Niazi Mustafa lived with Egyptian cinema for over half a century— from its birthing pains in the mid-thirties until 19 October 1986, when he was found murdered in his apartment, a crime that remains unsolved to this day.
The brighter side of Mustafa’s love story with cinema started when he persuaded his father to send him to study engineering in Germany. Once on German soil, he switched to the Cinema Institute in Munich.
After graduation, he trained at UFA Studios in Berlin (1932), then worked as assistant to German director Rupert Volmut. On his return to Egypt, he worked as assistant director to Yusef Wahbi on The Defense (1935).
His next move was to Misr Company for Acting & Cinema, where he made documentaries about Banque Misr companies. One of these, Suq al-Milah (Market of the Handsome, 1936), was a song and dance sketch, featuring Badia Masabni and her troupe, among whom was Tahiya Karioka, who was to become Egypt’s greatest oriental dancer in the forties and fifties.
When Studio Misr was built, Mustafa was appointed chief editor and supervised the production of the early issues of the Egypt Newsreel. He
was also responsible for the editing of Widad (1936) and Lasheen (1939), both directed by the German Fritz Kramp.
His first feature film, Salama Fi Kheir (Salama in Prosperity 1937), showed his considerable talent and grasp of cinematic language, and marked him out as an important figure in the industry. Meanwhile, he had married his assistant editor, Kouka, and he gave her the lead role in Masna’a al-Zawgat (The Wives’ Factory 1941). She also starred as the bedouin girl in Rabha (1943), Antar and Abla (1945), and Raweya (1946).
With the exception of two comedies, Salama Fi Kheir and Si Omar (Mr Omar, 1941), both featuring Naguib al-Rihani, top comedian of the day, and both extremely successful, his early films had provocative social messages, beginning with al-Doktor (The Doctor, 1939), then Madraset al-Zawgat (School for Wives) and Wadi al-Nugum (Valley of the Stars) in 1943. When these three films had no success while cheap action films and musicals by lesser directors were attracting audiences in droves, Niazi opted for pure commercialism. He began with Rabha then Taqiyet al-Ikhfa’ (The Invisible Cap) where, with a budget of just LE 8,500, he employed special effects with a dexterity none could match. Even with a cast of then only second-tier stars (Muhammad Kahlawy, Tahiya Karioka, and Bishara Wakeem), the film was a box-office hit, earning some LE 250,000, a huge figure at the time.
Given impetus by this success, Niazi went on to become a director unrivaled for the size and variety of his output. His last film, al-Koradaty (The Monkey Trainer, 1986), had as its only star a monkey called Simsim. Niazi himself was murdered before he finished editing the film.