Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Cinema Rivoli: Film, music, history

Hani Mustafa remembers the rich cultural experiences of Cinema Rivoli

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feat
Al-Ahram Weekly

At the corner of 26 July (formerly Fouad) Street and Tawfikiya sits a faux-colonial building that has managed, for more than a century, to bear witness to Egypt’s cultural history.

Cinema Rivoli, opposite the Supreme  Court, offered film lovers the richest cinematic fare, from the purely commercial, with only entertainment value to give viewers some pleasure, to the artistic and the profound.

King Farouk, in 1944, attended the premiere of Gharam wa Intiqam (Love and Revenge), directed by and starring Youssef Wahbi, who was given the title of “Bek” on the occasion.

In the 1940s and later decades, national radio used the ample space that the Cinema Rivoli provided to present concerts by Um Kolthoum — one of which was attended by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer in 1955.

There was also a spring concert by Farid Al-Atrash and, later, Abdel-Halim Hafez. The cinema also hosted the Lebanese singer Laure Dakash. Cinema Rivoli was also witness to the Cairo fire of 26 January 1952, which was the major event that led to the fall of the monarchy on 23 July of the same year.

Cinema Rivoli was renovated just before the end of the 20th century, turning its huge, luxurious hall into five small theatres. The cinema is currently closed down. Part of its façade has been taken over by a clothes shop. It sits in the middle of the disarray that has taken over the area for months, with street vendors now occupying the area.

It is a trend that reflects the more general deterioration of public space, demonstrating a lack of interest on the part of the public and authorities alike in such historical venues. This is due, in part, to the economic recession, which has turned art into a mass commodity in many cases, as well as overpopulation in Cairo and changes in the constitution of the audience.

To follow the historical trajectory of cinema in Egypt is to follow the progress of musical tastes, as if the musical zeitgeist was the train that carried tastes in other arts. Shaabi music, which might be termed “urban folk”, was made in the traditional way: a lyricist wrote the words, a musician composed the tune and, while a small troupe played it, the singer performed.

Over the last ten years, a new genre of shaabi dance music called mahraganat has emerged. It uses electronic methods to produce something along the lines of hip hop but with an Oriental flavour. This form came out of working-class neighbourhoods like Amiriya and has proved very popular among the lower echelons of society and young people.

A song is called “a festival” (mahragan) because it is played at weddings and parties by a DJ who also sings. The first such stars were Amr Haha and Figo, followed by the singers Oka, Ortega and Shehta Karika.

By 2015, mahraganat had made the journey into cinema, where the music enjoyed a strong presence. The Oka and Ortega vehicle Four Cards, written by Hazem Metwalli and directed by Mohamed Gamal, offered a simple dramatic structure with plenty of mahraganat music.

Peter Mimi’s Crammed Alley, written by Mustafa Hamdi, included a mahragan by Hussein Ghandi and Zouzou Al-Gentle. Mahmoud Selim’s Pro Kids, written by Sayed Al-Sobki, starred shaabi singers Mohamed Lotfi and Bayoumi Fouad alongside the Oriental dancer Sofinar.

With weak plots and no acting or directing to speak of, such productions — notably those by Mohamed Al-Sobki — reflect the tendency to include such music because it is a selling point, especially in the Eid season films. A mahragan in one of these films led to a new troupe, Shobaik Lobaik, becoming famous.

In Ahmed Al-Badry’s Imbaba Republic, written by Mustafa Al-Sobki, the actor Bassem Samra tries to imitate the younger actor Mohamed Ramadan, whose role as a thug in such films has proved successful.

It too includes a mahragan by Hussein Ghandi. In this and other films, Oriental dancing and violence combine to create a particular style and a atmosphere, one that the public obviously likes. Many of the films did very well at the box office.

The two highest grossing hits this year were Hussein Al-Minawi’s Pulling Parts — in which Mohamed Ramadan, instead of being the marginalised young man forced into violence, plays a policeman — and Tarek Al-Eryan’s The Rizk Boys, starring Ahmed Ezz, Amr Youssef and Ahmed Al-Fishawi. Both were action flicks, and Al-Eryan reportedly used a special-effects team from Denmark for the action sequences.

As for comedy — another major source of box office revenue — the once phenomenal Mohamed Saad, who created the character of Al-Limbi in Sherif Arafa’s The Headmaster (2000) and Wael Ihsan’s Al-Limbi (2002), has continued to lose out in the new market. His latest feature, My Life in Tatters, written by Sameh Sirelkhetm and directed by Shadi Ali, was a significant improvement on previous films but was still weak.

Likewise, Mohamed Heneidi is another star of what has been termed new wave comedy. He made his name with Ismailia To and Fro (1997). This year his An Unnecessary Day, written by Omar Taher and directed by Ahmed Al-Guindi, was not as successful as had been hoped.

Nor did Hany Ramzi’s vehicle, Tuesday Sleep, directed by Ihab Lam’i, fare any better. Ahmed Mekki’s sidekick in the five-season comedy show Al-Kabir Awi (The Big Man) tried to move the character he plays, Fazza’, into the realm of stardom (just as Saad had done with Al-Limbi, who is a secondary character in The Headmaster), but it didn’t work.

Some highbrow films of artistic and intellectual worth in 2015 are worth mentioning, despite commercial cinema’s overriding presence. In the last month, two major auteurs, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed and Mohamed Khan, offered Paranormal Powers and Before the Busy Summer, respectively.

Hani Khalifa released his second film, Bittersweet, ten years after his first and very successful film, Sahar Al-Layali (2005). But the new film turns out to be little more than a much worse variation of the first.

The young director Amir Ramsis also released a good feature, Cairo Time, the last film in which the late Nour Al-Sherif appeared. Ramsis evidently hit the jackpot in 2015, since he is finishing off yet another film, Cornered, to be released in 2016.

The media has credited, or blamed, the Sobki family — butchers who moved into film production in the 1980s — with introducing the formula of mahraganat, with its dancing and violence. Many journalists and talk show hosts have in engaged in a largely moral, as opposed to artistic, film criticism campaign against the current head of the family, Mohamed.

None has acknowledged that Al-Sobki is the only company that has produced films without interruption since 2011, at a time when political crisis virtually paralysed cinema, following an earlier crisis that started in the 1990s.

While it is true that the Sobkis are businessmen who have successfully filled a commercial void, the change to which the film audience has been subject in Egypt is definitely worth studying. It would have been a different matter, of course, had the themes and settings of “the Sobki film” been used to make movies of higher artistic value.

But perhaps the return of an audience to the movie theatre to see such movies, despite the near absence of once-prominent theatres, is itself a sign of hope. A deeper understanding of the Sobki phenomenon would no doubt contribute to creating some kind of order out of the cultural chaos.

Be that as it may, one looks forward to the day when Cinema Rivoli reopens.

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