Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2007
Issue No. 836
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

First things first

Salonez Sami traces the silver screen's emergence in Egypt

FIRST MOVIE: It was in 1927 that the first Egyptian feature film, Qubla fil Sahara (A Kiss in the Desert), was made. The movie was written, directed and produced by Ibrahim Lama, an American of Palestinian origin, who had settled in Egypt in early 1890s. The movie, which falls under the category of action flick, was shown for the first time on 5 May 1927 in the Cosmograph Movie Theatre in Alexandria. Lama's brother Badr played the lead, Shafik, a young Bedouin with an American sweetheart, Hilda, who is wrongly accused of killing his uncle. After becoming a fugitive, Shafik joins a gang in the desert and by coincidence meets up with Hilda -- they kiss; no sooner have they separated than his friend, come to find him, informs him that he was proven innocent; he follows Hilda and they live happily ever after.

Only a couple of months separated the showing of Qubla fil Sahara and that of the second Egyptian feature film, Layla, which was produced in the same year. Layla was to be directed by the Turkish filmmaker Wedad Orfi, who persuaded theatre actress Aziza Amir to produce the movie. However, after a quarrel between Amir and Orfi, Amir replaced her with Stephane Rosti. For a long time, Layla was thought to be the first Egyptian full-length movie because it was more successful than Qubla fil Sahara ; its opening Cairo attended by famous figures like economist Talaat Harb and poet Ahmed Shawqi.

FIRST "TALKIE": As was the case elsewhere in the world, the introduction of sound to film was a decisive turning point in Egypt. It gave local producers the chance to deploy the native language and local music, and to develop different genres such as the musical.

Onshoudat Al-Fouad (Heart Song, 1932), produced by Al-Nahhas Sphinx Productions, was the first Egyptian "talkie", with the sound produced in Europe.

Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Mario Volpi, the film was first shown on 13 April 1932 at the Rialto Movie Theatre in Alexandria, and in the Diana Movie Theatre in Cairo the next day. It was such a hit it had four instead of the standard two screenings. The film is classified as drama and tells the story of a married man, Hosni, played by George Abyyad, who falls in love with a Frenchwoman and ends up in jail after. The film was shot in Cairo and Sohag, and it raised much controversy among the expatriate community, who took issue with its portrayal of foreign women as manipulative betrayers. Awlad Al-Zawat (Aristocracy), written and directed by Mohamed Karim and starring theatre moguls Youssef Wahbi and Amina Rizq, came out soon afterwards in the same year, and it too raised eyebrows by discussing marital infidelity, again with a Frenchwoman. Both were commercial hits.

FIRST DOCUMENTARY: Cinema in Egypt was initially monopolised by foreigners, with Place des Consuls à Alexandria by Louis and Auguste Lumière being the first movie shot in Egypt in 1897. In 1907 the first Egyptian documentary, made Aziz Bandarli and Umberto Dores, appeared. Ten years later Dores established the SITICA film company in Alexandria, but after a studio was built and three short movies produced, the company went bankrupt due to the poor quality of the films and the producers' lack of cultural sensitivity. One of Dores films, Al-Azhhar Al-Momitta (Deadly Flowers), produced in 1918, was banned by the Egyptian authorities because it showed Qur'anic verses upside down.

FIRST MOVIE THEATRE: The construction of the first movie theatre in Egypt took place in 1906. Before that date, movies were shown in one of two places in the country: the Tousson Stock Exchange in Alexandria and the Hammam Schneider in Cairo. The first movie theatre was built by the French company Pathé in Alexandria. By 1911 Egypt boasted no less than 11 movie theatres, five in Cairo and three in Alexandria. Starting in 1912, those showed foreign films with Arabic subtitles. It took only five years for there to be 80 theatres across the country.

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