The filmmakers' blues
As the country celebrates the centenary of the first film made in Egypt, Mohamed El-Assyouti reviews one hundred years of silver
I have watched Egyptian cinema since the 1970s. While some films stand the test of time -- if you happen to see them on TV you will spend at least a few minutes paying your respects -- others, many others, leave a bad taste in the mouth. Below is some of what I think should be remembered, offered up strictly in the context of Egyptian cinema, whose importance derives in part from its popularity throughout the Arabic-speaking world. In terms of quantity there are some 3,000 features -- many times the number of films produced in other Arab film-producing countries. And unlike those made in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia or Lebanon, the vast majority of these were nationally produced. Today thousands of artists and technicians are turning out dozens of films every year, but contrary to their predecessors, quality is the least of their concerns -- all the more reason to review the past.
Through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, writers, poets and dramatists had a solid grasp of narrative technique. Inspired by, or even copying a Hollywood or a French film, they had the ability to produce a tightly structured script and credibly imbue it with an Egyptian flavour; still, besides these popular "imports", many films were based on the work of novelists like Taha Hussein, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Yehia Haqqi, Abdel-Halim Abdallah, Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, Youssef El-Seba'i and Latifa El-Zayyat. And talent was backed by perfectionism. It is true that the end result was by and large far from perfect, but even today, viewing this work, one senses the sincerity of the effort that went into them. Working under the helm of directors like Salah Abu Seif, Kamal El-Sheikh, Hassan El-Imam, Youssef Chahine, Tawfiq Saleh and Shadi Abdel-Salam -- themselves dedicated hard workers -- these people were less ambitious than simply and truly in love with cinema.
Today the screenplay of a mainstream film is a substandard replica of a Hollywood original. Less talented writers, less capable of engaging with their culture and less willing to undertake research, produce scripts not only unrelated to the society in which they live but should hardly merit the word "film". Such extended video clips have starred a range of actors, from Adel Imam and the late Ahmed Zaki to Ahmed Helmi and Mohamed Saad. Take Adel Imam for example; as a star his vehicles included copies of, no doubt among other features:
Gene Saks' Barefoot in the Park (1967) in Mohamed Abdel-Aziz's Khally Balak min Giranak (Be Ware of Your Neighbours, 1979);
Billy Wilder's Some like it Hot (1959) in Niazi Mustafa's Azkiaa Lakin Aghbiyaa (Smart but Dumb, 1980);
Daniel Mann's Hot Spell (1958) in Mohamed Abdel-Aziz's Ragul Faqad Aqluh (A Man Who Lost his Mind, 1980);
Mitchell Leisen's No Man of Her Own (1950) in Mohamed Abdel-Aziz's Ghawi Mashakel (Trouble-Seeker, 1980);
Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) in Mohamed Radi's Al-Gahim (Hell, 1980);
Fritz Lang's Woman in the Window (1944) in Mohamed Abdel-Aziz's Intakhibu Al-Doctor Suleiman Abdel-Basit (Vote for Dr Suleiman Abdel-Basit, 1981);
Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) in Ahmed Fouad's Laylat Shitaa Dafiaa (Warm Winter Night, 1981);
Ralph Nelson's Once a Thief (1965) in Samir Seif's Al-Mashbouh (Ex-con, 1981);
Ted Kotcheff's Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) in Mohamed Abdel-Aziz's Isabat Hamada wi Toutou (1982);
Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce (1963) in Nader Galal's Khamsa Bab (1983);
Delbert Mann's Lover Come Back (1961) in Nader Galal's Wahda Bi Wahda (1984);
Norman Jewison's The Art of Love (1965) in Samir Seif's Ihtaris min Al-Khutt (Be Ware of Al-Khutt, 1984);
Jacques Deray's Borsalino (1970) in Nader Galal's Salam Ya Sahbi (Goodbye Friend, 1986);
Dick Lowry's Wet Gold (1984) in Nader Galal's Gezirat Al-Shaytan (Devil's Island, 1990);
John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960, in turn a copy of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 Seven Samurai ) in Samir Seif's Shams El-Zanati (1991);
Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in Sherif Arafa's Al-Irhab wal-Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab, 1992);
Danny DeVito's The War of the Roses (1989) in Nader Galal's Bikhit wi Adila (1995);
Charles Shyer's Father of the Bride (1991, in turn a remake of Vincente Minnelli's 1950 version) in 'Aris min Giha Amniya (Groom from the Security System, 2004)
Quality varied, as it must with such a volume, and so did Imam's performance. But it wouldn't be entirely unfair to say that, even within this framework, Imam's vehicles reflected the gradual deterioration of quality. And this is merely by way of example: inadequate copies make up the bulk of the work of Egyptian film stars, who are usually too busy cashing in on their popularity to consider the substance of their work. Such copying did not even spare the masterpieces: two copies of Francis Coppola's The Godfather (1972) starred Samir Sabri in Ahmed El-Sab'awi's Al-Salakhana (The Butchery, 1982) and Nadia El-Guindi in Nader Galal's 'Asr Al-Quwa (Age of Power, 1991); and two copies of Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983, itself a remake of Howard Hawks' 1933 version) starred Nour El-Sherif in Mohamed Abdel-Aziz's Al-Fata Al-Shirir (The Evil Kid, 1989) and Ahmed Zaki in Tareq El-Erian's Al-Imbrator (The Emperor, 1990). The gangster-action formula has evidently been popular. But blind imitation was by no means restricted to it in film.
Besides comedies, psychological thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) became Nader Galal's Al-Wahm (1979) and Curtis Bernardt's Conflict (1945) became Kamal El-Sheikh's Al-Tawoos (The Peacock, 1982); even an erotic thriller like Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction (1987) became Ali Badrakhan's Nazwa (Slip, 1996), starring Zaki. In the arena of melodrama, plays made into popular Hollywood movies were repeatedly copied. Tennessee Williams' A Cat on Hit Tin Roof was made into Samir Seif's Qitta 'ala Nar (Cat on Fire, 1977), A Streetcar Named Desire into Tayseer Aboud's Inhiraf (Twisted, 1985) and Ali Badrakhan's Al-Raghba (Desire, 2002); Friedrich Dèrenmatt's Der Besuch der alten Dame was made into Tayseer Aboud's Sa'oud Bila Dimou' (I'll Return without Tears, 1981); Michael Cacoyannis' 1964 film of Nikos Kazanzakis' novel Zorba the Greek was made into Hussein Kamal's Ah ya Balad ah! (Oh, Country!, 1986).
Another classical favourite was the Abel and Cane melodrama: King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946) was copied in Yehiya El-Alami's Siraa Al-'Ushaq (Lover's Conflict, 1981) and Ashraf Fahmi's Al-Aqwiyaa (The Strong, 1982); and Roger Vadim's Et Dieu ...créa la femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) was copied into Hussein El-Wakil's Al-Ontha (The Female, 1986). More recently, films copied have included Luc Besson's La femme Nikita (1990) in the Ahmed El-Saqqa vehicle Mafia, Mick Jackson's The Body Guard (1992) in Mustafa Shaaban's vehicle Code 36 and Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1987) in a film with Sherif Mounir and Ahmed Rizq entitled El-Turbini. Such easy cinema, copying plot-lines, characters, situations and dialogue from popular Hollywood movies make the Egyptian screen a cheap reflection of Hollywood reality. The makers of these films presume that Egyptians are not willing to see themselves on screen and that they would rather live in this dream fantasy of being colourful, funny, singing and dancing.
Thus the predominance of swindling practices in mainstream cinema: from cooking up a script that is substantially a poor translation of an American screenplay, to assigning the direction of a film to a fresh graduate because he will be content with LE20 thousands ($3,500 approximately) as opposed to a bigger fee, in order to make his debut, to economising on essential production material such as lights, lenses, film stock and décor, to cutting the payment of an art director by half. This endless list of violations provides even more of a drive to capitalise on the success of emerging starlets, meeting preordained release dates in peak seasons without the least concern for the quality with which more serious filmmakers are concerned.
