Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 June 2004
Issue No. 693
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: Diwan of contemporary life (548)

Roll 'em

On 4 September 1933 Al-Ahram introduced a "Cinema and Entertainment" page. Appearing weekly, and even sometimes on a daily basis, the page comprised a collection of news items and articles on the local scene. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk presents stage and screen stories

Click to view caption

By the beginning of 1934, following several months of formation, the contours of Al-Ahram 's newborn "Cinema and Entertainment" page had taken shape, a development signalled on 11 January of that year by the appearance of a lengthy article, "The cinematographic movement in Egypt", along with two news items and a large advertisement. The first news item reported that Monsieur Etikman Jr had just arrived from France where he had spent several years studying the art of cinema with that country's most famous directors and cinematographers. He had been invited by the recently founded Eastern Cinema Company to direct its first film and after studying the project he selected an outstanding cast: "The budding stage actress Miss Amina Shokeib, the writer/actor Sirag Munir a familiar face on the stage, the well-known actor Omar Wasfi, along with Gamil Ezzat, Hassan Kemal and Abdel- Hamid Zaki." The film itself was Ibn Al-Shaab (Son of the People), by Maurice Qoseiri, dialogue by Habib Gamati and music by the noted musician Gamil Ezzat.

The second announced a repeat showing of Al-Warda Al-Bida (The White Rose). A musical described as "the first of its kind", it starred "Abdel-Wahab, an outstanding actor already reputed as a great singer, and with him many other stars, the individual talent of each one of whom would guarantee the success of any play." Half a million of Cairo's one million people had seen the film when it was first screened, "and it is our good fortune that Fouad I Cinema has hastened to heed the demand of the public who are eager to see Egyptian performers express their national sentiments through drama and dance in a purely Egyptian production."

Alongside the article appeared the advertisement for the film, displaying pictures of the stars Zaki Rostom, Dawlat Abyad, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Mohamed Abdel-Quddous. At the bottom we read, "This film, directed by Mohamed Karim, whose work has attracted widespread attention in Europe, is a paragon in the arts of acting, song and cinema. A film that all Caireans must see!"

"Cinema and Entertainment" continued with this format at the outset of 1934, and the product was a collection of articles and news items that reflected the interests and concerns of the time. Interestingly, the page editor, who was responsible for catering to these interests, signed himself "The critic", and indicative of his concerns was the article of 21 January, "The cinematographic review: a new art in the cinema industry".

After long holding the field as the sole means for the dissemination of information, the critic wrote, the press was now being rivalled by the cinema, which had offered itself to the service of both the sciences and the arts. "Now audiences can watch the news on their silver screens, in the form of a newsreel which is, in effect, an illustrated article. If the subject of the film is dogs, for example, the director visually presents this genus through photos of its various species, arranging his subject matter in a manner that highlights and contrasts the salient features of hunting dogs versus guard dogs, or of the polar husky versus dogs of other climates. This method can be much more enticing and enjoyable than any ordinary book on the subject."

At the same time, the "critic" attempts to allay fears that the rise of the "visual press" might jeopardise its written counterpart. Under the headline, "The press and the cinema: how we will perceive the journalist on the silver screen", he appears to suggest that the two will reinforce each other. He was particularly enthusiastic about the recently released documentary, Proof, which "portrays the life of men of the press in the course of the pursuit of their work, and the dangers they encounter and the mission they seek to accomplish. The film vividly portrays the influence of the press and its power to shape public opinion."

The cinema, and the documentary in particular, also had a major role to play in projecting a positive image of Egypt. "The critic" takes frequent opportunities to urge those of his fellow countrymen engaged in the new art to select historical and social subjects that reflect the true character of the Egyptian people. This "noble patriotic task" was too vital to be left to foreigners. In "Egyptian history on the silver screen," the "Cinema and Entertainment" columnist reminds readers of how instrumental the Western cinema had been in raising the public's awareness of diverse aspects of world history. "Our hope is that cinema companies in Egypt seek to emulate this example and dedicate themselves to the history of our country and making it come alive again." In this regard, he was delighted to report that the "beloved cinema star" Asia was working on a new film in which she would be playing the role of "a historical personage who had a profound impact on historical events in Egypt in an age reputed for its splendour and grandeur". Although the writer did not reveal the identity of this historical personage in this article, he did several editions later. Asia would be playing none other than the famous Shagarat El-Durr.

