With the birth of the seventh art — a term coined by the Italian Ricciotto Canudo — the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria was ready to welcome the second screening in the world on 30 January 1897, only two years after the first took place at the Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895.
Indigenous Egyptians later developed the habit of going to the cinema on a regular basis — an embedded social activity that, together with other customs such as attending the opera or visiting the book fair, would go into forming the fabric of society. As a social force, cinema gradually gave way to television drama, whose heyday in the 1980s and 1990s saw families gathering, notably in Ramadan, in what amounted to a consolidation of an evolving cultural identity.
More recently both forms of audiovisual entertainment have been coopted by the Internet, where whether through pirated downloads or streaming subscriptions such as OSN people are increasingly migrating from cable and satellite TV. Right now streaming subscriptions include, as well as Netflix, Shahid VIP, the first online video on demand service in the Arab world. Launched in 2011 by MBC channels, it offered only MBC shows for many years before launching its subscription-based VIP stream featuring all kinds of Arabic drama and cinema with some foreign content.
Covid-19 restrictions all through 2020 made Shahid many times more popular than it might have been. Through partnerships with Disney and Fox, the platform brought Star Wars and Frozen as well as Marvel and ABC Studios content to Arab viewers. It also streamed its own exclusive releases: Mohamed Shakir Khodier’s TV series Fi Kol Esboi Youm Gomaa (Every Week Has a Friday), starring Asser Yassin and Menna Shalabi; and, on Eid Al-Adha (the movie season), Mohamed Gamal Al-Adl’s Saheb Al-Maqam (The Shrine Owner), written by Ibrahim Eissa and starring Asser Yassin, Amina Khalil and Bayoumi Fouad; as well as their latest Al-Hareth (Ploughman), directed by Mohamed Nader, starring Ahmed Al-Fishawi and Yasmine Raeis.
In the last five years, Netflix acquired a growing Egyptian audience thanks to affordable fees and flexible subscription plans with accounts that can serve more than one person.
The subscription-based streaming service launched internationally in 1997, has been one of the most influential among rivals HBO, Prime Video, Mubi and Apple TV worldwide, and during the Covid-19 lockdown Netflix Egypt introduced some of the culture’s best-loved classic stage comedies (as per the Eid tradition): Fouad Al-Mohandess’ 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) all 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 Shalabi, Ahmed Zaki and Hassan Mustafa, with the latter also featuring Imam.
In June, Netflix added 10 films by Egypt’s best known 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), 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.
As so much of life suddenly went online, with Zoom, Teams and other applications taking over work and education, institutions began to offer invaluable cultural resources — music, art, and literature — which people would’ve paid a fortune for access to. Google Arts and Culture, the online platform through which Google has partnered with over 1,200 leading museums around the world, stacked up its interactive experiences with comprehensive virtual tours of such venues as the British Museum, showing artefacts through the ages starting from 2,000,000 BC.
Such tours have since been offered by institutions all over the world: the Guggenheim in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea, Berlin’s Pergamon Museum (home of such relics as the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the Pergamon Altar), Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, the MASP in São Paulo, and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The Metropolitan Opera in New York too offers a daily streaming through its website featuring such classics as Carmen, La Bohème and La Traviata.
The Egyptian authorities also made the decision to go online, launching an initiative named Al-Thaqafa Bein Edek (Culture in your hands), providing online events to replace the Opera’s activities, with shows like Swan Lake, Carmen, The Nutcracker and Zorba the Greek, Arab Music Festival concerts by, among others, Omar Khairat, and stage plays like the Art House for Theatre’s Qahwa Saada (Black Coffee) as well as film screenings provided online. Zawya Art House, like any other cinema, had to put off its actual events, but it worked in another direction by providing some online films to its audience for a certain time: Hady Zaccak’s 104 Wrinkles and Marianne Khoury’s Dhilal (Shadows, 2010) were made available through the Vimeo platform.
For its part, the global online film platform Mubi, supported by Creative Europe Media and co-founded by the European Union, offered a three-month subscription for one dollar.
Also, some bands took on the burden to play live for the audience at home like the rock band Masar Egbari, and the phenomenal Disco Misr duo (DJs who mix Oriental sounds with funky disco beats) also gave a live-streamed concert. Such online concerts made a positive impact on people at home during the worst time.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly