Ahead of the Cairo International Film Festival: Egyptian cinema at a glance

Dina Ezzat , Monday 1 Nov 2021

Ahead of Cairo International Film Festival, on the third week of November, a debate opens over the history and role of cinema in Egypt.

History of Egypt s silver screen

Some titles that came out this year, and during the past few years, could provide some ideas.

Publishing books on the history and production of Egyptian cinema has been picking up momentum during the past decade. A most fashionable theme is to try and offer a list of must-see movies.

This year, Tanmia Publishing put out its lengthy and informative volume Cinema Masr: A new visit to old films. Through over 600 pages, cinema critic Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour offers a read into over 70 films that he says have stood the test of time, “which really shows the quality of the production – way beyond any awards that a film could get at a certain moment in time, and way beyond the box office success that it could secure upon its release.”

This certainly goes way beyond any personal preferences. After all, in each “article” on each of the films he is re-visiting “with the joy of rediscovering something that one saw before,” Abdel-Shakour is sharing his reasoning on what makes his selection a perfect summary of the production of Egyptian cinema.

Unlike other titles on the issue, Abdel-Shakour did not adopt the obvious chronological order that starts with the 1932 first sound film in Egyptian cinema industry, Awlad Zawat (Children of Aristocrats). He is actually starting from the heart of what is arguably called the golden days of Egyptian cinema: the 1949 production Ghazal El-Banat (Young Girls’ Flirtations).

Starring the ultimate top stars of the 1940s, this musical comedy was the last film with Naguib El-Rihani. He played what Abdel-Shakour unequivocally qualifies as one of his top roles along with Laila Mourad, a top singer/actress of that decade and Anwar Wagdy, who co-authored and directed the film.

This movie, Abdel-Shakour wrote, is not just about the incredible stars that appeared in it, including the well-known Egyptian composer/singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab who performed his last singing act in the movie. It is rather, the author explained, about the fact that this movie carries the culmination of the skills and experience of all its highly talented cast who had been in the theatre-then-cinema industry for at least a couple of decades. 

Ghazal El-Banat, Abdel-Shakour added, is also a social-history testimony of Egypt of the late 1940s. The film is essentially about Ustaz Hamam (Mr Hamam), an ill-fortuned school teacher who can barely make ends meet and lands a decent paying job in the palace of one of the Pashas of the pre-1952 Egypt. Mr Hamam finds that his last salary is much less than that of some of the house-helps and he falls in love with the young, beautiful and fun-loving student, the daughter of the Pasha. 

In this sense, Abdel-Shakour wrote, this musical-comedy is a reflection of the glory of the film industry of its time as it is a reflection of the socio-economic discrepancies of the late 1940s.

The 1967 defeat and beyond

Cinema Masr then offers a selection of less than 10 films from the 1950s and 1960s, when the industry was blooming with state financial and political investment, before he moves on to show an apparently personal fascination of the 1970s films, especially those that reflect on the dilemma of Egyptian society right before and after the 1967 defeat – both directly and indirectly. Of those, Abdel-Shakour picks a movie that is not widely remembered today: Zaeir El-Fagr (The Dawn Visitor) – the reference often used, before and after 1952, to security officers who arrested political activists at the crack of dawn.

The movie stars Magda El-Khatib, who is also the co-producer, Ezzat El-Alaily and Youssef Shaaban. The first scene takes place on 5 June 1970, in an indirect reference to 5 June 1967 of the military defeat that left the entire society with an ineffaceable scar.

The starting point is an assumed murder of a journalist at her own Cairo apartment. This gave the film a profile of a detective story where the investigator, El-Alaily, is trying to identify the killer.

However, through the process of investigation, the movie reveals its real and profound political nature. At every step, director Mamdouh Shoukry, who co-wrote the film with prominent critic Rafik El-Sabban, sheds light on the political history of the journalist who has been subject to abuse and torture before and after 1952 for her political activism and who dies out of fear of being arrested again.

“A great film that comes at the forefront of a wave of cinema production that reflected on the defeat of 1967 and the political context of this tough moment,” Abdel-Shakour wrote. The film was produced in 1973 before the October War but was not passed by censorship for screening until 1975.

Of the production of 1975, Abdel-Shakour picked up another film that targets the failure of the regime to abandon the practices of corruption and nepotism that led to the defeat of 1967: Ala Man Notleq El-Rossas? (Whom Should we Shoot?), directed by Kamal El-Sheikh and starring Souad Hosny and Mahmoud Yassin. Again, the film starts as a potential thriller with a seemingly angry man, Mostafa, shooting at a corrupt construction tycoon, Rashad. As he tries to escape, a car hits Mostafa and the same ambulance takes both him and Rashad to the hospital fighting for their lives.

Through the film, El-Sheikh reveals the complex story of the failed dreams of a young generation who graduated from university in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “This is a daring movie that shows the eventuality of corruption and explosion and of unfairness and violence – it is a perfectly tailored production as is typical of all the works of Kamal El-Sheikh,” Abdel-Shakour wrote.

Of the more indirect political satire films that came out in the 1970s, Abdel-Shakour selects Embratoureyet Meem (Empire M), a 1972 production starring Faten Hamama.

Directed by Hussein Kamal, the film is based on a short novel by Ehsan Abdel-Koddous. Naguib Mahfouz wrote the script.
Essentially, as Abdel-Shakour wrote, “this is a film about a different generation that is loaded with worry.” As such, he adds, the profound message of the film goes way beyond the seemingly rebellious young men and women who wish to contest the authority of their caring and loving mother for the sake of a more collective decision-making approach. Ultimately, he adds, the film is as about the family as it is about the entire country. 

It is not at all insignificant, Abdel-Shakour wrote, that Abdel-Koddous chose the letter M that inevitably stands for Masr (Egypt). 1972, Abdel-Shakour reminds, is the year that saw the wide protests of university students in Egypt demanding the liberation of the land that Israel occupied in 1967 and political reforms.

On the hidden wounds

Abdel-Shakour’s selection also covers a range of cinema productions that skillfully approach some of the deep problems that society tends to bury, like the one on women’s virginity, the level of sexual liberation that women themselves are comfortable to embrace and the confused men who are trying to overcome their own misgivings. He picked the 1974 production Ayn Aqly? (Where is my Brain?), and the 2008 Geninat El-Asmak (The Aquascaping Garden). The first film stars Souad Hosny, Roushdy Abaza and is directed by Atef Salem; the second stars Hend Sabry and is directed by Yousry Nasrallah. 

In his 2017 volume 101 Films, of around 400 pages, which was translated by the American University Press, Sameh Fahmy, a prominent researcher, also chose some films that reflect on the complex problems women face in a conservative society.

Fatema, the 1947 production that stars the diva of Arab singing Um Kolthoum with Anwar Wagdy, who also directed the film, is about the battle of a woman to get her civil marriage acknowledged by a court of law. 

According to Fathy, it was prominent journalist Mostafa Amin who wrote the film at the very living room of Um Kolthoum’s house, who had already had successful musical movies since the 1930s, upon the true story of the upper class Fatema Serry, who sued Ahmed Shaarawi, the son of prominent Hoda Shaarawi, to acknowledge a daughter she had with him in an undocumented marriage.

Amin, to incorporate the theme of the class conflict, however, made Fatema in the film of a lesser-privileged status than her husband.

Class conflict in the pre-1952 society, Fathy noted, became a recurrent theme for cinema production after the rule of the July 1952 Revolution. He argued that one of the best movies that caught this theme was Youssef Chahine’s Siraa fil-Wadi (The Blazing Sun/ Struggle in the Valley), a 1954 production, starring Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif.

Fathy’s book also reflects on how the movies approached the complex issue of love and marriage through the years in great success films, including Chahine’s Enta Habibi (You are the One I Love), starring prominent singers Farid El-Atrash and Shadiya – a light musical comedy about the unwanted-turned-wanted marriage of two cousins; El-Wessada El-Khaliya (The Empty Pillow) of director Salah Abu Seif, starring Abdel-Halim Hafez and Loubna Abdel-Aziz.

Henry Barakat in 1959, Fathy wrote, offered a more profound take on a more complex kind of love in his adaptation of Taha Hussein’s masterpiece Doaa El-Karawan (The Curlew’s Cry/ The Nightingale’s Prayer), starring Faten Hamama and Ahmed Mazhar. 

Like the original novel, the film reflects on the inevitability of love even in the most peculiar of contexts as the one of a woman who aimed to avenge the death of her sister from a betraying lover but ended up falling in love with the same man, unable to take her revenge on him. The mischievous lover is also deeply in love and is willing to overcome all socio-economic barriers to marry the woman he fell for.

