Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 September 1999
Issue No. 445
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Forgotten memories

By Mohamed El-Assiouty

It is the claim of cinéastes around the globe that film is the medium par excellence for the creation and preservation of collective memories. In such regard, though, Egyptian filmmakers and critics are left in an unenviable position, lamenting the fact that not only is our contribution to this universal memory negligible, but that such a role remains virtually unrecognised.

Film critic Samir Farid explains: "In Arab culture cinema is on the margin. The Tunisian and Algerian cinémathèques are incomplete and neglected by their governments. And in Egypt we have neither negative archives, cinémathèques, video libraries nor film museums" -- establishments that have existed since 1938 in most of the 125 member nations of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA).

Documentarist Attyat El-Abnoudi echoes Farid's regrets: "Not only do we not have the copyrights for the productions of the Film Institute that we made as students... but the originals are also in terrible conditions."

The problem, though, is not limited to student productions, for not even those films generally acknowledged to be landmarks in mainstream cinema are accorded protection. According to Farid, there is no effective plan to restore ruined originals nor to copy films onto fire-resistant film stock. Any individual can obtain the originals and burn them, as the son of actor-director Hussein Sidqi recently did, claiming that cinema is religiously forbidden.

Most Arab film production companies favour immediate income over possible but uncertain larger future financial rewards; they are not in the least concerned with preserving their originals and more often than not neglect to place a positive copy in the Egyptian National Film Centre (ENFC)'s store room. The ENFC, in any case, hardly inspires confidence among filmmakers. According to Safa' El-Leithi, a film editor and researcher, the ENFC's store room, "far from being a library, houses piles of rusty cans containing positive copies."

Madkour Thabit, head of ENFC, responds to such criticism. "We pay the annual membership fee to FIAF and maintain a correspondence. In the past ENFC membership was suspended for a period of time because the membership fees were not paid by mistake. There is a videothèque of over 5000 international and local titles in the Arts Academy, while we have a much smaller one at the ENFC."

The ENFC has a store room that contains a positive copy of all Egyptian films made after 1961. The bulk of negative originals, though, are not the responsibility of ENFC but remain in store rooms in the printing labs which belong to the Ministry of Industry since producers -- with the exception of Gamal El-Leithi and Badi'e Sobhi -- habitually leave the negatives in the labs should they need to make a copy one day. While some of the original negatives were burnt in Studio Misr in 1951, others were recently purchased by Al-Sheikh Saleh, the owner of the ART satellite channels.

Film critic Essam Zakaria complains that research facilities are similarly under-equipped, ineffective and accessible only after following complicated procedures.

Safa' El-Leithi agrees, adding that this is true not only with respect to audio-visual facilities but also to information sources which remain uncomputerised. "I encountered a major difficulty with respect to obtaining precise information -- complete with dates and figures -- concerning the screening and marketing of documentaries and, after failing to find this information either in the Cultural Register Department or in the Supreme Cultural Council, I returned to the ENFC where the incomplete information I found was mostly about screening. Marketing had become the Cultural Development Fund's responsibility."

Shedding more light on the difficulties of film research in Egypt, Farid explains that "the incomplete film documents of the Catholic Centre's library are the only records available in Egypt containing information about old films. But this archiving was done mainly by scissoring out articles from magazines and newspapers for the purpose of evaluating a film's contents with respect to Catholic morality... Furthermore, the only short film and documentary filmography available is an unpublished thesis."

Ironically, given the difficulties of preserving film, documentaries on cinema can be used as references in researching the history of the Arab film industry, providing missing chronologies, testimonies and records of production plans. But only three documentaries about Arab cinema exist -- Ahmed Kamel Mursi's Tarikh Al-Cinema Al-Missriya (History of Egyptian Cinema 1970), Tunisian Farid Bou Ghedir's Al-Cinema Al-Arabiya Al-Jadida (New Arab Cinema 1987) and Mohamed Kamel Al-Qalyoubi's Waqai' Al-Zaman Al-Da'i' (Chronicles Of A Lost Time 1991) on the Egyptian film pioneer Mohamed Bayoumi. There have also been several TV programmes -- Farid thinks they are probably erased-- and two video documentaries, the Syrian film Nour Wa Zilal (Light and Shadows 1994) on the pioneer Syrian filmmaker Nazih Al-Shahbandar and Mohamed Shebl's Al-Muhakama (The Trial 1995) about Youssef Chahine's trial after the release of Al-Muhager (The Immigrant 1994).

These are supplemented by the 11 books issued by the ENFC over the past year which include the writings of critics and filmmakers. Barring a few exceptions, though, most of these writings are no more than impressionistic chronologies. Some in-depth accounts of aspects of the Egyptian film have been expounded in academic theses by Egyptians and foreigners. No effort has been made, though, to collect these writings and make them available in Arabic translation. Nor has anyone yet produced a substantial theoretical treatise on film in the Arab world. Two years ago a monthly film magazine, Al-Fann Al-Sabe'i, was established mostly featuring Arabic translations of sporadic English writings.

Farid regrets that "neither Arab people nor Arab governments consider film as an art. The former deals with cinema as cheap entertainment -- which conditions the work of filmmakers themselves -- while the latter collects taxes from movie theatres and invests neither money nor effort to preserve the negatives of thousands of films that are public property and to establish film museums and libraries."

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