Magda Wasif: Sparrow of the east
In the heart of Europe she gives Egyptian cinema a voice
By Samir Sobhi
She works far from the media spotlight, though she is regarded as France's leading authority on Egyptian cinema. And for more than three decades she has been tireless in her attempts to bring to the attention of Europe the achievement and evolution of an Egyptian art form that, from its inception, could vie with any other national cinema.
Among the works of which she is most proud is her book, One Hundred Years of Egyptian Cinema, while she dismisses her memories as "not that important".
Wasif sees contemporary Arab cinema as passing through a vitally important stage.
"There is," she believes, "a new generation emerging in Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt and the Gulf. Their cinema is all about escaping from old traditions armed only with the camera and the pen. These were the ideas that drove cinema in the 1950s, and now they are becoming a reality."
She started working in film as a translator. Today she is a cinema critic, director of the Institute for Arab Cinema in Paris and the organiser of an annual Arab film festival in the city. In Paris she lives, along with her two daughters from the late artist Alfred Mikhail.
She may seem to carry her heart in her palm, but Magda Wasif possesses the most discerning of minds. She is like a human computer, recording all about her as she selects Arabic films and screens them in the heart of Paris, assessing their impact in the city.
Together we were companions in Paris, seeking a livelihood and success. She resides like the Egyptian sun, and many are attracted into her orbit by the promise of warmth so clear in her smile.
In 1998, to commemorate 200 years of ties between Egypt and France, she organised the Cleopatra night at the Cairo International Film Festival. Such one- off celebrations appear to be to her taste, and she followed up the Cairo evening with A Thousand and One Nights at the Institute du Monde Arabe.
In France she has compiled an extraordinarily comprehensive library of films books and magazines. She has been honoured by the French government for her role in bringing Arab and French culture closer together, and newspapers regularly describe her as Egyptian cinema's ambassador in Paris.
She received her doctorate from the Sorbonne for a thesis based on the portrayal of women in 10 films, including The Heron's Cry, The Land and The Granaries. At the heart of her thesis was the question of whether or not Islam had played a part in the development of female roles in Egypt. It was tradition, rather than religion, she concluded, that had played the major role.
Napoleon's military-scientific invasion entranced the historian Abdul-Rahman Al-Jabarti.
The same thing happened with Sheikh Refaa Rafi' Al-Tahtawi, whom Mohamed Ali Pasha selected as imam to the students' who were part of Egypt's first scientific delegation to France. On his return he became the pioneer of Egypt's rationalist movement, ushering in an age of Westernisation and openness to Europe.
The experience repeated itself with a succession of scientists and authors, including Ali Pasha Mubarak, Egypt's first engineer and later, the Khedive Ismail's minister of public works, Hussein Fawzi, Taha Hussein and Tawfiq Al-Hakim, who recalled his life in Paris in A Sparrow from the East.
Like Al-Hakim, whose tale revolved around the life of an Egyptian living in Paris, Wasif too was smitten with the city. She describes her first experiences of Paris in words strikingly similar to those of Al-Hakim, recalling "the heavy rain falling and people scurrying to hide under the fringed awnings covering side-walk cafés".
She still lives in Paris, travelling to Cairo once a year to catch up on what is happening and to acquaint herself with recent books and films.
In recalling the events that have made up her life Wasif says she found herself through cinema.
She remembers the French school run by nuns in Heliopolis where she first studied. When it came to choosing a subject to read at university she was inclined towards French. But when she visited the French language department at Cairo University's College of Arts she was told that, after she graduated the only job she would be able to find would be as a French teacher. She decided to study business and though she later reconsidered a return to the Faculty of Arts she was advised to stick to the subject she had chosen.
Nine months after her graduation in business management in 1968 the Ministry of Employment found her, and four others, posts at the Academy of Arts in Giza. She speaks fondly on one of the four, Laila El-Qalyoubi, and of her work in the public relations department which involved meeting various delegations and organising their itineraries while in Egypt. And then, barely a month into her new job, she was invited to pursue higher studies at the Faculty of Arts, then run by Moussa Haqqi.
"My teacher in the screenplay preparation class was an old French gentleman called Lomban. I used to provide simultaneous translations of his lectures for the other students. His first lecture was attended by 12 students in addition to myself, including the by- now well-known critic Youssef Sherif Rizqallah who at the time had just graduated in economics."
Wasif's only acquaintance with cinema up till that point was, she says, gleaned "during weekly visits to Cinema Normandy in Heliopolis either with my father and mother, or alone."
She was, however, "encouraged by Lomban, who was of course a wonderful director who had made a film with the French actor Gaidar Phillipe, someone I later worked with for two years."
