Before the partial curfew was lifted, people were glued to the screen, with many more Egyptians following Ramadan TV than usual.
As Eid approached Netflix announced it would be offering Egyptian classic stage comedies (as per the Eid tradition) to mark the occasion. Some of Egypt’s best loved plays – Fouad Al-Mohandes’s Sok Ala Banatak (Lock Your Girls In, 1980), Samir Ghanem’s Al-Motazawgoon (The Married Couples, 1979), the ensemble-cast Al-Eyal Kebret (No Longer Kids, 1979), the phenomenal hit, also with an ensemble cast, Madraset Al-Moshaghbeen (The School of Mischief, 1973) and Adel Imam’s Al-Wad Sayed Al-Shaghal (Sayed the Servant, 1985) – appeared side by side with Hollywood offerings and independent films from all over the world. Al-Eyal Kebret and Madraset Al-Moshaghbeen both feature Said Saleh, Younis Shalaby, Ahmed Zaki and Hassan Mustafa, with the latter also featuring Imam.
Sok Ala Banatak; Madraset Al-Moshaghbeen and Al-Motazawgoon
On the one hand this allowed Netflix to make up for the lack of new productions, on the other hand it provided the Egyptian – and wider Arab – audience with some of its most intimately cherished fare.
This month Netflix added 10 films by Egypt’s foremost auteur, the late Youssef Chahine: Iskendriya Lih? (Alexandria, Why?), Iskendriya Kaman wi Kaman (Alexandria Again and Forever), Al-Ard (The Land), Al-Mohager (The Emigrant), Salahdin, Al-Massir (Destiny), Seraa fil Mina (Struggle in the Pier) or known as Dark Waters, Awdat Al-Ibn Al-Dall (Return of the Prodigal Son), Hadouta Masriya (An Egyptian Story) and Seraa fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley) also known as The Blazing Sun.
“The ten films currently on Netflix were among 21 films that were previously restored within the framework of a giant project that began after the death of Youssef Chahine in 2008,” filmmaker Marianne Khoury – managing partner at Misr International Films (MIF) – told me. MIF, which was founded by Chahine in 1972, “needed to collaborate with a number of partners and to get various funds for such a gigantic project – to restore Chahine’s films, each one of which required a different path for its restoration due to a different co-producer in every film. For instance the films that were produced in France before 2000 that are eligible for certain funds thanks to their French producer,” she explained.
“Its like giving the film a new life,” she said after a pause. “Usually, film restoration is a very expensive process, but with the French government willing to support the restoration process of these films, the CNC [Centre National du Cinema] covered 70 per cent of the expenses on condition that the restoration should be carried out in France, while the rest of the expenses were divided between MIF and the French producer.”
Iskendriya Lih?; Hadouta Masriya; Iskendriya Kaman wi Kaman; Salahdin; Al-Mohager
In September 2018, marking ten years since the death of Chahine, a retrospective programme of 21 newly restored Chahine films opened Zawya art house’s new venue after its relocation.
Born in Alexandria, which haunts his best work, Chahine was the first Egyptian auteur to make autobiographical features. In the brilliant family study Iskendriya Lih? – which won the Berlinale’s Special Jury Prize in 1979 – Yehia, a stand-in for Chahine, witnesses World War II from his hometown of Alexandria while pursuing his dream to travel to the US to study filmmaking.
Though not available on Netflix, Chahine’s earlier masterpiece Bab Al-Hadid (Cairo Station, 1958) – nominated for the Berlinale Golden Berlin Bear – can be seen in its entirety on YouTube. In addition to directing, Chahine gives a brilliant performance playing the lead, Qenawi, the mentally unstable newspaper seller who grows obsessed with the local beauty Hanouma (Hind Rostom) to the point to committing a crime.
Netflix is also offering Seraa fil Mina (Struggle in the Pier or Dark Waters, 1956) and Seraa film Wadi (Struggle in the Valley or The Blazing Sun, 1954) both featuring Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama, in addition to the 1970 production Al-Ard (The Land), featuring Mahmoud Al-Meligi, Nagwa Ibrahim and Ezzat Al-Alaili, based on Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharkawi’s novel about the plight of the fellahin. The controversial Al-Mohager (The Emigrant, 1995), a thinly veiled version of the story of the Prophet Joseph featuring Khaled Al-Nabawi, Youssra, Mahmoud Hemeida, Hanan Turk and Safiya Al-Emari, was banned for breaching the Islamic injunction against portraying the prophets.
Chahine won two lifetime achievement awards: in 1997 at the Cannes Film Festival and ten years later at the Dubai Film Festival.
“Netflix is one of the most important platforms around the world, if not the most important one,” Khoury told me, “and of course due to the quarantine circumstances, these platforms became significant in people’s lives. There are many platforms in Egypt like Watch It and Shahid besides and many others from different countries, but Netflix were interested in presenting something authentic for the Egyptian audience and so they bought some of Chahine’s films along with films by Yousry Nasrallah and others. The way I see it, Netflix is revitalising these films. These platforms have been available for a while now, but in the past three months, because of the quarantine, things took off in a new way.”
It will certainly help bring a new generation – and new audiences in general – to Chahine’s films, she concurs, announcing that Zawya is coming back along with the rest of the country’s movie theatres this week. As to the Panorama of the European Film, however, “Nobody in the whole world really knows what things are going to look like, especially regarding the cinema. There were film festivals cancelled. Of course reopening might not be safe, but the lockdown is killing industries and has a very negative impact as well.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly