Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Going to the cinema

A new book provides intriguing first-hand accounts of cinema-going in 20th-century Egypt, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

While Egypt had one of the world’s earliest cinema industries, making films from at least the 1920s onwards, middle-class Egyptian audiences early on gained a taste for foreign and especially American films, relegating Egyptian films to usually less socially advantaged spectators. This is one of the findings to emerge from French writer Marie-Claude Bénard’s La Sortie au cinéma, a collection of interviews on cinema-going in 20th-century Egypt.

The interviews, some three dozen each of a few highly-charged pages, cover experiences of cinema-going from the 1930s onwards, and, with most of the interviews being conducted in the early 1990s, record experiences at the cinema to the late 1980s. There are some well-known names among those who agreed to be recorded, with film directors Henri Barakat, Salah Abou Seif, Youssef Chahine, Mohamed Khan and Atef al-Tayyeb, among many others, sharing their memories of cinema-going in Egypt.

Perhaps Salah Abou Seif, one of the Egyptian cinema’s most important mid-century directors, can be taken to speak for a whole generation when he says that he would eagerly go to the cinema on every possible occasion as a boy growing up in Cairo for the experience it offered as a window onto the wider world and a source of ideas for the kind of film industry he wanted to see develop in Egypt.

“I used to go to the cinema at 10 in the morning because I couldn’t wait, and then I would return again for the three, six and nine o’clock showings. I used to see all the films I could, very few Arabic ones, but in the 1940s some foreign films of really great importance,” Abou Seif remembers.

Youssef Chahine, like Abou Seif a member of the mid-century generation of Egyptian film directors, speaks of his childhood in wartime Alexandria “when one was submerged by American films, nothing but American films… detective movies, Charlie Chaplin films, musicals… On Thursdays and Saturdays we would go from one cinema to the next” to see the latest Hollywood fare, he says.

There were few Arab films at the time, and those there were did not always appeal to middle-class audiences. Cinema-going tended to be a highly socially stratified activity, with middle-class families going to the newer, often air-conditioned cinemas in the centres of Cairo and Alexandria to see usually foreign, often American, films. Other audiences, possibly not so well-educated, often preferred to go to local cinemas, less well-appointed, to see Arabic-language films.

Elaborate rituals grew up around cinema-going in the middle decades of the century, many of those interviewed remember. Students would go several times a week at least, director Kamal al-Sheikh remembers, “never alone, always in a group… [so that] we could go to a café to discuss the film afterwards.” Upper middle-class families would go together once a week to see the latest European or American films, cinema-goer Amina Rachid says of her childhood in Cairo.

“We never went to the local cinemas, only to those in the centre of town… We used to dress up, white socks and polished shoes, [and] my parents always used to telephone first to book tickets, I think in order to avoid queuing outside, something which would have been unthinkable at the time,” she says.

In the 1940s, “those whom we used to call ‘Arabs,’ in other words Egyptians from modest backgrounds, never used to go to the cinema, or only on certain Muslim holidays,” comment Mario and Huguette Rispoli, cinema-goers in their childhoods in Cairo and Alexandria. In fact, “the only people you ever saw dressed in galabiyyas [in the city centres] were servants doing shopping” or running errands. Young men would invite young women out to the cinema, always to foreign films, and well-brought-up young women would go to the cinema alone or in groups “while they waited at home until they had reached the age when they could get married,” comments director Tewfiq Saleh of the 1940s.

“They would go alone or with a sister or an aunt, often to the Monday morning showing,” he adds. Some cinemas in the centre of Cairo, such as the Metro, the Cairo Palace, the Radio, the Qasr al-Nil and the Diana Palace, “never showed Egyptian films,” Saleh says. Seating was divided into stalls, balcony and upper balcony and boxes, the latter used “in the 1930s and 1940s by people of a certain social level.”

Next door to the city-centre cinemas were cafés and cafeterias, such as the Excelsior café in Cairo. “On the second floor of the Rivoli cinema there was the Cyrus, a very chic tearoom.” People never ate or drank during films, and “once a film had begun there was always total silence. It was only later that vendors were allowed into the cinemas and started calling out the names of drinks,” he remembers.  

Cinema critic Mustafa Darwich remembers that when he was growing up in Cairo before the Second World War “cinemas were entirely places for foreigners, most of them English as they were the occupiers” of Egypt at the time. “During the War, all the cinemas were entirely taken over by English soldiers. They used to go to [Abbott and] Costello films, for example. I can still remember Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, which was on at three of the biggest cinemas in Cairo, the Diana Palace, the Metropole and the Royal. These cinemas belonged to foreign businessmen, Greeks mainly, who also used to own big outdoor cinemas such as the Paradise, the Saint James, and the Rex.”

The different audiences did not mix much, Darwich says, though in the 1930s there was a developing local audience for Egyptian films, among them “films with Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Umm Kulthoum that were modelled on American musicals and had a lot of popular success.” When cinemas such as the Royal, which ordinarily only showed foreign films, put on an Egyptian film “the audience completely changed in character. Foreigners used to go to the Metropole, the Royal and the Diana Palace. The Metro was an exception as some Egyptian families used to go there to see films like War and Peace and Gone with the Wind, along with films with Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey and Mickey Rooney.”

Things began to change after the 1952 Revolution, those interviewed agree, in part because the new regime established a quota system for foreign films and began aggressively to promote the local industry. Even so, Amina Rachid says that even as late as the 1950s middle-class families rarely if ever went to see Arabic-language films, cinema, above all when considered as an art form or as having cultural pretensions, having “nothing whatsoever to do with the culture of the country.” It was only with the appearance of Youssef Chahine’s film Cairo Station (Bab al-Hadid) in 1958 that things began to change, this film being an “Egyptian revelation,” she says.

Scriptwriter Ahmed Qassem says that in the 1950s “Arab films were only for those who could not read the subtitles” on foreign films. “We could not bear Mohamed Abdel-Wahab or Umm Kulthoum,” he adds, echoing cinema-goer Jacques Hassoun who remembers being “bored to death” in Arabic-language films with singer Leila Mourad and “all those syrupy romantic films… full of songs ending with ‘ya habibi, ya habibi’.”

Slowly, however, things changed as middle-class audiences discovered that the new Arab films had both artistic pretensions and intellectual content. The 1950s ushered in what is commonly seen as the golden age of Egyptian cinema, with directors like Abou Seif, Chahine, Barakat, al-Sheikh and others interviewed here making ambitious films that have since become classics of the industry.

Actor Nour al-Sherif and director Khairy Bishara, interviewed here and both from modest Cairo backgrounds, give different views of the popular Arabic-language films of the period. Al-Sherif remembers that in the Cairo district of Sayeda Zeinab where he grew up there were five cinemas offering a different experience of film-going than that available in the larger cinemas in the city-centre.

Bishara says that when he was growing up in Shubra in Cairo people used to go to films “that gave pleasure, often seeing them several times. The films of the period, such as those with Ismail Yassine and Fayrouz, may not have been much to look at, but they were very much appreciated. They were the common culture of all Egyptians, maybe of all Arabs.”

With the nationalisations of the 1960s and the policies of promoting Arabic-language films and restricting the distribution of foreign ones, both the experience of cinema-going and the films on offer began to change. Director Asma al-Bakri says here that in the 1960s and after the nationalisations of foreign businesses in Egypt foreign films began to disappear from the country’s cinemas. After 1967, she says “there was nothing at all to see in Egypt. As I had a bit of money and friends in Beirut, I used to take the plane to Lebanon just to go to the cinema.”

However, at least in its earlier years the regime at the time had cultural ambitions that have rarely been equalled since, and director Atef al-Tayyeb remembers growing up in a Cairo in which the Czech Cultural Centre in 25 July Street and the Soviet Cultural Centre in Galal Street made a point of showing the latest Eastern European and Soviet films. “It was a time when we all admired the films of Eisenstein and Poudovkine,” he says, “and when we all learned how to really appreciate the cinema.”

Daoud Abdel-Sayed, with al-Tayyeb an important representative of the “cinema of the 1980s” in Egypt, says in an interview here that the policy of film distribution in the 1950s and 60s meant that important foreign films could readily be seen in Egypt. “Today, there is nothing at all, no attempt to make sure that a meaningful sample of world cinema” can be seen by Egyptian audiences, he comments.

Cinema-going itself has also changed, perhaps as a result of increasing urbanisation, with director Yousry Nasrallah, one of the youngest of those represented, complaining that after 1967 even central Cairo cinemas such as the Rivoli, the Radio and the Qasr al-Nil started to show “karate films” and cheap Bollywood musicals. Families never went to see films in the older cinemas anymore and audiences became younger and more exclusively masculine in character.

Interviewed in 1990, Asma al-Bakri says that “going to the cinema today in Cairo has become quite difficult.” Director Mohamed Khan, one of the most important directors of the 1980s and 1990s and still going strong today, says that “I only watch films on video today and I only go to the cinema when I am abroad and even then only for private showings.”

They were speaking before the development of the multiplexes that have grown up over the past two decades, of course, which offer American standards of luxury to the spectator. However, these plush new cinemas have not necessarily led to greater variety in the films that are distributed, meaning that we could still be some way off from the golden age of cinema-going in Egypt.  
Marie-Claude Bénard, La Sortie au cinéma, palaces et ciné-jardins d’Egypte, 1930-1980, Editions Parenthèses: Marseille, 2016, pp223.

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