Behind the camera or before; a life in film
From Russia with love
"You're not capturing an image, you're writing it. Touch the celluloid as if you're caressing the woman you most desire. Look through the lens as if it is the last time you see her body; light it as if it is the only way you can embrace her." That's what they told Tareq El-Telmissani in film school, he says, recalling the period of his life spent studying film art and cinematography at VGIK, the Soviet National Film School, between the ages of 25 and 31.
Click to view caption
El-Telmissani lensed 48 films
Kharag wa lam Yaud (M Khan)
Al-Touq wal Quswira (K Bishara)
Mishwar Omar (M Khan)
Yom Mur Yom Helw (K Bishara)
Al-Muwatin Masri (S Abu-Seif)
Al-Bahth 'an Sayed Marzouq (D Abdel-Sayed)
Ice-cream fi Gleem (K Bishara)
Sariq Al-Farah (D Abdel-Sayed)
Al-Ra'i wal Nissaa (A Badrakhan)
Al-Qahira Minawara bi Ahlaha (Y Chahine)
Afarit Al-Asfalt (O Fawzi)
Araq Al-Balah (R El-Kashef)
Ganat Al-Shayatin (O Fawzi)
Ayyam El-Sadat (M Khan)
Bahib Issima (O Fawzi)
Lila fil Qamar (K Bishara)
Kliphty (M Khan)
After graduating from Al-Alsun in Zeitoun in 1973 El-Telmissani received a scholarship to study Russian culture and language in the Soviet Union. At the time he had also been accepted by the National Film School in London. He was told by his father: "If you want to learn the art go to Moscow, if you want to be a professional camera operator go to London. And then you can always continue your training with me."
The local film institute was no option for El- Telmissani: when he finished his Thanawiya Amma the "new regulation" was to admit only university graduates. But when he graduated from Al- Alsun the regulation changed. The new policy was only to accept fresh Thanawiya Amma holders.
In 1976, during his first months in Moscow, he was uncomfortable, sharing a room with five other students. His abiding memory is the smell of rotten wood and the pervasive gloominess of the dormitory. He considered leaving but persevered. Later, during vacations in Cairo, he would be eager to return to Moscow. "I felt as if I had chanced upon a treasure trove. A repository of culture and art had opened before me. It was there I learned how to look at the world, and not just in the ideological sense. To stand behind the camera one needs to be visually-literate and cultivated."
In VGIK each professor selected a group of students and organised a four-year workshop. El- Telmissani's class had 37 students of which 20 graduated. Once a professor made fun of an exercise he had shot without lighting as an experiment -- he remembers a close-up of a face with a hand holding a burning newspaper. His colleagues supported him, and week after week insisted that the professor screen his own sophomore exercise as well. After many weeks of nagging he dug it out from the archives, and they found a lot in it to criticise while the professor blamed any shortcomings on less developed technology and cameras.
There were five shooting stages in the institute and El-Telmissani attended mainstream film shootings in Mosfilm and Gorky film studios. He had the good fortune of studying under cinematographer Vadim Iusov, who had collaborated with Andrei Tarkovsky on Ivanovo Detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, 1962), Andrei Rublev (1966) and Solaris (1972). Like most Russian cinematographers Iusov used special lenses and film stock for each film. The discussion of this peculiar feature of Russian and Eastern European cinematography leads us to the work of Sergei Urusevsky. El-Telmissani picks a DVD of I am Cuba, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, to show us Urusevsky's 1962 work with a special 9mm lens, single takes and steadycam-like technology. We watch for ten minutes then he stops to explain the special characteristics of the black and white filmstock Urusevsky used. El-Telmissani reminisces more about Russia: "We used to go to the Bolshoi Ballet for peanuts or else for free. Culture was available, books on the street were cheap and the libraries free."
El-Telmissani was the only one of his generation to do both undergraduate and graduate studies in Russia. Unlike the professors at the Egyptian film institute who had completed only their doctorates in Russia having obtained first degrees in Cairo El- Telmissani spent six years at the school, from 9am to midnight, amid the bee-hive of film activity that attracted students from all over the world, from Vietnam, Cuba, Sudan, the US and Europe.