The art of adaptation

The selections of both Abdel-Shakour and Fathy include a lot more movies that are based on literary originals than Embratoureyet Meem and Doaa El-Karawan. Certainly, the names of Mahfouz and Abdel-Koddous appear repeatedly in both books – although it is not very clear who of the two gave the silver screen more original literary texts. Other authors whose novels and short stories have been adapted in prominent movies, which are referred to in the Abdel-Shakour and Fathy volumes, include Youssef Idris, Youssef ElSebaai, Yehia Hakky.

Actually, this year saw the publication of two titles that address the art of adaptation: Amir El-Omary’s Egyptian cinema and literature: A Love Story, of Afaq Publishing, and Adaptation from Literature to the Cinema: Stops of a joint history of El-Maraya Cultural Production.

El-Omary’s book, of over 350 pages, examines 25 films based on novels and short stories. In these films, El-Omary argues, some cases the films were very faithful and powerful reflections of the literary base they were built on despite some changes that were made to fit the cinematic requirement. Those, he argued, include, Shaie fi Sadri (Something in my Heart) based on Abdel-Koddous’ novel that depicts the story of a rich, corrupt man who spent his life chasing the haunting shadow of a poorer but more principled friend. The setting of the novel is one of a pre-1952 Egypt while in the adaptation that came out in 1971, director Kamal El-Sheikh effaced the time frame to allow for a wider political connotation.

Then El-Omary is also referring to El-Karnak, based on the novel that Mahfouz published in 1974 and worked with Aly Badrakhan to turn it into a film that carries the same name in 1975. It is effectively a story about the defeated dreams of a generation who believed in the 1952 Revolution but ended up being haunted and tortured by its political police – including the lead character Ismail, played by Nour El-Sherif, who is arrested and tortured twice, once as a communist and another as a Muslim Brotherhood. 

The novel and the film came out during the Anwar Sadat years to reflect on the atrocious human rights violations of the Gamal Abdel-Nasser years. 

Ahl Al-Qema (Those at the top) is another Mahfouz piece that was adapted to the silver screen only three years after the publication of the literary original. This book/film took the lead in criticising the repercussions of the open-door policy that Anwar A-Sadat introduced to the country after the 1973 War. 

In her contribution on the adaptation of Ahl Al-Qema to El-Maraya’s book “Adaptation from Literature to the Cinema: Stops in a joint history,” Amany Saleh Ibrahim argued that in and by itself the novel and the film directed by Aly Badrakhan, starring Souad Hosny, Nour El-Sherif and Ezzat El-Alaily, is compatible with the accounts offered by prominent economist Galal Amin on the transformations that the country/society went through with the open door policy. This, Ibrahim argued, is a key function of both literature and cinema.

Jointly edited by Salma Mubarak and Walid El-Khashab, El-Maraya’s book, of around 300 pages, is a compilation of articles that examine several aspect of the art of adaptation from the early decades of the 20th century into its late decades. One of the obvious conclusions that this book is making is that often enough the adaptation offers an added perspective, of both director and scriptwriter, to the original literary text which allows for an added dimension of creativity – with or without a great deal of commitment to the original text.

However, in her book The 1919 Revolution, of a little over 200 pages, that came out this year at Dar El-Shroouk, Dina Heshmat argued that at some cases these adaptations added to the creation of a rather inaccurate narratives on certain events like that of the 1919 Revolution which is mostly seen through the length of the first part of Mahfouz’s trilogy. Bein El-Kasrein” (The Palace Walk), Heshmat argued, offered a narrative, first as literary text and then as adapted to the silver screen, of a 1919 Revolution where the Middle Class was almost the sole mover of events. This narrative, she added, is inaccurate given the role of other segments of society. Moreover, according to Hehsmat, the novel, which came out at 1956, and the films that was created by director Hassan Al-Imam almost a decade alter, also over-emphaised some elements like the pacific nature of the revolution and the central role of Coptic-Muslim unity.

Inevitably, as Sameh Fathy wrote in a book that he published in 2018 under the title of Ehsan Abdel-Koddous Between Literature and Cinema, in 200 pages, it would have been impossible to imagine the history of Egyptian cinema, especially during the second half of the 20th century without the contribution of literature. The literary production of Abdel-Koddous alone, Fathy wrote, contributed 49 films.

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