Amgad Nagui brings the past to life for filmmakers

Nabil Shawkat meets a memorabilia collector in Cairo who is the first port of call for Egyptian cineastes making period films that must look authentic down to the last detail.

The first time Amgad Naguib became involved in cinema was in the mid-1990s. Some film school students heard he had a sizeable collection of costumes and memorabilia, and they wanted to use them as props in their graduation projects. Naguib was living with his family at the time, and when they came to visit him, he showed them a room that was stacked wall to wall with old books and photo albums, vintage outfits from the 1930s and 1940s and knick-knacks from the turn of the century. It was like a movie set, but which movie?

Standing amid piles of clothes, musical instruments, objets d'art, and what looked like abandoned window frames, the students immediately recognised the visual potential of this jumble of extraordinary objects.

They were working on a film called Charlie, which had a period theme. The last shot, which they were going to film from Naguib's window, was of a vintage automobile driving around a corner at dawn. The car, however, didn't arrive. Sleep-deprived and with a deadline to meet, the director had to think quickly. He had Naguib dress up in a 1950s coat, put on a gangster hat and brandish a cane. Then, in the near-empty streets down below, Naguib walked around the corner. In the film, you don't see his face. What you see is a weather-beaten old foreigner walking alone in Cairo's pre-revolutionary streets, ambling slowly into an uncertain future before the credits roll. The students were elated and Amgad's phone has been ringing ever since.

Over the past 15 years, Naguib has supplied costumes and props for more than a dozen films and television documentaries, the best known of which are Halim (2004), Heliopolis (2009), and Microphone (2010).

As a teenager, he had a friend who owned an antique business downtown and the two used to hang out together at the shop. Dealers would come in to offer discarded paintings, antique furniture, or even stacks of old magazines. Naguib would listen and learn.

One day, his family gave him a precious silver plate that used to belong to his grandmother. "It's yours, take it," his mother said without elaboration.

This was his long-awaited chance to break into the world of antique dealing. He went down the street to the nearest shop and sold it. Later on, his more-experienced friend told him that he was cheated. The 100 Egyptian pounds ($150 at the time) he received for the plate was not even a fraction of its real value.

Naguib used the money he made to buy a set of chinaware that bore the Semiramis Hotel insignia, a set that survived the 1952 Cairo fire. Again, the friend shook his head disapprovingly and told him that he paid too much.

It wasn't an auspicious beginning, but it was a beginning nevertheless. He kept buying and selling stuff, not the real antiques that most people were after but the pieces the dealers didn't care for.

In time, his collection of memorabilia expanded. He amassed heaps of pens and cigarette lighters, shoes and evening gowns, walking canes and hats, cinema tickets and invitations, train schedules and art catalogues.

The stuff he collected was intimate, time-specific, and charged with memories. These were the things people invested their lives in, not the things they invested their money in.

This particular kind of collecting is what eventually made Naguib an asset to film producers. And it is not just the stuff he has, but also the things he knows, the glimpse he provides into the lives of people who lived a few generations ago. For Amgad, a door from the 1960s is not complete unless it has a latch and a handle from the same period. An entrance from the 1970s is flawed unless the light switch is authentic. He has a natural flair for period detail - like a man transported from the past in a time machine. He knows what fashions and hairdos were popular in the 1940s and what games and pastimes entered the scene in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of his first assignments was in the western desert. A German director was shooting a film called Singing Stones, which told the story of a geologist who fantasises about the mountains, imagining that they sing at night. The producers needed to create a scene involving scientists. To help them, Naguib packed a truck with mechanical gadgets and wires, and used these to rig up what looked like a research station in the desert. It was on this set that he first met the costume designer Dina Nadim.

When Dina started working as costume designer for Halim, a big production about the life of the iconic singer Abdel Halim Hafez, she called him up. What she wanted were costumes to cover a time span from the 1940s to the 1970s. Dina sat with Naguib and the two made a list of the characters that were to appear in the film: the police constables, nurses, doctors, and artists. They also closely examined piles of photos from the period.

Naguib bought hundreds ofoutfits for the extras in Halim. If you see the film, pay attention to the set for the song Qareat al-Fingal (The Fortune Teller) and note the authentic-looking attire worn by the audience.

"At one point, I came back from Port Said with 400 old shirts, including 70 shirts from the 1950s still in their cellophane wrapping!" Naguib says. He also acquired genuine period wristwatches and medical glasses to complement the costumes.

Since Amgad's set design business took off, his approach to collecting has changed. "I now buy things that I normally wouldn't have touched."

One day, he turned down two Beethoven busts that a dealer wanted to sell him. A few days later, a director doing a documentary about the writer Tawfiq al-Hakim was on the phone. "Can you get me two Beethoven busts?" he asked. It was too late, the busts were no longer on the market.

When you supply films with props, you need to put your personal taste aside, Naguib explains. Gaudy is fine, so long as it is authentic. "In the 1950s, everyone had tableaux of needlework in their houses. I used to hate these, but now I buy them."