Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 June 2012
Issue No. 1103
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Panorama of Egyptian film

Some 80 years of Egyptian filmmaking are on display over the next two months at the Cinémathèque française, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Click to view caption
A scence from Al-Barie' for Atef Al-Tayeb

Opening on 13 June with a rare opportunity to see director Niazi Mustafa's 1937 film Salama fi khair and finishing some two months later on 5 August with Ossama Fawzi's 2004 film Baheb al-sinima (I love Cinema) the "Egyptomania" film season at the Cinémathèque française in Paris offers European audiences the chance to see over 50 films from the past eight decades of Egyptian cinema, including many emblematic if unfortunately sometimes difficult-to-find films.

While early planning for the season took place before last year's 25 January Revolution, strong European interest in events in Egypt has meant that this is perhaps a particularly promising time to mount a full-scale retrospective of Egyptian film. Several films being screened during the season take the 25 January Revolution as their subject matter, not least documentary filmmaker Safaa Fathy's Tahrir: lève, lève la voix, a powerful work-in-progress shown for the first time in Paris earlier this year. Director Mohamed Diab's film Bus 678, completed before the Revolution and dealing with pre-revolutionary themes, is also on general release in France, attracting large audiences and enthusiastic reviews.

More generally, now may be a useful time to take stock of the heritage of Egyptian film, given the strong interest being shown by the international public in the experience of dictatorship in Egypt and the country's ongoing political transition. Older debates about the country's representation in the international and Egyptian domestic media and about the kind of images that circulate on film or video have recently resurfaced, particularly when they have to do with the representation of social movements and politics. These debates, as old as the Egypt's film industry, provide an intriguing framework within which older material can be viewed.

The curator of the Egyptomania season is Magda Wassef, artistic director of the Cairo International Film Festival and former director of the biennale des cinémas arabes series at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris. Writing in the notes accompanying the present season Wassef says that the aim has been to help younger audiences, and foreign viewers, to discover something of the variety of Egyptian film from its beginnings in the early 20th century until the present day.

"The nostalgia felt by Egyptian people for their black-and-white film heritage has become something of a social phenomenon," Wassef writes. "Older people are apt to remember the good old days of their youth, when Egypt was cosmopolitan, tolerant and modern in its attitudes, while younger people are discovering a different society in which women demanded equality with men through viewing films made in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. They are also able to see the changes that have taken place in their country, told through the some 3,000 feature films that make up the country's film heritage and including musical comedies, realist, political and historical films and films d'auteur."

THREE MAIN PERIODS: Wassef has provided a useful framework for understanding this film heritage by dividing it into three main periods. First, there was the pre-Second World War period, which saw the growth of social and musical comedy as a dominant genre among feature films. Early works in this vein included Mustafa's Salama fi khair, starring Naguib al-Rihani, one of the stars of the time, and there were also the musical films made as vehicles for leading singers, among them Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, starring in The White Rose (al-wardah al-bayda, 1933, directed by Mohamed Karim) and Vive l'Amour (yahya al-hubb, 1938) and Umm Kalthoum. The latter starred in a series of musicals in this period, only giving up the genre in 1947 with Fatma, directed by Ahmed Badrakhan.

Wassef writes that the musical reached its height in the 1940s, when the difficult international context encouraged the development of films designed to entertain and give pleasure. Studio Misr, founded in 1935, began churning out such films, many of them starring the leading singers and actors of the time, including Leila Mourad, Farid al-Atrache and Samia Gamal. Some of these have since attained a legendary status in film history, among them Victory of Youth (intisar al-shabab), directed by Badrakhan in 1941 with al-Atrache and his sister Asmahan, one of the leading singers of the period. The latter died mysteriously in 1944 before filming could be completed on Love and Vengeance (gharam wa intiqam), directed by and co-starring Youssef Wahbi, the mystery possibly contributing to the film's success when it was released.

While the Egyptomania season contains few examples of films from this period, the subsequent one, beginning in the 1950s and particularly after the July 1952 Revolution, is notably well represented. A new regard for realism and social questions now replaced the frivolity of the earlier musicals, Wassef writes, with young directors like Salah Abou Seif, Henri Barakat and Youssef Chahine beginning their careers with films that explicitly dealt with issues of social class, under-development, and hopes of social and political transformation.

