In the 75th Cannes Film Festival (17-28 May), the Swedish-Egyptian filmmaker Tarik Saleh’s Boy from Heaven was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or. Saleh’s Metropia (2009) won the Future Film Festival Digital Award of the Venice Film Festival, and his The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) the Grand Jury Prize of the Sundance Film Festival 2017. In the latter film and Boy from Heaven, both characters and settings are Egyptian.
But Egyptian film is celebrated rather through two figures from different generations heading two juries: acclaimed filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah (b. 1952) the short film competition jury, and critic Ahmed Shawky (b. 1984), head of the Egyptian Film Critics Association, the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) competition jury.
Two younger Egyptian directors, what us more, have been selected by two of the festival’s mentorship and funding platforms. Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Hamlet from the Slums is one of 15 projects chosen by L’Atelier co-production forum and Morad Mostafa’s Aisha Can’t Fly Away Anymore is one of 10 chosen by La Fabrique Cinema. Fawzi Saleh’s 2018 Poisonous Roses was Egypt’s 2020 submission for the Academy Awards, and it won the Arab Cinema Horizons Award, the TikTok Award, and the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) Award. Morad Mostafa’s three films – Ward’s Henna (2020), What We Don’t Know about Mariam (2021) and Khadiga (2021) – received over 88 nominations and 17 wins.
The Cannes connection goes back to the inaugural round in 1946, when Egypt was one of 21 countries to contribute films. The official selection included Dunia by the pioneering filmmaker Mohammed Karim, starring Dawlat Abiad, Faten Hamamah, Raqyah Ibrahim and Suleiman Naguib. Karim had directed what is widely believed to be Egypt’s first silent film, Zeinab (1930), based on Mohamed Hussein Heikal’s eponymous 1913 book, often hailed as Egypt’s first modern novel novel. Karim also directed Awlad Al-Zawat (1932), Egypt’s first sound film. The great stage and screen actor and director Youssef Wahbi was a member of the grand prix jury as well.
Two Egyptian films were nominated for grand prix at the 1949 round of Cannes: Al Bait Al Kabir (The Great House) by Ahmad Kamel Morsy, starring Abdel-Ghani Al-Sayyed, Tahiyyah Karyuka, Aly and Mahmoud Reda, and Aminah Rizq; and Mughamarat Antar wa Abla (The Adventures of Antar and Ablah) by Salah Abu Seif, starring Kouka, Serag Mounir, Negma Ibrahim, Farid Shawqi, Estafan Rosti, and Zaki Toleimat. In 1952 another two films competed: Lailat Gharam (A Night of Love) by Ahmed Badrakhan, one of the great pioneers; and Son of the Nile, the second film by the iconic filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who cowrote and acted in it, and is among the 100 best films chosen by critics on the centenary of the first screening in Alexandria in 1996.
Chahine is the greatest Egyptian contributor to Cannes, with some 10 films including The Blazing Sun (1954), the debut of iconic film star Omar Sharif, starring Faten Hamamah, Zaki Rostom, and Farid Shawky, also on the aforementioned list. Abu Seif’s Al Wahsh (The Beast), another list entry cowritten with Naguib Mahfouz and starring Anwar Wagdi, Mahmoud Al Melegi and Samia Gamal. A year later, the renowned filmmaker Kamal Al-Shaikh’s Hayah aw Maut (Life or Death) competed for the Palme d’Or. In 1956 Abu Seif contributed Shabab Emra’a, or The Leech – starring Tahiyyah Karyuka, Shukri Sarhan, and Shadia – number six on the list, which is also on the list of the best 100 Arab films. The great actor and dancer Tahiyyah Karyuka wore a traditional Egyptian costume for her read carpet appearance.
Later that year the Suez Crisis pit France, along with Britain and Israel, against the newly independent Egypt, and it was not until 1963 that another Egyptian film, Al-Shaikh’s Al-Lailah Al-Akhirah (The Last Night), was selected. Cowritten by the celebrated novelist Youssef Al-Sebai, it starred Faten Hamamah, Ahmad Mazhar, and Mahmoud Morsy. In 1965, Henry Barakat’s The Sin, based on Youssef Idris’s eponymous novel, competed for the Palm d’Or. The next three Egyptian films at Cannes were all by Chahine: The Land (1970), based on a novel by Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi and ranked second on the aforementioned list; The Sparrow (1973), and Adieu Bonaparte (1985), the latter starring the French actors Michel Piccoli and Patrice Chéreau alongside Salah Zulfikar, Mohsen Mohieddin and Mohsena Tawfik.
In 1985 the then emerging Neorealist director Atef Al-Tayib’s Love on the Pyramids Plateau – based on Mahfouz’s eponymous novel and starring Ahmed Zaki and Athar Al-Hakim – participated in the Directors’ Fortnight. Two years later another Neorealist, Mohamed Khan, contributed Return of a Citizen to the out of competition section, while Yousry Nasrallah’s Summer Thefts took part in the Directors’ Fortnight in 1988. It took until 1997 before Chahine’s Destiny – also Egypt’s Oscar nomination – became the next Egyptian film at Cannes, also out of competition. In that round Chahine received the 50th Anniversary Prize for his Lifetime Achievement. In 1999 Chahine’s The Other won the François Chalais Award, the first ever Cannes award to be given to an Egyptian films. In 2004 Chahine’s Alexandria... New York participated in the Un Certain Regard competition.
No other Egyptian film took part in Cannes until 2012, when Nasrallah’s After the Battle – a reflection on the January Revolution of 2011 starring Menna Shalabi, Basem Samrah, and Nahed El Sebai – competed for the Palme d’Or. Since then Mohamed Diab’s Clash (2016), starring Nelly Karim, Hany Adel, and Mohamed Al-Sebai, took part in the Un Certain Regard competition and A. B. Shawky’s Yomeddine (2018) – Egypt’s 2019 Oscar submission, starring first-time actors – competed for the Palme d’Or and won the François Chalais Award. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Egyptian cinema made a strong comeback, with Sameh Alaa’s I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face winning the Palme d’Or for best short film and Ayten Amin’s Souad representing the Newcomers category in the official selection’s hybrid format dictated by Covid, and screened virtually. The big bang occurred in 2021 when Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers won both the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.