Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues
20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

Lights, camera... ... retrospection

By Samir Farid

Youssef Chahine's Conflict in the Valley (1954); bottom, anti-clockwise from top left: Shadi Abdel-Salam's The Mummy (1975); Chahine's The Return of the Prodigal Son (1976); and Khairi Beshara's The Collar and the Bracelet (1986).
Look at the masthead of any Egyptian newspaper, and you will find three dates: the first based on the Islamic calendar, the second on the Gregorian and the third on the Coptic calendar. "And what about the Pharaonic calendar?" Shadi Abdel-Salam once asked. So I spent several days whiling away my idle hours, designing a Pharaonic calendar to give to Shadi. It dated from the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Mina, the founder of the first Pharaonic dynasty, and continued to the age of Mubarak, which according to my calculations began in the year 5080.

Such were the intellectual games we used to play. This one, long since forgotten, came to mind again with all the commotion over the year 2000, the beginning of the 21st century and the start of a new millennium. The fact is that no matter how many "official" calendars there are, the only one the world takes seriously in the day to day running of its business is the Gregorian.

Are we to be offended by this? I see no reason to be. China is the only culture left in the world to boast an uninterrupted continuity with the beginnings of its civilization 4000 years ago, and the only other country to share in the West's spirit of celebrating a new millennium. Other countries, including the Arab world, are celebrating a date in the calendrical system that has come to govern their lives. Again, I see nothing wrong with this. In every historical era, an individual's level of sophistication has been assessed within the terms of the reference set by the dominant culture.

Arab contact with modern western culture began two centuries ago when Mohamed Ali became ruler of Egypt. Arab culture will continue to remain, as long as mankind exists, because it is intrinsically bound with the Arabic language, the language of the Qur'an, the holy book for the majority of Arabs, and the language of Arabs of all religions. The age of open satellite communications has given rise to fears that Arabic culture will be overwhelmed. The fact is that the reverse might be the case, that Arab satellite channels might threaten the West. After 200 years of contact with modern human culture --which is not just western culture but, like every preceding civilization, a distillation of earlier cultures --we have taken only from the surface, leaving the essence, which is the spirit underlying the democratic political system, civil liberties and human rights.

Cinematography was invented at the end of the 19th century and became the dominant art of the 20th. Since its very beginnings, cinema has been a global art. For the first time in history there was an art that could be displayed simultaneously in different parts of the world with the mere production of multiple positives from an original negative. It was also the first purely technological art, the first art whose aesthetics could be altered by the invention of a new lens or a new type of film.

Cinematography was a western invention. It was the fruit of the combined efforts of European and American scientists. But, like all manifestations of western civilization, it did not emerge from a void. In the case of the cinema, its principles can be traced to the optical theories of the Arab scientist, Al-Hassan Ben Al-Haitham.

People say that cinema is a non-indigenous art form. But then it is non-indigenous to India, Japan, Brazil and, in fact, many European countries whose scientists did not happen to have discovered the motion picture camera. More to the point is that cinema was a new art for all peoples. When a train came rushing towards the camera, audiences screamed. The reaction was the same from New York to Alexandria and from Bombay to Beirut. However, the history of the cinema in these countries varied in accordance with their respective degrees of development.

The cinema comprises the dramatic, documentary or animated films that are shown in theatres designed for their display. Of course, it is now possible to watch films on television, and on display screens using VCDs and DVDs. But the silver screen is the original tapestry, as the canvas is for painting, and the movie house is its showcase, as the museum is for the other arts, and not the post card, catalogue or book. Most peoples around the world were able to see films produced at the turn of the century, and soon introduced movie theatres. Producing films, however, was another question.

Animated films are costly to produce, and it is little wonder that the Arab world has produced barely 200 animated films, most of them art projects produced by students at the Cinema Institute in Giza. The Arab world has produced over a thousand documentaries, most of them funded by various government ministries for propagandistic purposes. Very few privately run cinema companies have produced this type of film. Perhaps the legacy in this genre is the Egyptian newsreel, initiated by Studio Misr when it was founded in 1935 and filmed by Hassan Murad. Although it presented an official version of events, it has come to constitute a primary source in Arabic cinematographic archives, constantly recycled in later documentary films.