The career of Salah Abou Seif is well represented, with five films programmed from an exceptionally long career that started in the 1940s and continued well into the 1990s. These include The Leech (shabab imra'a) and The Tough Guy (al-futawwah) from 1956 and 1957, respectively, as well as three films from the 1960s, The Beginning and the End (al-bidaya wa-l-nihaya, 1960), Cairo in the Thirties (al-qahira talateen, 1966) and The Second Wife (al-zawga al-thaniyya, 1967). The Beginning and the End, starring Omar Sharif, Sanaa Gamil and Farid Shawqi, is an adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz's novel of the same name, published some ten years before, and this period in general saw an explosion of films adapted from novels. Some of these are of very high quality, such as Abou Seif's version of Mahfouz's novel, while others are much less so, such as Hassan al-Imam's versions of Bayn al-Qasrayn, Qasr al-Shawq and Al-Sukkariyyah, the three novels that make up Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy.

Al-Imam's version of Al-Sukkariyyah (Sugar Street) is being screened during the retrospective (made in 1973 and starring Nour al-Sherif), but not the two previous adaptations, made in the 1960s. Watching this film again, one was reminded of how little it resembles Mahfouz's novel, with much of the political analysis being stripped away ॥circ;" the novel is set in the difficult political environment of the 1940s ॥circ;" and replaced with song-and-dance routines. His version of Mahfouz's 1947 novel Midaq Alley (zuqaq al-midaq, 1963) is also being shown. Al-Imam enjoyed a remarkably long career as a filmmaker, making his first film in 1947 and his last in 1986 and sometimes working at a rhythm of five or more films a year, most of them unashamedly commercial. One of his most successful, Beware of Zouzou (khalli balak min zouzou, 1972), with Souad Hosni and Hussein Fahmi, the story of a university student, Zouzou, invited to leave behind the louche world of her childhood in favour of a middle-class existence, is included in the retrospective.

However, the literary adaptations made by Abou Seif and al-Imam are hardly alone among the films of similar type selected for Egyptomania, which includes some of the best-known classics of this strand of Egyptian cinema. Among these are further adaptations of novels by Naguib Mahfouz, including Chit-Chat on the Nile (tharthara fawq al-nil, 1971), directed by Hussein Kamal, and Al-Karnak (1975), directed by Ali Badrakhan.

Henri Barakat's 1959 film version of Taha Hussein's 1934 novel The Call of the Curlew (Dua' al-karawan) is also being screened, this dramatising the escape of a young woman from the village life of her childhood towards the broader horizons of the city and starring Faten Hamama, Ahmed Mazhar and Amina Rizq. There is also Youssef Chahine's 1970 film version of Abdel-Rahman al-Sharqawi's 1954 novel Egyptian Earth (al-ard). From a slightly later period there is director Khairy Beshara's film The Necklace and the Bracelet (al-tawq wa-l-iswarah), made in 1986 and based on a novella by Yehia al-Taher Abdullah.

Following a long period of expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, often under state control, Egypt's film industry entered a new phase of uncertainty and sometimes shrinking horizons in the 1970s, Wassef writes, though the immediate result of this was a careful re-examination of the past in films that were either implicitly or explicitly critical of the regime and could encounter problems with the censorship as a result. Among these films, causes célèbres in their day, are Hussein Kamal's Touch of Evil (sha' min al-khawf, 1969), apparently clearing the censor only as a result of the intervention of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Chahine's The Sparrow (al-usfur, 1974), a critical examination of the 1967 War banned for some years in Egypt, and, of course, Badrakhan's Al-Karnak, an attack on the "centres of power," or personal fiefdoms, that had apparently flourished under the Nasser regime. All these films are being screened as part of the retrospective.