The critic could not stress emphatically enough that "Only Egyptian-made films can portray Egypt as it is," as the headline of another of his articles put it. Films made by foreigners tended to portray "scenes and incidents that distort the nature of our country and its moral structures", he cautioned. Only Egyptians had the capacity to fully understand the country and the previously advertised Ibn Al-Shaab apparently set the model for what Egyptian cinema producers should seek to emulate in the efforts to portray diverse aspects of Egyptian life. According to the critic, the film contrasts life of two social classes. It opens in the setting of an aspiring middle class family whose eldest son, thanks to the support and prodding of his father, graduates in law and eventually becomes a successful lawyer. The son's career jettisons him up the social ladder and the rest of the film plays out in an upper class milieu.

Although Ibn Al-Shaab was only one film of the many reviewed by "Cinema and Entertainment" in its first year of publication, it was clearly deemed important enough to receive more than the usual share of attention. Moreover, the interviews "the critic" held with its stars, Sirag Munir and Amina Shokeib, may have set the model for this genre of reportage.

Munir was a relatively old hand with the cinema, having starred in two earlier films, Zeinab and Awlad Al-Zawat (Les Enfants Dorés), which did not prevent the critic from remarking on the significant progress Munir had exhibited over the course of the three films. Munir had been excited with the part given to him in Ibn Al-Shaab, describing it as the best role ever given to him, adding, "I felt that I would perform it better than any of the other roles I had, whether on the stage or screen." He felt that the character he would play would be a hundred per cent Egyptian and that nothing in this character or the film would reflect badly on Egypt or the Arab nation. "I knew that the gifts of Monsieur Etikman, as a director, the brilliant cinematography of Monsieur Farkas and my eagerness to play the part along with my dedication to the art in general would make this the best character I have played up to now."

Women seeking careers on the stage and screen still encountered considerable social obstacles at the time which is undoubtedly why Al-Ahram 's interview with Amina Shokeib was keen to underscore her virtuous character. The young actress, in the words of the interviewer, was "focussed on her art and confident of her abilities. She has committed herself to art for the sake of art, not for the sake of fame or admiration." The cinema industry in Egypt needed more female actresses of her calibre, he said, even if this industry had some ways to go before it caught up with its counterpart abroad. He hoped that the examples set by Bahiga Hafez and Amina Shokeib and other such daughters of respectable families would encourage other women to follow their lead and embark on careers in this domain.

The "Cinema and Entertainment" page was almost as enthusiastic over Oyoun Sahira (Magic Eyes), starring Asia and produced by Lotus Films. The film was a love story involving a woman whose fiancé was brought back to life after a car accident by a blood transfusion. However, instead of re-emerging as his old self, he revived the spirit of the woman whose blood now coursed in his veins. He was thus transformed into "an amazing creature, amazing in the way he led his life, amazing in the nature of his emotions and amazing in his encounters".

The review dwells at length on some of the special effects in this "curious" film. Asia was famed for her dedication to verisimilitude, and she was determined that the car accident in the film would be as real as possible. When the director failed to find a stuntwoman to sit behind the wheel as the car was filmed careening off a cliff, she could not be dissuaded from risking her own life in the shooting of this scene. Fortunately, "she was spared, by the grace of God, having succeeded in jumping out of the vehicle just before it toppled into the chasm."

Oyoun Sahira proved so popular in Cairo that distributors were inundated with demands to screen it in other parts of the country. One of the first cities to have this wish fulfilled was Mansoura where the opening show was attended by that province's governor who was "delighted and considerably impressed by the film". The article concludes: "We have learned that Oyoun Sahira is currently showing in Alexandria and that it has attracted huge audiences from all classes."

The next film to garner the critic's attention was Yaqout (Ruby). The first film by Naguib El-Rihani, it was categorised as "Franco-Arab" but not only because it was co-produced with a French cinema company. "No other film has ever treated the emotional interrelationship between the East and the West with the sensitivity and precision as Yaqout," the critic writes. This fact was borne out by the French studio's attention to detail in portraying life in Egypt. "Indeed, it even constructed an Egyptian alleyway in France, in which you can see the vendors and the public and feel the ties of affection, brotherhood and cooperation that bind them."