Main picture: Hussein Fawzi's I Love You Hassan (1958); anti-clockwise from top left: Kamal Selim's Determination (1939); Youssef Wahbi's Love and Vengeance (1944); Kamel El-Telmessani's Black Market (1945); Ahmed Kamel Mursi's The Big House (1949); Ahmed Badrakhan's A Night of Love (1952); Salah Abu Seif's Youth of a Woman (1956); Mahmoud Zulfaqar's Don't Remember Me (1961); Henry Barakat's The Forbidden (1965) and Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Kit Kat (1991)
Short and feature length Arabic dramatic films, from the era of silent films with Arabic titles to those with spoken Arabic dialogue, number over 4,000. Of these, more than three quarters were produced in Egypt since the beginning of the cinema industry in this country in 1908. Of the 1,000 or so films produced in other parts of the Arab world, most are a product of the last 35 years. For the people of the Arab world, as elsewhere, the art of film is largely synonymous with feature dramatic films, whose length exceeds an hour and a half, following the Hollywood standard set in the 1920s and now prevalent around the world.

A narrative film industry could not develop in countries that had no theatre tradition and, moreover, that did not permit women to act on the stage. These prerequisites existed in Beirut and Damascus, the capital cities of Greater Syria and the birthplace of the Arab theatre in the 19th century.

Because it was held that the theatre was anti-Islamic, a manifestation of the degeneration of the Ottoman Empire which at the time still ruled the Arab world, the pioneers of the Arab theatre, such as Maoun Naqash and Abu Khalil Al-Qabbani, were prohibited from continuing their activities. Although Egypt was still a titular province of the empire, it had acquired de facto autonomy from Istanbul under the Mohamed Ali Dynasty. Moreover, Egypt was familiar with the theatre as an art form due to the foreign troupes that performed in the theatres operated by expatriate communities in Alexandria and in the Royal Opera House in Cairo. Egypt was thus the natural destination for the Syrian pioneers of Arab theatre.

But even in Egypt the continued development of Arab theatre would initially take place in the more liberal cultural climate of Alexandria, largely because of its large European population. In addition, the first Arabic actresses were either Jewish or Syrian Maronites. The first Egyptian stage actress was, in fact, a Copt --Mariam Samat --who first performed in 1907 which, as fate would have it, was the year in which the first Egyptian film was produced, a documentary directed by Alfizzi Orvanilli about the renovations to Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque in Alexandria. Eight years later, in 1915, Munira El-Mahdiya made her mark as the first Egyptian Muslim actress to appear on stage.

The 1920s brought about a renaissance of Egyptian theatre, given impetus by the founding, in 1923, of Youssef Wahbi's Ramsis Theatre Troupe which furnished Egypt's first squadron of film actresses. Even so, Zaki Tolaimat's attempt to create Egypt's first drama institute in 1930 sparked such controversy over the enrollment of female students that it was forced to close down less than a year after it opened. It was not until 1944 that the government authorised a co-educational drama institute.

It is indicative of the status of drama in general in Egypt that the first professional feature films were adaptations of American films or cinematic productions of famous Egyptian plays, many of which, in turn, were attempts to imitate the finely honed French vaudeville plays of the time. The first feature length film inspired by a purely Egyptian theme was produced in 1930. Zeinab, directed by Mohamed Karim, was based on the first Egyptian novel. Written in 1913, its author, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, refused to have his name published in the first edition of the book for fear of being pegged as a novelist, another imported literary practice initially received with disdain.

Throughout the world, cinematic genres are either associated with the name of a country or with the names of specific directors. We have, on the one hand, French, American and Indian cinema, and, on the other, Hitchcock films, Eisenstein films etc. National cinemas are an extension of the folk heritage specific to a national popular culture, while directors' cinema is a projection of a unique individual aesthetic. Not, of course, that there is no overlap. The most innovative directors, for example, may well draw their aesthetic around folk themes. This distinction, however, has no direct correlation to a film's box office success.

Cinema, like all other arts, has its popular/commercial versus individual/fine art extensions. Cinema is unique among the arts for its relatively high costs of production, rendering popular genres the more viable prospect. Among all the world cinemas, only the American popular commercial cinema has enjoyed truly international dissemination, as a result of the US film industry's international distribution network. As a result, the Western genre, emanating from deep within American popular culture, has become part of the bedrock of international film culture.