Of the cinema of the 1980s, marked by the emergence of new directors such as Atef al-Tayyeb, Mohamed Khan, Daoud Abdel-Sayyed and Khairy Beshara and sometimes described as being a period of a new realism in Egyptian cinema, Wassef writes that the corruption and emergence of the nouveaux riches associated with the Open Door Policy introduced by former president Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s, followed by al-Sadat's assassination in 1981, led to a new malaise, but also a new interest in understanding and representing social movements and politics on the part of Egyptian filmmakers. Major films from this period included in the retrospective include four films by al-Tayyeb ॥circ;" The Bus Driver (sawwaq al-otobus, 1983) Love on the Pyramids Plateau (al-hubb fawq hadabat al-haram, 1986), The Innocent (al-bari', 1986) and A Hot Night (layla sakhena, 1994) ॥circ;" and two by Mohamed Khan ॥circ;" Dreams of Hind and Camelia (ahlam hind wa kamiliya, 1988) and Wife of an Important Man (zawgat ragul mohim, 1988).

Al-Tayyeb's films typically deal with social and political subjects, from The Bus Driver, with Nour al-Sharif and Mervat Amin, which examines the disorientation of life in the 1970s in the wake of the changes brought by the Open Door Policy, to A Hot Night, also with al-Sharif, which shows the economic difficulties of members of the urban lower middle classes. Al-Tayyeb teamed up with one of the emblematic actors of the 1980s and 1990s, Ahmed Zaki, who appears in Love on the Pyramids Plateau as a young man unable to get married for economic reasons, as well as in The Innocent, where he plays a new recruit and soldier. During the same period, Zaki also appeared in several films directed by Mohamed Khan, among them Dreams of Hind and Camelia, a film dealing with restrictions on women's lives and also starring Naglaa Fathi, and The Wife of an Important Man, in which Zaki plays the eponymous "important man," a member of state security.

According to Wassef, recent years have seen the development of a new underground cinema and one that deals with a new frankness with social and other themes. This development she traces back to Hany Khalifa's 2004 film sahar al-layali, starring Mona Zaki and Khaled Aboulnaga, which presents young middle-class couples searching for some measure of social and financial security, as well as to low-budget, independent films, latterly made using hand-held cameras and video, such as Mohamed Mustafa's awkat faragh (Free Time), unfortunately not included in the retrospective, and Ahmed Abdallah's Microphone (2011). The latter film examines the lives of young residents of Alexandria in search of the city's underground music scene.

In addition to films that can be assimilated to various genres or slotted into different periods, there are also others that are more sui generis in character but that have to be included in any retrospective of Egypt's film worthy of the name. Among these are al-momia (The Night of Counting the Years), made by Shadi Abdel-Salam in 1969, one of the most important Egyptian films ever made and presenting events surrounding a 19th-century archaeological dig in Thebes. Among them, too, are the autobiographical films made by Youssef Chahine at the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s described by Wassef as "first-person films." The first of these, Iskandriyya leh? (Alexandria, Why? 1978), is included in the retrospective.

The category could also include such popular hits as al-Imam's khalli balak min zouzou, perhaps not part of every history of Egyptian cinema, but representing a significant popular current within it, and the films of the always popular actor Adel Imam, who has had extraordinary success perhaps because he looks nothing like conventional ideas of a film star. Director Sherif Arafa's 1992 film al-irhab wa-l-kabab (Terrorism and Kebabs) and Nader Galal's al-irhabi (The Terrorist, 2002), both Imam vehicles, are included in the present retrospective, their political themes bearing witness to Imam's versatility as an actor.

Magda Wassef ends her notes on the retrospective by saying that "the new Egyptian cinema has not hesitated to attack taboos that frustrate freedom of expression" and that this new frankness, allied to the development of independent and underground film, has raised hopes of wider social change. Speaking at a round table designed to introduce the Egyptomania season, Wassef elaborated on these judgments by saying that film today was acting as a way of liberating expression more generally, which had been seen during and in the wake of the 25 January Revolution when "the barriers of fear" had come down, opening up new possibilities for political and social participation.