"Any one who wanted to learn had infinite opportunity. Had I gone anywhere else I would not have learned as much. Until today I cherish my memories though I have not returned since I graduated. I don't want to see what Perestroika brought. I still remember the smell of the cabbage soup, the pasta with beef and potatoes which they used to cook every morning for breakfast. It was cold, and we ate a lot."
El-Telmissani inherited socialist leanings from his father and uncles. His uncle, Kamel El- Telmissani, was a leading artist. Together with Ramses Younan, Adam Henein, Fouad Kamel and others he was a founder of Art and Liberty in the 1940s. Kamel then ventured into narrative cinema, initially to further propagate the group's brand of surrealism. He soon moved into realist mode, directing the landmark Al-Souq Al-Souda (Black Market) which was banned for almost four years.
El-Telmissani argues that this, and not Kamal Selim's Al-Azima (Determination), was the first film to present the reality of the Egyptian harah. "In the former the solution is in the hands of the poor, in the latter it is in those of the rich," he says.
Hassan, Tareq El-Telmissani's father, followed Kamel into film, becoming a cinematographer employed by Shell Oil's filmmaking department which produced films about all aspects of Egyptian life -- cultural, economic and social. Shell had sent Hassan to train in London and later, when the department shut down, he became an independent documentary filmmaker, producing some 20 films with El- Telmissani's uncle Abdel-Qader.
Following his return from Moscow El- Telmissani sought an appointment at the National Documentary Centre. Its head, Mustafa Ali Mohamed, who was also the president of the Cinema Institute, thought he should teach. But El- Telmissani believed he needed hands-on experience.
"I wanted to make films not teach theory," he says, though for seven months he pursued the bureaucratic procedures necessary to be appointed assistant professor.
"Suddenly I went mad, stormed into the office and demanded I be appointed right there and then in the centre. I put the form on the desk and said sign now," he remembers. Officially an employee of the centre until today, El-Telmissani receives an LE300 salary.
As a student in Moscow he shot 17 short films. The minimum requirement was five though some of his colleagues worked on as many as 25. He worked extensively with black and white and colour filmstock, as well as negative reversals and slides. And back in Cairo he began working with his father who, on both the personal and the professional levels, exercised a major influence. "My love for him was special. He was an artist to the bone, cultivated, modest and never any good at making publicity for himself," he says. El- Telmissani senior did the cinematography for Yanabi' Al-Shams (Sources of the Sun) by the Canadian John Finney, a two-hour documentary produced by the Egyptian Cinema Organisation and shot between 1966 to 1971 in the countries through which the Nile passes. It won several awards on the international festival circuit and is, El-Telmissani believes, on par with a masterpiece like Al-Mumia (The Night of Counting the Years). El-Telmissani sums up his father's cinematographic style in one word, "rebellion".
"It is feeling the given tools instinctively and sensually. The camera is a woman. Sometimes it is necessary to put calculations and operational procedures aside: the camera feels and guides you as if she is your woman."
It was El-Telmissani's mother, a housewife, who first opened his eyes to the world of cinema and filmmaking. She accompanied him to Metro movie theatre to watch children's films and when he was nine brought him to studio Nasbian in Al- Dhaher -- "now it has become a pickle store" -- where his uncle was shooting his last film, Al-Nas Eli Taht (People at the Bottom), with Youssef Wahbi and Mary Munib.
During his third year at VGIK El-Telmissani married a Russian. They have a daughter and a son.
"I'm going to make a film centred on the idea of a house, based on the experience of a friend of mine who spent half his life trying to build a house in Arish, Sinai," enthuses El-Telmissani. He laid the foundation in 1967 but was evacuated when the Israelis arrived. When Sinai was returned in 1981 the area looked very different yet still he managed to locate his land and begin re-building. Then the Egyptian government halted the construction, demanding documents to verify his ownership of the land. He was finally able to prove his ownership and the house was finally built in 2000.
Looking around El-Telmissani's new house we listen to the latest news of the war. He recalls his own experiences of Iraq: in 1985 he shot Babel Habibati (Babel My Love) in Baghdad. The Iran- Iraq war was still going on but it did not prevent the Babel Folk Arts Festival from taking place. The film used the festival as a backdrop for the events of the film, which gave it "local colour" and "a special look".
"It is important to film in other countries," contends El-Telmissani, who also worked on Mohamed Khan's Youssef wa Zeinab in the Maldives Islands during the same period.