Egypt, like other countries around the world, has its own popular commercial cinema, dating from the 1920s. With a scale of production unequalled anywhere else in the Arab world, and with its Egyptian-Arab cultural appeal, it became the commercial cinema for all Arab countries. Tunisia and Lebanon, for example, produced popular films in which the dialogue is in Tunisian and Lebanese dialects respectively. However, the overwhelming influence of the immensely popular Egyptian film industry was so indelibly stamped on their productions as to render them, for all practical purposes, extensions of Egyptian cinema. The hegemony of Egyptian commercial cinema in Lebanon and Tunisia was no less, a product of the fact that it was the only Arabic alternative on offer to American and French commercial cinemas. In fact, foreign film distribution companies competed heatedly, if unsuccessfully, to counter Egyptian cinema's universal box office appeal throughout the Arab world. With the rise in film production in other Arab countries over the past 30 years, Arab cinema is no longer synonymous with Egyptian cinema, even if the influence of the Egyptian commercial cinema continues to prevail.

The nascent Egyptian commercial cinema was nurtured by the liberal climate of the post 1919 Revolution era. The 1919 Revolution was the one truly populist revolution in contemporary Egyptian history. Its essential unity of purpose brought about the British declaration of Egypt's independence in 1922, the constitution of 1923 and the first free political party elections in 1924. The birth of the Egyptian feature film in 1927 cannot be separated from Qassem Amin's Liberation of Women (1899), the appearance of the first Egyptian actress on stage in 1907, the publication of Mohamed Hussein Heikal's Zeinab in 1913, the appearance of the first Egyptian Muslim actress on stage in 1915, the creation of the Ramsis Theatre Troupe in the same year of the promulgation of the post-revolutionary constitution and the creation of the Egyptian Communist Party, the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1927, and the appearance of Ali Abdel-Razeq's Islam and the Principles of Government (1925) and Taha Hussein's Jahiliya Poetry (1926).

Indeed, the emergence of Egyptian cinema is inextricable from other cultural developments. In 1908 the College of Fine Arts was founded in Cairo, a development made possible by the fatwa issued by the Mufti of Egypt in 1905 decreeing that statues were prohibited only if intended for worship. In addition to the appearance of Mahmoud Mukhtar, Egypt's first sculptor since the age of the Pharaohs, Egyptian cultural life also teemed with the music of Sayed Darwish, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Umm Kulthoum, the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi and Hafez Ibrahim, the writings of Taha Hussein, El-Aqqad, Heikal, Al-Mazni, El-Zayyat, Ahmed Amin, Tawfiq El-Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz. At the same time, scholastic life brought forth the philosophical treatises of Abdel-Rahman Bedawi and the historical works of Abdel-Rahman El-Rafie.

No less crucial was the creation of Misr Bank by Talaat Harb in 1921. This bank financed the founding of the Egyptian Acting and Cinema Company in 1927 and Studio Misr in 1935, the largest cinema studio in the Arab world to date.

This enormous surge of creativity, the open battle between contending ideological orientations and the intellectual leadership of the political parties and other governing institutions generated the circumstances in which Egyptian cinema emerged and developed. This cinema became popular not only because it was an extension of folk culture, with its distinctive expressions of the battle between good and evil, the victory of the poor over the rich, and its particular melodramatic blend of humour, passion, song and dance. Its popularity was also made possible because it was a liberal-spirited cinema, unhampered by sectarian and ethnic prejudices, championing the rights of women, children and the poor, engaging the combined efforts and outlooks of Muslims, Christians, Jews and Egyptians, Germans, Italians, Greeks, French, Hungarians, Iranians and Russians.

One of the most celebrated heroes of Egyptian comedy in the 1930s and 1940s was Shalom the Jew, Egypt's version of Charlie Chaplin, who appeared in such films as Shalom the Athlete and Shalom the Dragoman. The Muslim Nubian Ali El-Kassar was another good hearted soul living on the fringes of society. Perhaps the most famous Egyptian comedy screen star was Naguib El-Rihani, who played the long-suffering middle class government bureaucrat. Interestingly, El-Rihani, a Christian, never played a Christian character. In fact, he was Hassan in Hassan, Murqos and Cohen, a comedy expressing the camaraderie between the three major religions in Egypt. The female version of this was Fatma, Marika and Rachel.

As in other countries, Egyptian commercial cinema had its own renowned studio productions. Like the recyclable sets for Western movies in Hollywood studios, Egypt had the alleyways of Nahas Studio, of Studio Misr and of Studio Al-Ahram. And, as with all studio productions around the world, everyone involved, from the script writer, director, actors and film editor, knew their job and executed it in accordance with a pre-devised and agreed upon plan.