CHALLENGES AHEAD: Other members of the round table panel joined in this analysis, among them Safaa Fathy, whose documentary work-in-progress on the Revolution, Tahrir: lève, lève la voix, is being given a special showing, and Magdi Ahmed Ali, whose 1995 film ya dunya, ya gharami, was screened immediately following the opening event. For the time being, the participants agreed, main challenges facing film in Egypt had to do with the absence of a properly managed national archive of Egyptian films in Egypt itself, with the result that many films, particularly from the earlier periods, had been or were being lost, and what may be a growing distrust of filmmakers and filmmaking more generally in contemporary Egypt.

According to Magda Wassef, in choosing the films for the Egyptomania retrospective she had tried to select not only films that have been recognised as being of special importance, but also those that could be considered to be representative of various directors' careers, of different genres, or could have something interesting to say about the tastes of audiences. Many celebrated films have not been included in the retrospective, including early films starring Mohamed Abdel-Waheb or Umm Kalthoum, and there have been some striking later omissions. Why wasn't Kamal al-Sheikh's version of Mahfouz's novel Miramar included, for example, an important film from the late 1960s, or Chahine's enchanting 2004 retrospective on his own life, Iskandriyya-New York?

Many people will be able to come up with similar omissions, but one of the criteria governing the selection, Wassef said, was what had been available, in reasonable prints and subtitled for non-Arabic-speaking audiences. Anyone who has tried to purchase Egyptian films on DVD will know something of the problem that Wassef was referring to. Impossible outside Egypt, where only a handful of films, mostly from the last couple of decades, are available, shopping for films can also be a dispiriting experience in Egypt itself, with much of the back-catalogue being unavailable, even for well-known and important films. Many DVD versions that are available are of very low quality, some of them not working at all, and this is particularly true of films made in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s.

Whole areas of film heritage are being lost, Wassef said, since Egypt has no functioning film archive, or cinémathèque, unlike France, where the Cinémathèque française, a state institution, is charged with preserving and making available the country's cinematic heritage. According to Magdi Ahmed Ali, speaking at the Paris retrospective, the obligation on filmmakers to deposit a copy of their work with the national film archive has never been respected, there have been rumours of historical negatives being destroyed, sold off, or lost, and even such early film stock that does exist has often been neglected to the point of being unsalvageable, with serious consequences for the nation's memory.

It seems that some of these problems are now on their way towards resolution, though Magdi Ahmed Ali still described the situation as being "catastrophic." A more immediately pressing problem, the participants at the round table said, was the distrust of image-making that had been sweeping Egypt since last year's Revolution, such that anyone found filming could almost automatically be considered, at least by some sections of the population, to be a spy. There was a worrying new trend of manipulating filmed images for propaganda purposes, threatening the autonomy of the image and of the image-maker. According to Safaa Fathy, while the Revolution had seen an explosion in popular image-making, particularly through the use of guerilla video and graffiti art, the traces of this were now being effaced in what she described as a growing distrust or rejection of filmed representations.

Other speakers saw the situation differently, with panel-member Emmanuelle Demoris speaking fascinatingly about her own experience of making Mafrouza, a five-part, 12-hour film on the popular district of Alexandria of the same name, in the early 2000s. This marvelous film, screened last year in Paris in its entirety and reviewed in the Weekly in August, is being shown again as part of the Egyptomania season. In making it, Demoris said, she had been struck by the way in which everyday life in Alexandria was "traversed" by cinema, such that gestures, dialogue, and ways of acting and speaking were often consciously assimilated to remembered snatches of film or television, there even being an element of theatricality in the way people behaved in front of the camera.

For Magdi Ahmed Ali, the current climate of distrust towards films and filmmakers could be traced back to the monopoly exercised over image-making during the period of the dictatorship, with documentary filmmaking in particular having to submit itself to official purposes. The problem today was one of self-confidence, which explained the occasional accusations directed against filmmakers that they were "damaging the image of Egypt." Such accusations were the result of the long monopoly exercised by the state over films and film-making, with alternative, democratic voices often being marginalised and suppressed.

In the new climate ushered in by the Revolution, he said, such accusations would eventually disappear.

Ciné-Egyptomania, a retrospective in 50 films, at the Cinémathèque française, Paris, until 5 August.

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