This was one of those occasions when the "Cinema and Entertainment" editor, true to the tradition of Al-Ahram, opened his page as a public forum. Among the readers who offered their opinion on Yaqout was one who signed himself "an old critic". Yaqout, he said, was "the film that our cinematic revival had been lacking until now by virtue of its sense of humour." He explains, "In the midst of the tears, sighs and drama that pervade the Egyptian cinema, Neguib El-Rihani has stepped in with Yaqout, thereby performing an invaluable service to the art. With this long-needed film, which falls between comedy and drama, he relieves the oppressive gloom. After quenching their thirst from El-Rihani's well, cinema-goers, thus refreshed from the nightmare of depression, can resume watching other types of films with a new eagerness."

Al-Itiham (Accusation), with its impressive cast that included Bahiga Hafez, Zaki Rostom, Zeinab Sidqi and Aziz Fahmi, "along with many other of our most skilful actors and actresses of the screen", was deemed worthy of several articles appearing over consecutive issues of the "Cinema and Entertainment" page. One reason for this, according to the critic, was the film's "brilliant artistic treatment of Egyptian childhood. We will see them [children] act and we will hear them not only speak but sing!" he exclaimed, adding that the appearance of children on the screen was a positive step forward in Egyptian cinema. "The family that gives their daughter the opportunity to appear on the screen, like Latifa, is giving her the chance of a lifetime." It would be interesting to learn who this child star was and whether her subsequent film career, if any, bore out the critic's claim.

Another reason for the importance of Al-Itiham was that it was the first sound film in Arabic. "Dialogue, songs and music were all recorded live during the filming. What is particularly impressive is that the soundtrack to this Egyptian story was recorded here in Egypt and not abroad in European studios."

Also impressive was the film's dedication to verisimilitude. Fanar Company, which produced Al-Itiham, went to great lengths and expense to ensure the realism of its sets. "It constructed an entire courtroom on the model of existing courtrooms in Egypt and it also took footage to portray the penal system, such as the circumstances under which lawyers are permitted to visit defendants. In short, this is an opportunity for audiences to observe the procedures and routines in a domain of life that not everyone has the opportunity to experience first-hand!"

Nor had the "Cinema and Entertainment" page had its final say on Ibn Al-Shaab, to which Al-Ahram had obviously decided to accord a full-scale publicity campaign. On 5 April, it featured a photograph of two men playing backgammon, which it described as typical of the many scenes that depict life in the popular quarters. Two days later, another still, showing a royal palace, was accompanied by a caption reminding readers that the film portrayed life in two social classes in Egypt, "as it exists at this present time". A third picture, appearing several days later, showed a musical band that appeared in the film which was billed as containing "musical numbers that had been impossible to include in Egyptian films before the introduction of sound".

As though the newspaper felt that it may have gone a bit too far in pushing this film, it enlisted a letter from one of its reader/critics to add a touch of objectivity. Although the letter appeared under the headline, " Ibn Al-Shaab : an Egyptian film produced in the European manner -- its flaws and virtues", it was not as critical as the headline led one to believe. Indeed, the author's reservations are quite minor. The film represented "a new genre of cinema in Egypt". It featured "the exquisite Oriental music composed by Gamil Ezzat, although viewers might have wished that the volume could be turned down in parts because it appears that the recording devices were highly sensitive". His only other remark was that he felt that the pace of the film was too fast, "as though the director wanted to finish it as quickly as possible".

The "Cinema and Entertainment" film critic was not always focussed on the characters up on the silver screen. Often, in fact, he was intrigued by the reaction of his fellow spectators which led to a number of amusing anecdotes. On one occasion, he decided to bring along an elderly friend, "a religious scholar of some 60-odd years, very dignified and erudite but who had never been to the cinema before". When the houselights had been turned off, the critic observed in his companion "an instinctive movement that betrayed a certain alarm". The film started rolling and the old man, who had never seen airplanes up close, or soldiers in the battlefield, or skyscrapers, sat transfixed with his mouth agape. Suddenly, there was a train bearing down upon the spectators at a relentless speed. "My friend jumped as though about to throw himself out of the way of the looming peril. Then just as suddenly the film cut to a more tranquil and reassuring scene. My friend breathed a sigh of relief and turned to me and asked, 'Does it ever happen that those things escape from there?'"