Acting, directing and producing are all tasks El- Telmissani occasionally undertakes. He has played small parts -- in Mohamed Shebl's Kabous (Nightmare) and Medhat El-Seba'i's Imraa Ayila Lil Suqout (A Woman Collapsing) -- and acted as the Coca Cola mafioso against Ahmed El-Saqqa, the Pepsi hero, in two promotional clips and in a video clip with Latifa. But his break as an actor came with Al-Silim wal Thu'ban (Snakes and Ladders). For the first time he read the script, discussed his role and received an actor's fee. The general response was very positive.
Last year he co-starred with Raghda in Khairi Bishara's Lila fil Qamar (A Night on the Moon).
"It was my first lead role and Bishara believes in me as an actor," he says.
Indeed, Bishara is considering El-Telmissani for another lead role. Acting, believes the man who made his name behind the camera, is a comfortable job, requiring less effort and concentration than directing photography. El-Telmissani's own directorial debut was Dihk wi Li'b wi Gad wi Hobb (Laughter, Play, Seriousness and Love, 1993) with Omar Sharif, Amr Diab and Youssra, a film which he also produced.
El-Telmissani believes that the present generation of filmmakers is fortunate in being able to earn a living from music videos and advertising and unfortunate because they have little chance to develop a personal style in decent films. Yet he cites several promising young filmmakers -- directors Mohamed Ali, Osman Abu Laban and Omar Khodir and script-writers Tamer Habib, Rasha El-Gammal and Mohamed Nasser. He also thinks Ahmed El-Mursi and Ahmed Youssef are cinematographers with promise, who will excel if they are allowed the space to develop their ostyles.
"I was lucky to work with Khan and Bishara early in my career," he says.
In the early 1980s El-Telmissani shot a short film with the latter in Nawa, Qalyoubiya, his family's village, where he had spent part of early childhood. After another short with Bishara came his first feature, Khan's Kharag wa Lam Yaoud (Missing Person, 1984), and again much of the film was set in the countryside. Because both filmmakers draw on documentary styles the experience he had accumulated from working with his father came in handy. He was only 31 and the filmmaking scene was dominated by the legendary cinematographers Abdel-Aziz Fahmi and Wahid Farid as well as Ramses Marzouq, Mohsen Nasr and Said Shimi. It was challenging to try to carve a niche for himself among such figures. Since those early days, though, he has gone on to shoot 48 films.
"Today everything, not just filmmaking, but everything, appears bleak. We don't have a film industry. I was lucky because in the 1980s I caught the last glimpses of decent filmmaking. I was fortunate to work with Khan, Bishara, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed and Osama Fawzi. I like to attach kaf (as) before every word we commonly use: we have things that have the semblance of, that pass as, cinema, as sports... etc. But we have only a handful of filmmakers and even they can mostly only dream about making decent cinema."
He believes the cinema industry, however much it protests to the contrary, is now focussed exclusively on short-term profit.
"They have coined the line 'a film that does not offend family values' to sell their products, as if all past films were offensive. They pretend that they were the first to promote young actors but they have brought clowns to play bad jokes..."
He does, though, see a glimmer of hope in digital video and the possibility it brings for the emergence of an independent cinema. And as a professional he remains much in demand in the mainstream industry though the kind of films currently being produced are not the kind of cinema he enjoys.
His next project is to direct Tasrih Bil Ghiyab (Licence for Absence), written by his cousin, novelist May El-Telmissani, who is currently studying for a PhD in film studies in Canada. He will use digital video, which he sees as a possible key to the development of if not an alternative cinema then at least one less beholden to the prejudices of mainstream distributors and producers.
El-Telmissani's daughter married earlier this year. Next year his son will graduate with an engineering degree.
"But I'm not a family man," he says without apology. "I'm independent."
Five years ago he bought a piece of land in Mansouriya intending to build a house. Unable to make the money he withdrew all his savings and built it.
"I consider it the greatest achievement of my life. It never took me this long to make a film, and this house is the house of my dreams," he says as he shows us around. El-Telmissani's garden has peach and mango trees, as well as grapes, onion and garlic. The house has the look of a small fort and its owner passes his time there watering the garden, walking his German shepherd and enjoying the seclusion: reading, writing a script for a film, watching DVDs. He follows the news by listening to the radio.