Inspired by Safar: The Festival of Popular Arab Cinema, which showcased five Egyptian films made between 1972 and 2013, Rosa Perez gives us a rundown of 10 things you didn’t know about the Hollywood of the Middle East.
On 5 November 1896, the first short films of The Lumière brothers were shown in Alexandria, at the Stock Exchange of Tussun Pasha, less than one year after their Paris premiere, setting Egypt up as the pioneer of cinema in the region. Cairo would have to wait until 28 November 1896 to hold its first cinematographic projection at the Schnider Swimming Pool. The success of these early shows led to the opening of small cinema halls in different quarters of Alexandria and Cairo.
The monopoly of the Lumière brothers lasted until 1906, when the French Pathé and the Italian Irnapora companies acquired franchises in Egypt and joined the market. However, with the arrival of new techniques such as sound effects, scenes shot on location and the subtitling system, the industry gradually ‘Egyptianized’, attracting local audiences and local Egyptians to work in it. In 1923, Muhammad Bayyumi founded the first cinema studio established by an Egyptian in Shubra, Cairo, called Studio Amon Films, and a cinematic Journal known as Amon Journal. Bayyumi was therefore considered the pioneer who laid the foundations for true Egyptian cinema. It was then that he met the founder of Bank Misr (Egypt Bank), Talat Harb, and from that encounter the idea of building Studio Misr emerged. This was the first film studio in the real sense of the word, not only in Egypt but in the entire Arab world.
Movie theaters reflected the pyramidal structure of society through their division into three categories: first class, second class and third class cinemas, the latter known even today in colloquial Egyptian as ‘Cinema Terso’, from the Italian word terzo, third. ‘Cinema Terso’ differed in program, equipment and price from the first and second class cinemas. It did not present any new releases, the program was composed of one Egyptian and one or two foreign films, and the running order was repeated for several days. The price for the ticket in the third class cinema was 3 millimes, whereas in the second and first class the price of the ticket was around 7 and 10 to 14 piastres respectively. Huge queues, predominantly male, announced the screening of Farid Shawki films, also known as ‘Negmat terzo’, ‘The King of Terso’. He represented the masses’ dream of ‘defeating the wealthy’. He displayed a ‘low-class virility’ along with an action-oriented persona which brought him great success in Terso cinemas, but not necessarily in the first and second class ones.
Kiss in the Desert (Qublah fel Sahara), directed by Ibrahim Lama, was the first full-length feature film produced in Egypt, in 1927. It was followed by Leila (1927), directed by Wedad Orfi. Nevertheless, Zeynab (1930), a peasant’s melodrama, stands out as the most representative full-fledged Egyptian silent movie. It was also the first Egyptian film to be adapted from an Egyptian novel of the same title, Zeynab, written by Muhammad Hussein Haykal. The first sound movie in Egypt, Unshudat al-Fuad (Song of the Heart), arrived in 1931.
The first Egyptian musical was Al Wardah al-Baida (The White Rose) 1933, directed by Muhammad Karim, starring the legend of Arab song, Abdel Wahab, in his first appearance on the silver screen. It became a cornerstone of Egyptian cinema. It was shown in all the Arab countries and was a blockbuster hit. The musical brought what would be the formula of success for many years in Egyptian film: dance and music. The musical dominated the Egyptian film industry in the 1940s and with it a generation of famous singer stars, the icons of Arab music: Um Kulthum, Farid el Atrash, Abdel Halem, Layla Murad, Shadia, Asmahan and Sabah.
This was not only due to Hollywood’s influence in the films, but also because of production quantity and exports. The film industry in Egypt went through a boom during and after the Second World War partly due to the fact that it was more difficult to acquire American and European films. Therefore, the 1952 Revolution of the Free Officers in Egypt that overthrew King Farouk, found a well-established Egyptian film industry with an average production of 50 feature films per year, according to Samir Farid.
During Nasser’s Egypt (1952-1970), local cinema production had to have its scripts approved by the Censorship Department. An illustrative and funny example of this is the film Abi fawq el shagara (My father is on the tree) from 1969, starring Abdel Halem Hafez, ‘the Nightingale of the Revolution’. People in the cinema counted out loud the number of on-screen kisses in the film!
The Nasser regime showed itself engaged with popular culture from the beginning and was eager to encourage cinema production. Egypt’s new rulers saw the big screen as a nation-building tool that served as a vehicle of the new ideology and had the role of producing solidarity and identity among the masses. Consequently, the regime took action against the cinema gradually. It started off as a ‘guidance’ process that ended up in the state’s total control of the industry with its nationalization in 1961.
Criticizing the former regime became a common practice, widening the limits of acceptable plots, genres and content (albeit with the regime’s own imposed constraints). Films that were banned under King Faruq were immediately released after the Revolution. Examples of this are: Hussein Sidqi’s Isqat el Istemar (Down with Colonialism), and Ahmed Badrakhan’s patriotic film, Mustafa Kamil. Patriotic and anti-colonial feelings inspired films like Henri Barakat’s Fe Beitina Ragul (There is a man in our house) starring Omar Sharif. An army officer appeared as the main character in several films. For example, Rodda Qalbi (Back Alive, 1957), which constitutes the highest tribute ever done in film to the ‘52 Revolution and it is still shown today on Egyptian TV, every 23 July on the commemoration of Egypt’s National day. The series of comedy films starring the famous top comedian of the 50s, Ismail Yassin, welcomed the military spirit too. The revolution also opened the way for social realism which came in impressive numbers and the adaptations of literary works from talented Egyptian writers like Naguib Mahfuz, Ihsan Abdel Quddus and Yusuf Idris among others became a trend.
The 1940s to 1960s are considered the Golden age of Egyptian cinema. Until the late 1950s it was impossible to differentiate technically between Egyptian, American, Italian and French films. The nationalization of the Egyptian film industry carried out in 1961 by the Nasser regime gave room for both big directors and young artistic new talents, and enabled big productions. Some of the Egyptian films of the 1960s that are considered treasures of Egyptian cinema, such as: El Haram, Shay men el Khauf, EL Bustagy, El Nasser Salah Eldin, El Adeyya, Qahera30 and Al Mumia all appeared under the auspices of the public sector. The private sector could have never produced them. Some of these films did not make any money at the time. However, they are internationally recognized and have stood the test of time. During these three golden decades, Egypt was one of the biggest exporters of films to the region and became an undeniable reference of popular culture to the Arab world. The project that Nasser had envisioned for the Egyptian film industry failed due to mismanagement and corruption inside the industry, but not for artistic reasons. In the 1970s, the denationalization of the film industry followed and even if cinematic gems appeared in this period and after, such as Youssef’s Chahine The Sparrow (screened during Safar on 21 September), a more profit-driven and commercial period had arrived that would put an end to the so-called ‘Golden era of Egyptian Cinema’.