they lose a great director, but they are about to lose essential freedoms, clearly evident in the many bills debated in the Egyptian Parliament censoring films and directors.
This article appeared in Vol.1, No. 1, (December 1995).
Copyright © 1997 by Al Jadid