There are a handful of questions that, while they cannot be answered, make up the meaning of Egyptian cinema today: the search for quality in an industry with a relatively decent past but an increasingly bleak future; the weird and wonderful ways in which capital is invested in the film industry while it is lucrative -- due to Arab distribution in the 1970s, to video cassettes in the 1980s, to the government providing tax exemptions and other encouraging policies in 1990s and the increasing demand from satellite channels today -- but, when the stakes become higher due to economic change of tide, flees to other businesses; the increasing power of Saudi and Gulf investors and the monopoly of a handful of local distributors who dictate policies and control taste; the power of pseudo-stars, who, for the most part, lack talent and vision.
Despite the predominance of poor quality over the past decades there are a few noteworthy films made thanks to the individual efforts of filmmakers working against the odds: producers like Hussein El-Qala, directors like Mohamed Khan, Khairy Bishara, Raafat El-Mihi, Atef El-Tayyeb, Dawoud Abdel-Sayyed, Radwan El-Kashef, Osama Fawzi, Yousry Nasrallah and Atef Hatata, screenwriters such as the late Assem Tawfiq, Sami El-Siwi, Mustafa Zekri and Nasser Abdel-Rahman, art directors like Salah Mari'i and Onsi Abu Seif, and cinematographers like Tareq El-Telmissani and Samir Bahzan. These people were largely responsible for what little work of quality was produced over the last three decades. During the 1970s and 1980s, due to the slow transition from state-owned cinema to private production, with the added pressure of audio-visual saturation resulting from the advent of television, video and satellite, there were little resources available to filmmakers. Very old cameras and equipment and very cheap film stock and laboratory printing techniques were used. However, due to the will of the aforementioned filmmakers, a number of films from that period will remain outstanding in the first century of Egyptian cinema. These include:
Mohamed Khan's Maw'id 'ala Al-Ashaa (Date on Dinner, 1981), Ta'er 'ala Al-Tariq (Bird on the Road, 1981), Kharag wa Lam Ya'oud (Missing Person, 1985), Awdit Muwatin (Return of a Citizen, 1986), Zawgat Ragul Muhim (Wife of an Important Person, 1988), Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia, 1988) and Supermarket (1990);
Khairy Bishara's Al-Awama Sab'in (House Boat 70, 1982), Al-Towq wal 'Qiswira (The Collar and the Bracelet, 1986) and Yom Mur, Yom Hilw (Bitter Day, Sweet Day, 1988);
Raafat El-Mihi's Ouyoun la Tanam (Eyes that never Sleep, 1981), Al-Afoukatou (The Advocate, 1984), Lil Hobb Qisa Akhira (For Love, a Last Story, 1986), Al-Sada Al-Rigal (Gentlemen, 1987), Samak Laban Tamr Hindi (Fish, Milk, Tamarind, 1988), Sayedati Anisati (Ladies and Mademoiselles, 1990) and Qalil min Al-Hobb, Kathir min Al-'Unf (Little Love, Much Violence, 1995);
Atef El-Tayyeb's Sawaq Al-Utobis (Bus Driver, 1983), Al-Hobb Fawqa Hadabit Al-Haram (Love on the Pyramid's Plateau, 1986) and Nagui El-Ali (1992);
Dawoud Abdel-Sayyed's Al-Bahth 'An Sayyed Marzouq (Searching for Sayyed Marzouq, 1991), Al-Kit Kat (1991), Sariq Al-Farah (1995) and Muwatin wa Mukhbir wa Harami (A Citizen, a Detective and a Thief, 2002);
Radwan El-Kashef's 'Araq Al-Balah (Dates Wine, 1999);
Yousry Nasrallah's Sariqat Sayfiya (Summer Thefts, 1988), Marsidis (Mercedes, 1993) and Al-Madina (The City, 1999);
Osama Fawzi's 'Afarit Al-Asphalt (Asphalt Devils, 1996), Ganat Al-Shayateen (Fallen Angels Paradise, 1999) and Bahib El-Sima (I Love Cinema, 2004);
Atef Hatata's Al-Abwab Al-Mughlaqa (Closed Doors, 2001).