Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Armenians on the silver screen

Hani Mustafa celebrates the Armenian presence in the Egyptian film industry

Al-Ahram Weekly

Like other Arab countries, Egypt provided Armenians who fled Turkish ethnic cleansing under the Ottoman Empire with a refuge as of the early years of the Great War. The massacres would go on until 1923, long after the fall of the Ottomans. Egypt had been practically independent of the Ottomans since Mohamed Ali Pasha signed the London Treaty with the Sublime Porte in 1840. It had since witnessed an educational, architectural and cultural renaissance, notably under Khedive Ismail. By the turn of the century, with sizeable Greek, Italian and existing Armenian communities, Cairo and Alexandria had become truly cosmopolitan hubs enjoying a high degree of multiculturalism and tolerance that thus became available to the Armenian newcomers.

No doubt Armenians had made a major contribution to economics and politics since the 19th century, but in the first half of the 20th century much expatriate presence centred on culture, especially the cinema. The turning point in the history of the industry happened in 1927 when the nationalist economist Talaat Harb established the Misr Company of Acting and Cinema, part of a much wider conglomerate. The company evolved into Studio Misr in 1935. Many businessmen followed suit, with the Armenian-Egyptian Hrant Nassibian founding a film lab in the same year. Nassibian developed, printed and produced numerous films through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He also made his premises available as a film set, thus becoming a fixture of the golden age of Egyptian cinema.

Likewise the cameraman Ohan Gostanian, who also manufactured camera parts, so much so that he provided the Al-Ahram Studio with all its hardware needs in 1945, saving it the need to import equipment. Gostanian continued to work well into the 1990s, providing the underwater camera cases for Nader Galal’s 1989 thriller Hell Under Water. He was famous until he died in 2001, one of countless Armenians who excelled behind the scenes. These include sound engineer Halebian, set designer Hagop Aslanian and editor Vahe Boyadjian, all of whom were pillars of the golden age of Egyptian cinema from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Better known to the Arab audience, however, are the Armenian-Egyptian stars who appeared on screen, entertaining viewers and building a solid repertoire, whether in commercial or in arthouse cinema. Among these stars was the child actress Fairouz (Peruz Artin Kalfayan), who was discovered by actor-director-producer Anwar Wagdi. She made her debut appearance with Wagdi in his 1951 film Yasmin, appearing with him again in Dahab in 1952. At the time she was hailed by the press as a child prodigy, and her films continue to see regular screenings on television, treasured by millions of viewers for their classical melodrama as well as song and dance performances and comedy episodes. Fairouz made a name for herself independently of Wagdi with Atef Salem’s Deprivation in 1953 and – together with her two sisters Mervat (Sirvart Artin Kalfayan) and Nelly (Nelly Artin Kalfayan) – with Seifeddin Shawkat’s Birds of Paradise in 1955.

While Fairouz stopped acting after that, Nelly went on to become one of the greatest household names with such films as Ahmed Yahia’s 1977 Torment Is a Woman, Nader Galal’s 1979 The Illusion and Samir Seif’s 1983 Ghoul as well as stage plays, television series and notably, in the 1970s and 1980s, Ramadan fawazir – the riddle programmes associated with the holy month. Another child actress who was to become a household name, starting with Niazi Mustafa’s 1951 Sousou, My Love, Hussein Sidqi’s 1952 The Happy House and Anwar Wagdi’s 1954 Four Girls and an Officer, was the Kalfayan sisters’ cousin Lebleba (Nunia Kupelian). Lebleba has since contributed to countless dramas of astounding range, including such arthouse landmarks as the late Atef Al-Tayyeb’s last film, Hot Night, in 1995, Osama Fawzi’s 1999 The Devils’ Paradise and Ayten Amin’s 2013 Villa 69.

Other notable actresses from the Armenian community include the celebrated comedian Mimi Gamal (Mary Nazar Gulian), the late Anjele Aram (who passed away in 2011) and the actress-singer Anushka (Anushka Garbis Tchaderjian), who played a notable role in the late Salah Abu Seif’s 1994 Mr K. The late Vania Exerjian was primarily a stage actress, but she made two notable arthouse contributions in the late Radwan Al-Kashef’s 1993 Leih ya banafseg and Youssri Nasrallah’s 1994 Mercedes.

It is worth noting, in this connection, that except for the late Armenian-Sudanese actor Ibrahim Khan (Ibrahim Ishkhanian), who passed away in 2007, no male Armenians made acting contributions to the silver screen. Khan’s credits include Said Marzouk’s 1975 The Culprits, Samir Seif’s 1976 Circle of Revenge and Kamal Al-Sheikh’s 1978 Ascending to the Abyss. Nor did the Armenian community make its own films dealing with Armenian topics, perhaps reflecting the interests of capital. The exception to this rule was a 1912 documentary on Armenian cinema by Vahan Zartarian, cited by historian Mohamed Refaat Al-Imam, which was sponsored by the Armenian politician, Egypt’s first prime minister Nubar Pasha Nubarian.

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