Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 October 1998
Issue No.397
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Dumb and beautiful

By Mohamed El-Assyouti

Battleship Potemkin
Film is, above everything, a visual experience. And in the earliest discussions of cinema as an art, two main trends emerged: one stressed the importance of cinema reflecting reality while the other argued that the importance of cinema was precisely in its divergence from reality. Yet despite the head on clash between the two, film pioneers from both camps agreed on one thing: that the movies should remain silent.

Going to the movie theatre was like going to the opera house, formally dressed. Reading the title cards while enjoying the musical performance was thought of as rather elegant. Long before they lifted the ban on using inappropriate language in the cinema, the spoken word was dreaded because of its negative contribution to the contemplated picture. Today, encouraged by technological advances, loudness has become necessary, with outspokenness and verbosity often replacing subtlety.

Repaying a long overdue debt to the art of film, the Ministry of Culture, in association with a number of European cultural centres, organised a festival for silent films, intended to duplicate the success of last year's Railroad Film Festival involving the same parties. It may also, or so the rumour circulating at Cairo Opera House goes, mark the beginning of an annual festival for silent films.

Before each screening, a representative of the cultural centre or embassy responsible for providing the reels gave a short briefing, in his native tongue, on the background of the film. Despite recurrent mistranslations, provoking bursts of laughter from the expectant audience, the introductions helped viewers to place the films they were about to see within relevant contexts.

The Egyptian-European Festival for Silent Films with Live Music may well be a mouthful, but it provided a vehicle for the screening of an unprecedented number of rarely seen classics. And the inclusion of live musical accompaniment allowed audiences to partake of the atmosphere in which such films were originally screened.

Keep it silent was chosen as the festival's slogan, something some members of the audience found difficult. The intertitle cards in the Hungarian, Slovakian, Italian and French films had neither Arabic nor English subtitles. Some members of the audience, especially the students of the Faculty of Applied Arts who were compelled to sit through three hours of Cabiria, seemed intent on drowning out the music. So much for viewing habits corrupted by the talkies.


The silent film festival gave us a taste of the cinematic feasts our forefathers enjoyed even if, instead of the 80-member orchestra and 70-member choir that accompanied Cabiria in 1914, we had to settle for the more modest, if uninterrupted, piano playing of Alice Michahelles. Over almost three hours Michahelles managed to resurrect Ildebrando Pizzetti's original score which contrived, with seeming spontaneity, to follow the rhythms of the film as various musical themes emerged one from the other, alternated or gradually shifted into a climax or a fade.

Pastroni's Cabiria is an epic film, stretching cinematic conventions to theatrical and operatic extremes. With wide lenses and deep fields, the camera is either fixed or describes a slow horizontal movement in imperceptible pans. Two-dimensionality is stressed in accordance with the almost fanatic formalist attitudes of the time. The distance of the spectators from the screen -- just as in the theatre -- remained palpable. The audience was not to be allowed to enter the space where the action takes place.

Cabiria contains some of the most famous scenes in film history: Hannibal crossings the Alps with his army and elephants; the eruption of Mount Etna; the symphony of fire in Molock's temple; the destruction of the Roman fleet at Syracuse by means of the sun-reflectors of Archimedes. Multiple exposure, combined with the scenes shot on the specially constructed sets in Turin and those shot on location in Tunisia, Sicily and the Alps, contributed to the spectacle.

The production created a cinematic legend. Extravagant sets and costumes, an artifice fit for the grandest of grand operas combined with photography that has seldom been surpassed, have secured Cabiria's legendary status.

Cabiria was first screened on 18 April, 1914 in a 210 minute version. The restored copy screened here was the shorter and more available 162 minute version. Fortunately the print was in excellent condition.

Whereas Pastroni's formalism necessitated smooth transitions which music was to bridge, Eisenstein's sharp, jagged transitions were emphasised in original scores by Edmund Meisel and Nikolai Krynkov, and later Dimitri Shostakovich.

The first screening of Battleship Potemkin was disappointing. Having watched it several times on video, I was keen to see it in the cinema with Shostakovich's live music. The music did not materialise, though -- compensation of a sort -- the second projection of Battleship Potemkin was accompanied by a live piano performance.

The Russian intertitles included Arabic subtitles though the story of the rebellion on the ship is self-evident and the title cards are of little importance to viewing this masterpiece.

For most of the 71 minutes silence really did rule, though on occasion some members of the audience, loath, perhaps, to abandon dialogue so completely, felt compelled to provide a live voice-over narration for their friends.

Cabiria and Potemkin are landmarks -- any screening of them becomes an important cultural event. Other items in the festival, though, accrue significance largely because of their pioneering status. La Première Séance and Planètes Lumière include the earliest scenes ever captured on film. The camera is here used as an instrument to record. Planètes Lumière is a collection of 28 different shots, averaging a minute each, taken by Lumière's students between 1896 and 1900. They cover a great geographic expanse, and Yehia Khalil's jazz band aptly changed the tunes so as to include distinguishable notes for each country on screen. When shots number 18 and 19 appeared there was a general applause for the first pictures of Egypt in the movies, and this despite the fact that, while most of the 28 shots show people, shot number 18 was taken from a boat on the Nile and shows a field on the bank.

The second nostalgic documentary collage of shots was taken by Mohamed Bayoumi between 1923 and 1930. Apart from the people who inevitably wave at the camera, a general mood of patriotism prevails in the footage. Political leaders form the focus of many shots while the masses fill almost every single frame. Hassan Sharara on violin accompanied this screening as well as the 12 minutes of the first Egyptian narrative film, also produced and directed by Bayoumi.

