Asma el Bakri
Asma el Bakry and her favourite companion Stamboulin
Asma during the shooting of The Greco-Roman Museum
Filming under water near the site of the Pharos
Asma el Bakry was born in Cairo to an aristocratic and community-oriented family. Her maternal grandfather, Sakakini Pasha, is known to have established the Sakakini quarter in El Zaher district in Cairo, the Roman Catholic Patriarchate in Faggala and the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Old Cairo. She moved to Alexandria, however, as a young girl with her mother and brother, where she received her education in the renowned French school, Notre Dame de Sion and Lycée, and then earned a BA in French literature from the University of Alexandria in 1970.
Though El Bakry’s mother rarely allowed her to go to the cinema as she believed that reading books was more important for cultivating her children, El Bakry’s love for cinema surfaced as early as schooldays. She was so fascinated by the few films she was allowed to watch that she reproduced parodies of those films; she would cast her friends at school in the different roles and then play the role of the director herself.
During her last year at university, she attended the shooting of the film A House Made of Sand (Bayt min al-rimâl) 1972. El Bakry, the swimming champion, volunteered to do a difficult stunt by pretending to drown in the rough cold sea in place of Poussi, the star of the film. She also got so caught up in the making of the film that she became an indispensable hand on location. It was meeting with Abdel Aziz Fahmy, the film’s Director of photography, which was to change the course of her life, for he was the one who helped her into the film business by allowing her to work as an assistant in his next film Strangers (Ghorbâ’), directed by Saad Arafa.
She eventually worked as an assistant director with many directors among whom were Saad Arafa and Khairi Bishara. She also worked as an assistant director with Youssef Chahine in Return of the Prodigal Son (‘Awdat el-ibn el dâll) and as a location manager in Adieu Bonaparte (Wada‘n Bonaparte). Speaking of Chahine’s influence on her, El Bakry says: “I have never been influenced by his thought, but what I really learnt from him is how to have a good eye; he has an outstanding ability to choose excellent locations, something which has left an indelible imprint on me” (Interview with Asma el Bakry 3 Oct. 2006).
She also worked as an assistant director and location and production manager for a number of foreign films, documentaries and serials among which are Death on the Nile, The Awakening, King Tut, Ruby Cairo and Fortunes of War. Scenes of the latter were shot in the Cecil Hotel, Fort Qaitbey and Villa Antoniadis in Alexandria.
She produced and directed her first documentary, A Drop of Water (Qatrat ma’), in 1979. It is basically a journey in the Western Desert from sunrise to sunset. It could be argued that most of her documentaries reveal deep interest in Egyptian history and a keen desire to shed light on the greatness and glamour of its past civilizations with the ultimate aim of instructing the new generation. In Dahsha, for instance, she traces the history of wooden boats used by the ancient Egyptians until modern times. The History of Marble (el marmar) also traces the history of the usage of marble in Egypt since the Ancient Egyptian civilization. In El Zaher District (Hayy el Daher), she sheds light on the history of that district in Cairo which was established by the Sultan Zaher Baibars in the thirteenth century. Her fascination with the Islamic Civilisation is evident in The Fatimids (el Fatimiyun) and The Ayubbyids (el Ayubiyun).
Interestingly enough, during the shooting of her documentary The Greco-Roman Museum, which also aimed at exploring the history of Alexandria through the monuments of the Greco-Roman Museum, she dove underwater to shoot the remains of the lighthouse of Alexandria outside the Eastern Harbour. To her dismay, she discovered that blocks of concrete were carelessly thrown on the underwater monuments. Outraged by that irresponsible behaviour, she immediately reported it to the authorities and this triggered off the underwater excavations that were led by the French in that part of the city.
Her first feature film, Beggars and Nobles, is an adaptation of Albert Cossery's celebrated novel. In the film, she dexterously managed to capture the atmosphere of Old Cairo at the end of the Second World War, which serves as the principal backdrop for the story of Gohar, the university professor, who decides to live among the poor instead of teaching at university because of his disillusionment. "I own nothing, I want nothing, I am free" becomes his new philosophy, if not the philosophy of the entire film.
The film was deservedly received with critical acclaim and numerous awards among which are the Critics Prize, CICAE (International Confederation of Art Cinemas) Prize, and Audience Grand Prize in Montpellier, Audience Prize in Freiberg 1992 and Best Film Prize in Rennes in 1992.
Her second feature film, Concert in the Street of Happiness (Kunchirtu fi darb sa‘da) , was equally successful. The film depicted the quiet and placid life of Azouz, an opera employee, which is turned up side down by the violinist Sonia who came to Cairo to perform at the opera house.
Like many directors of her time, Asma found difficulty in realizing her plans as no Egyptian producer was willing to finance her films. To realize her own cinematic dreams, Asma sought co-productions as in Beggars and Nobles, and Concert in the Street of Happiness. She also established her own production company, Les Films du Palmier, in 1992 so as not to concede to the demands of the producers.
El Bakry’s love of music, which was evident in her film A Concert in the Street of Happiness, seems to have driven her into treading a new path for she was to direct two operas, La Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, for the Cairo Opera House in 2005 and 2006.
She provided the photographic illustrations for Nayra Atiya's book, Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell their Stories (1982). The book presents the life stories of five working class women from Egypt in the 1970s and was issued by Syracuse Universirty Press in the United States.
She also works as a freelance writer for a number of Arabic journals. She always writes on social, political and historical topics, areas which she knows a great deal about due to her insatiable love of reading.
1979: A Drop of Water (Qatrat ma’), 35, 15 mins
1981: Dahsha, 16 mm, 23 mins
*Her Production with Mary Dungen
1982: Portrait (Burtreh), 35 mm, 15 mins
1983: History of Marble in Egypt (el marmar), 35 mm, 15 mins
1983: El Zaher District (Hayy el Daher), 35 mm, 15 mins
1992: The Harrawi House (Bayt el harrawî), 35 mm, 26 mins
1994: Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria (Mathaf el Iskandariyyah), 35 mm, 58 mins
*Co-production: Film du Palmier, Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique (France), Egyptian National Bank, Ministry of Culture
1995: The Nile, 35 mm, 52 mins
*French TV Production
1998: The Fatimids (el Fatimiyun), 35 mm, 23 mins
1999: The Ayubbids (el Ayubiyun), video digital, 52 mins
*Films du Palmier
2006: Handcraft in the Mediterranean, digital, 25 mins
2006: Wrath of the Kings, digital, 26 mins
1990: Beggars and Nobles (Shahhatin wa nubala’), 35 mm, 92 mins
*Co-produced by Misr International Films and France
1998: Concert in the Street of Happiness (Kunchirtu fi darb sa‘da), 35mm, 110 mins
*Co-produced by Misr International Films and France
2004: Violence and Derision (el ‘Unf wa-l-sukhriya), video digital blown up to 35 mm, 113 mins
*Les Films du Palmier Production
- El Bakri, Asma. Interview with Director. By Dina Mohamed Abdel Salam. Alexandria: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 3 Oct. 2006.
- Farid, Samir, Hewar el Sharq wa el Gharb. Alexandria: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2004.
- Hillauer, Rebecca. Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers. Cairo: AUC Press, 2005.