Cinema venues themselves were also a subject of interest as we note from the announcement of a new open-air cinema. The Imperial, on Emadeddin Street, would now "give spectators the pleasure of watching famous stars beneath the stars in the sky". The new cinema had a capacity of over 1,500 and offered two shows a day, one at 6.45pm and the other at 9.45pm. Tickets were only four piastres for the main floor and five piastres for the balcony, and "customers have the right to a free drink worth two piastres".

Apparently the competition between the cinemas was stiff because many were investing heavily in remodelling and updating their equipment. One cinema, for example, the Wahbi Theatre, announced that among the improvements it had made was to import four German-made amplifiers and other modern projecting equipment for sound films "to assist in the reproduction of various types of music and other sounds". The announcement added, "In addition to enhancing the subject matter on the screen, this new equipment will increase listening pleasure."

But in spite of these technological advances, there were audience concerns that needed to be addressed. One had to do with "Arabic in the cinema", a headline that was somewhat misleading since the issue at hand was Arabic subtitles to foreign films. At the time, the tendency was to project the subtitles onto a small screen adjacent to the large theatre screen. The problem was that these projectors were frequently operated by foreigners whose Arabic was poor at best, with the result that the order of the slides was confused and the dialogue had no bearing on what was transpiring at the moment on the screen. This shortcoming, as one reader put it, took much of the pleasure out of watching films and he urged film distributors to print the subtitles on the film itself. Al-Ahram lauded this "sensible suggestion", which, in all events, was soon widely adopted.

Apparently the foreign subtitle projector operators were not the only ones whose Arabic was faulty. Another reader, Hassan El-Masri, was astounded at the number of grammatical errors he came across in promotional advertisements. Beneath the banner, "Support your Egyptian-owned cinemas", Cinema Fouad offered a brief synopsis of the film it was then showing, from the few sentences of which El-Masri listed at least 10 fundamental mistakes involving gender concordance.

It is doubtful, however, that poor grammar was the cause of the eventual closure of Cinema Fouad which was the subject of a brief report in "Cinema and Entertainment". Mourning this development, it wrote, "Darkness has settled on this theatre because those who had sworn on the day of its opening that they would always patronise this Egyptian cinema, even if it were a stable, never fulfilled their pledge, thus depriving it of their piastres and their encouragement. With the closure of this cinema, the Egyptian Cinematographic Company folded, losing in the process about LE12,000."

In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, Abdel-Mughni El- Said, an Al-Ahram reader, wrote that there were many Egyptians who had never been to an Egyptian-owned cinema in their lives, yet instinctively frowned upon them merely because they were Egyptian and, on this basis, encouraged others to patronise them as well. He relates that he had asked a friend of his why he refused to go to Cinema Ramses which was currently screening the best films of the season. His friend responded, "Because the seats are filthy and teeming with flees." He asked a second person why he would not go to Cinema Fouad. "Because it does not show good films and because when you're inside you get depressed because it has a door that reminds you of a prison cell." Explaining his reluctance to go to Cinema Wahbi, a third person he questioned said that he refused to go to a cinema located down some alleyway and owned and operated by the "hero of propaganda and sensationalism". He was referring to the famous star of music, stage and screen, Youssef Wahbi.

Although he did not say so in so many words, El-Said was describing what is now commonly referred to as the "foreigner complex", the term for the attitude that foreign-made things are inherently good and Egyptian-made things are inherently to be scoffed at. This attitude has long plagued the Egyptian cinema, especially with the spread of foreign films and the influx of foreign capital to promote them. Clearly, it was no accident that cinemas located in the more affluent neighbourhoods bore foreign names such as Rivoli, Metro and Diana, as opposed to Ali Baba, Shobra Palace and Al-Sabtiya, names that immediately identified the cinemas of the popular quarters.

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