Barsoum Looking For A Job, 1923, was the opening film at the UNESCO celebration of the centenary of cinema in Paris on 9 January in 1995, the International Year for Tolerance. It depicts the friendship of Sheikh Metwalli, a Muslim, and Barsoum, a Copt, both competing for the same job at a bank. The bank's director mistakes them for rich businessmen and invites them to lunch only to throw them out when he discovers their true identity. They lie laughing on the sidewalk until a policeman arrests them.

In one scene Barsoum prays in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary under which are depicted both a crescent and a cross and a photograph of Saad Zaghloul, the leader of the 1919 Revolution, with the motto "Religion is for God, the Nation is for all" inscribed on it. The film, which was restored under the supervision of Mohamed Kamel El-Qaliouby, starred Beshara Wakin, a Christian in the role of the Muslim, and Abdel-Hamid, a Muslim in the role of the Christian, as well as the Jewish actor, Victor Cohen, in the role of the bank director. This manner of cast and characterisation was repeated in several other comic films and made obvious even in their titles: Hassan wa Morqos wa Cohen and Fatma wa Marika wa Rachel, for example.

Bayoumi's 12-minute film -- low budget, produced, directed and, probably, financed by Bayoumi -- is an early example of independent cinema. And today, 75 years later, a growing number of film makers are emulating Bayoumi's initiative, relying increasingly on their own resources to bypass the restrictions imposed by mainstream productions.

Keep It Silent presented another narrative film, Janosik, that was the first in the history of its country as well as being independent. This 1921 Slovakian film, centered on a revolutionary national hero, was a one-hour long feature produced by a group of Slovaks living in Chicago. The film, if anachronistic in its mise-en-scene, is sharp in its assault on feudalism. Janosik's silent suffering and death are as loud as, if not louder than, the dying William Wallace's cry of "freedom" in the close of Mel Gibson's Braveheart.

The composer and film director Mariàn Curko improvised on the piano during the screening of the film which survives in a single copy. Lost for 50 years, Janosik was only rediscovered in 1971 in a Chicago garage and was in a terrible condition. It was restored in Holland and the resulting copy, apart from a couple of shots reduced to still frames and ruined side borders at the beginning and end, has saved Janosik in its entirety.

From Hungary came a film about the poor and hungry: A Megfagyott Gyermek (The Frozen Child). The film depicts the suffering of a young child who, along with his mother and neighbours, is cast out of the village and goes to live in the slums of Budapest. He becomes an orphan, homeless, and eventually dies of cold and hunger. Lacika's death implicates an entire society. The frozen child, though, ends up in heaven where he finds his mother, now a queen, and the blind hurdy-gurdy man he befriended. He also travels on a rocking horse to visit his young girlfriend Terike in her dreams.

Such fantastical twists are typical of Hungarian cinema. The intertitles, incorporating numerous poems, occupied a little too much of the film's 45 minutes, certainly for those not fluent in Hungarian. The uninterrupted piano performance was played by Gàbor Kecskeméti.

The 1922 Sodom und Gomorrha from Austria was a statement against lasciviousness and licentiousness. The plot, influenced by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and which looks forward all the way to The Devil's Advocate (1997), involves a vision within a dream that lasts about half an hour both digetically and on screen.

The temptress stepmother seducing her son-in-law sees herself first as Lia, wife of Lot, then as the tyrant queen of Syria. Thanks to the exhortations of a priest she repents. Director Mihàl Kertész (who was to end up in Hollywood as Michael Curtiz) orchestrated numerous scenes with hundreds of extras either celebrating, or suffering divine retribution, revolting against the tyrant queen or engaged in a devastating war waged by the queen's lover and ally. The nature of such scenes justifies the almost indiscriminate use of fireworks as well as the chaotic movements of the crowds.

Sodom und Gomorrha serves as a vehicle for the struggles between superego and id: between a priest and a devoted lover on the one hand, and a seduced, semi-incestuous lover on the other. One can only hope that Freud managed to see this film in Vienna since it provides a contemporary cinematic illustration for his theories.

Instead of live music a recorded piano performance was played, and Richard Künzel of the Goethe Institute provided Arabic translations of the German intertitles to a grateful audience.

Erotikon (1929), the opening film of the festival, is a tale of seduction. Andrea, a daughter of a railway station guard, is seduced and then abandoned by George, an elegant overnight traveller. He leads a promiscuous life, the only constant being his adulterous affair with Mrs Gilda, which continuous as Andrea gives birth to a stillborn child. She marries a man who saves her from attempted rape and later befriends George. He seduces Andrea again and loses a game of chess to her husband who has guessed the nature of their relationship. When George is killed by Gilda's betrayed husband, Andrea discovers his unfaithfulness to her and returns to her husband.

Well shot, but a commonplace of its time, the choice of Erotikon as the opening film is puzzling. Yet since the film is the most recent of all the entries, the best preserved and restored -- by the National Film Archives in Prague, the French Institute in Prague and the Auditorium of the Louvre Museum -- and came with the accompaniment of a live performance by distinguished members of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the first night experience was remarkable. The silent film era was resurrected during 85 minutes in a series of immaculate images that seemed to have been shot and printed yesterday.

The festival also treated audiences to non-narrative and avant-garde early films: Berlin, Symphony of the Big City (1927) by Walter Ruttmann, and three French avant-garde films supplied by the American University in Cairo, Leger and Murphy's Ballet Mécanique (1924), René Clair's Entr'acte (1924) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (1928). The last three, which had no live music, are representative of how alternative and experimental attitudes -- Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism -- towards film flourished in the Paris of the 1920s.

Showing most of the films twice was a good idea. That one wished the festival had lasted longer than seven days is testimony to its success. As with any new event, mistakes are inevitable, but the gratification from such a festival far exceeded any lapses. And perhaps the only serious shortcoming were the frequent noises and hummings from those members of the audience who simply could not keep it silent.