The popular film industry also had its own conventions. It was impossible for endings to remain unresolved, for evil to win over good, for an innocent man to be condemned. Youssef Chahine's Conflict in the Valley, released in 1954, was the first film in the history of Egyptian cinema to shock audiences with the death of an innocent man. Commercial films had to have a minimum of song and/or dance numbers as well as their stock of stars whose names were linked to specific types of characters. Egyptian cinema thus had its infamous gangster, its deceitful conniver, its innocent maiden, its imperious lady, as well as its supporting cast of famous character actors and actresses, such as Zeinat Sidqi the spinster, Abdel-Fattah El-Qasri the ibn al-balad embodying the traditional virtues of the average Egyptian, and Mary Munib the mother-in-law. If an Egyptian film intended for popular audiences lacked any of these prerequisites, it constituted a betrayal of the unwritten contract with the spectator, the results of which would manifest themselves in the box office.

The 1952 Revolution had no need to subject the cinema industry to its sway. True, it established the Nile Cinema Company under airforce commander Wagih Abaza, whom the Free Officers selected as their official for the cinema. However, filmmakers, whether out of conviction or simply out of pragmatism, had no need of a directive to rally their support behind the revolution. Thus, the post-revolutionary protagonist became the army officer, instead of the doctor, businessman or engineer, while all other factors remained constant. The screen star Anwar Wagdi epitomised the gallant army hero who conquered evil and won the hearts of equally patriotic women in such films as Four Women and an Officer.

Not only did Egyptian cinema of this period produce its own outstanding directors, such as Kamel El-Telmessani, Salah Abu Seif and Youssef Chahine, it held its own against other national cinemas of the time. Throughout the period from 1946 to 1956 it was routine for Egyptian films to compete in international festivals.

Mary Mounib
During this period new trends were beginning to assert themselves in international cinema, the Nouvelle Vague in France, the New York Underground, the British Free Cinema and Cinema Novo in Brazil. Post-revolutionary Egypt, however, brought the nationalisation of the film industry, accompanied by a heavy government hand that stifled innovative trends and sapped its dynamism.

Egyptian cinema slowly emerged from its period of stagnation in the wake of the 1967 defeat. For the first time, independent filmmakers began to make their mark in an art form that had been dominated by the popularist tradition. In 1969 Shadi Abdel-Salam came out with his groundbreaking The Mummy (or The Night of Counting the Years) and a year later Said Marzouq produced the highly acclaimed My Wife and the Dog. But it would not be until the 1980s that Egyptian cinema brought forth a wave of neo-realism with the films of Dawoud Abdel-Sayed, Khairi Bishara, Mohamed Khan, Atef El-Tayeb, Raafat El-Mihi and Yussri Nasrallah.

Realism evolved into the nineties, bringing to the fore new directors, such as Radwan El-Kashef and Osama Fawzi, who will join the ranks of those who will take Egyptian cinema into the next century.

The 1967 War also marked the watershed for the emergence of important independent filmmakers in other countries of the Arab world. Among the most important directors must be counted Mohamed Mollos, Osama Mohamed, Samir Zikri and Abdel-Latif Abdel-Hamid in Syria, Burhan Alwiya, Maroun Baghdadi and Joslin Saab in Lebanon, Nori Buzeid, Farid Bughadir and Nasser Khamir in Tunisia, Mo'min Samihi, Soheil Ben Baraka and Abdel-Rhaman Tazi in Morocco, Mirzaq Alwash, Sayed Ali Mazif and Ghoti Ben Dadoush in Algeria, Khaleq Sadiq in Kuwait and Bassam Al-Dhawadi in Bahrain. We also have the Palestinian cinema of Palestine and abroad represented by Rashid Mashharawi, Elia Suleiman and Michel Khalifi.

At the end of the century, though, Arab cinema is once again in a delicate position. Women acting and singing begins, again, to be seen as a taboo, and colleges of fine arts prohibit even covered models. Arab countries, including Egypt, do not view their cinemas as part of their national heritage or an art worthy of government subsidy. Film is not taught in colleges of fine arts and newspaper film reviews tend to be located on the entertainment pages, rather than in the arts and literature pages. Yet Arab cinema remains alive, thanks to the commitment of its many artists, who have no other choice but to make the films they want or to wait.

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