She took a course in film criticism and passed. And then, she says, "the first thing I did was to translate an article about political cinema."
It was 1970, and the article caused something of a stir. It was recommended by the director Kamil Al-Qalyoubi and the well- known critic Abdel-Fattah El- Gamal published it in Al-Misa newspaper in 1971, devoting an entire page of the culture section to the piece. It was then that Wasif went for a short holiday to Paris.
"I went to see the Paris Biennale," she says of the trip, "and used what little money I had to live in youth hostels. I stayed about a month. I met the director Atiya Al-Abnoudi in Paris, and got to know people of a great many different nationalities, including a lot of Algerians and Moroccans."
She learned how to move around in Paris "and how to ride the metro". And when she returned to Cairo she "longed to go back to France".
In 1972 she met the theatre expert Alain Deviegre at the Faculty of Arts. Wasif helped him stage Moliere's The Women and through the project met the actors Ahmed Ratib and Ahmed Halawa, working with them for a year. In 1973 Wasif took two months holiday and returned to Paris.
"I tried to enroll at university but the fees were enormous, 100 to 120 francs, and I only had 200 francs on me at the time. With only a month left I started working as a babysitter, and it proved to be a turning point. I took a room in the house I was working in. I'm still living in the same quarter today, but in a different house of course. I'll never forget the day I took the room -- it was 2 September, 1973."
Eventually Wasif did manage to enroll, and while at university she regularly sent Abdel-Fattah Al- Gamal reports about cinema for publication in Al-Misa. She also started writing for the magazine Al-Mustaqbal, edited by the Lebanese journalist Nabil Khouri.
"That provided my entry into cultural activity abroad," she says. She also wrote for the Cinema Afriquie-Asie magazine.
"My days were full," Wasif remembers. "There was experimental art, discussions on African art, defending the new cinema. In 1977 I was working at Al- Mustaqbal from 11am in the morning to 7pm and then I would go off to the university in the evening to watch three films or more. In the morning I'd be working with Nazih Khatir and at night I'd be studying like mad. Then, when the Lebanese staff returned home I began writing film criticism in Arabic for the magazine. It was a job I would hold for the next 10 years."
"Once I went to Nancy to attend the international theatre festival. The festival director was Jacques Lang, who went on to become the French minister of culture, a position he held for 14 years. I had to send an article about it to the magazine and I thought I didn't have time. Then I received a lecture from the editor on the art of writing on planes."
Her interest in cinema, and in Arab and Egyptian cinema in particular, flourished. And she became especially fascinated by the depiction of peasant women in many of the most significant films of the 1960s.
Eventually she became involved in the Paris-based Festival of Egyptian Film and in the activities of the Institute du Monde Arabe. She wondered at the crowds that gathered whenever an Egyptian film was being shown, and at the fondness felt by the public for the likes of Magda Al- Sabahi, Omar Sharif, Marie Queenie and Kamal Al-Sheikh.
"I learned something very important in this period -- that cinema is political and everybody understands it from that perspective. America used cinema to take over the world -- defeating the bad guy and saving the weak."
Acknowledging the importance of organisations like the Institute du Monde Arabe in promoting Arab cinema in France, she began increasingly to work with them. Together they organised a short festival honouring Omar Sharif. Under the general title The East: Legend and Reality, a representative cross-section of his Egyptian and international films were screened.
The glory days of Egyptian cinema, Wasif concedes, appear to be a thing of the past. The industry today suffers from "extraordinary problems".
"There is an over-abundance of actors, sporadic censorship, low production values."
Furthermore, she says, "there are distribution problems, and increased competition from television stations."
Until these problems are solved, she believes, Egyptian filmmakers must be able to appeal to institutions and organisations to find help in sourcing funds.
"But even on this count," she says, "there is a general lack of knowledge about where to look and who to approach for financial and technical support."
"At the Institute du Monde Arabe, for instance, we have a Southern fund, which supports the development of screenplays written in the third world. A committee of five or six specialists decides which scripts deserve support. The grants have ranged between 500,000 and 1,000,000 francs (between 76,34 euros and 152,67 euros). The only condition is that the screenplay be written in both the language of the country of origin and French, and an initial budget attached. The script can then be sent to the fund during the submission period and the selection process."
Yet despite the potential offered by such grants, Wasif says, "Egyptian filmmakers, unfortunately, seldom apply."
"They prefer to look elsewhere rather than accept conditions from a producer, especially as regards choosing actors. The time has come to take a break from this vicious circle. If we manage it, we'll be able to produce high quality, challenging films and in no time at all Egypt will be able to reclaim its pioneering position. A new generation of Arab filmmakers are capable of breaking new ground and incorporating the latest technology."
photo: Mohamed Wassim