History of Egyptian Cinema
Table of Contents
For many years, when one would speak about Egyptian cinema, such epithets as anti-artistic, sentimental, and primitive would be used. Such an attitude showed a general relation to the world cinematography that was perceived only in the face of American and European cinema. All other films that had been directed outside this area were regarded as a curios phenomenon that could be watched with some interest without delving into their aesthetic, social, and moral functions. These days, people still know little about the cinematography of the Arab world. Moreover, many do not even know that Egypt does have a cinema industry at all. Meanwhile, the films of numerous Egyptian directors participate in the competition program of the Cannes Film Festival quite regularly. In addition, Egyptian cinema is considered the most developed and the oldest one in the Arab world. Despite the fact that for many decades, Egyptian films have had great success not only in the Muslim states but also in a number of powerful countries as well, there is still no place in the world cinema for Egyptian cinematography.
The Development of Foreign Cinema in Egypt
The development of Egyptian cinematography began in the second half of the 19th century. This process is closely linked to the history of the country. Thus, one should mention that at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, Egypt was dependent on the United Kingdom, although legally, it was considered a part of the Ottoman Empire (Gugler, 2011). Along with other Western states, Britain had transformed Egypt into a market for the sale of goods, produced at their factories, and a source of cheap raw materials while receiving dividends from the exploitation of the Suez Canal Zone. Colonial officials allowed the development of the capitalist sector of the economy in the industries that met the requirements and interests of foreign monopolies (Gugler, 2011). The prepotency of the foreign capital that had affected the political and economic situation in Egypt hindered the growth of national self-awareness. Simultaneously, it stimulated Egyptians’ sense of inferiority and prevented the process of consolidation for anti-colonial patriotic forces that recognized the immediate necessity for a strong modernization of the cultural, economic, political, and social life of the state. At the same time, significant changes were observed in the sphere of Egypt’s cultural and spiritual life. The country experienced the reformation of Islam that was associated with the names of such authoritative theologians as Muhammad Abduh and Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (Gugler, 2011). This process logically fit into the context of the general cultural revival that began in the second half of the 19th century. The renewal processes in the area of national literature also started at that time. Numerous genre forms and themes emerged in this sphere. Moreover, theatrical art did not stand aside as well. While working on the adaptation of the plays of European writers, Egyptian artists also wanted to create their original dramatic works (Gugler, 2011). Their themes were historical but they also touched the actual public events of national reality. This period had a great impact on the development of modern Egyptian culture.
The invention of cinematography was among the important achievements of the Western technical and scientific thought. In Egypt, people learned about cinema from the article in the newspaper Al-Ahram (Gray, 2010). This article contained information that a moving image was one of the most excellent and amazing inventions. Firstly, people watched feature movies of the foreign production after the Lumiere brothers had opened the first cinema in Alexandria (Gray, 2010). At the initial stage, cinematograph was mostly distributed not in the capital of the state but in Alexandria due to the fact that in this city, an influential fairly large colony of Europeans resided. Those living in that colony supported and welcomed the idea of increasing the import of foreign movies to the country. At that time, films were brought from Italy and France (Gray, 2010). The fact that Alexandria was the most important Egyptian port city had played a great role as well. Thus, this city was more diverse and incomparably richer than Cairo was. A great variety of places, including numerous dance and music halls as well as cafes were available for people’s entertainment. People could watch captivating films that consisted of several clips, lasting for not more than three minutes (Gray, 2010). Despite the initial popularity of foreign films, their directors soon faced great problems. After the first encouraging successes, the public lost the interest in the moving images and all excitement faded. Lumiere’s cinematography began to incur colossal losses and, thus, it had to cease its activities in Egypt.
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Several years after people saw moving pictures for the first time, a change of leadership in the film industry of Egypt occurred. The company of the founder of the French film industry emerged as the leader (Gugler, 2011). With significant organizational and financial capabilities and a rich collection of various movies, the French company started exporting not only short documentary but also feature movies to the Egyptian market. Moreover, it offered even colored films in addition to the traditional black and white ones. As many other countries, Egypt experienced serious qualitative changes. The share of short-length feature films and farces increased greatly (Gugler, 2011). They included a complete narration and showed a fascinating life story. This fact contributed to the increase in the public interest to cinematography. Since the second half of the 1900s, Italian filmmakers had started showing some activity in the field of cinema and film display in Egypt. In the early 1910s, the films of Danish and American production started penetrating into the film distribution of Egypt along with Italian and French movies (Gugler, 2011). Therefore, foreign cinema had a serious presence in Egypt. Since the very beginning, Egypt presented great interest for the foreign cinema capital not only as a market for screen products but also as a place that had beautiful monuments of culture and history, majestic panoramas and views that could be used in many movies. They could be shown successfully in many countries worldwide.
The Development of Egyptian Cinema
One should also not forget that along with the presence of foreign cinema in Egypt, the first half of the 20th century is considered the beginning of the development of local cinematography. The first Egyptian film studio was built in Cairo in 1925 (Shafik, 2007b). After several years, the production of films became systematic. The first national film was the Kiss in the Desert (Shafik, 2007b). The movie with a traditional Egyptian plot tells the story of a happy couple that has been separated by fatal circumstances. A young man is unfairly accused of murdering his uncle. He is forced into hiding in the desert and living as a thief. One day, he meets his beloved one who offers him to escape to the USA. However, this young man is not guilty and he rejects this offer. The happy ending shows that everything ends well and lovers are married. Another Egyptian film of those years is Leila. Its story is similar to the one shown in Kiss in the Desert (Shafik, 2007b). The public can trace the same scheme of a false accusation when the protagonist endures suffering and agony but justice triumphs at the end of the movie. The theme of an innocent victim in these movies has the purpose of evoking sympathy and emotional perception of people. Moreover, a sharp contrast of evil and good serves as an unambiguous moral judgment. This interpretation of the material in the Egyptian films was not occasional. The cinema of that time emanated from the postulates of classical Arabic medieval literature and Eastern philosophy that were founded on the rules of entertainment and edification.
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Later, many successful movies were made. In 1930, Muhammad Karim’s movie Zeynab was released in cinemas (Gray, 2010). This film is fascinating in many respects as it is considered the first adaptation of a literary work in the history of the country. Moreover, it is based on the novel under the same title, and it is one of the first Egyptian movies directed without any help of foreign specialists (Gray, 2010). The motion picture was filmed in a real village, which added special authenticity to the end product. Experts believe that this movie has a connection between drama and graphic solution (Gray, 2010). Nature plays a great role in the creation of psychologically authentic characters and the development of the plot. Moreover, it helps conveys the emotional state of all actors of the film with incredible precision. A significant step in the development of cinema was made with the usage of the moving camera in this film, which was done for the first time in Egyptian cinematography (Gray, 2010). Therefore, this movie has played an important role in the further development of cinema in Egypt.
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One can consider 1934 the most substantial milestone in the history of Egyptian cinema. At this time, the capital of Egypt was even called the Hollywood of Arab cinema (Shafik, 2007a). In Cairo, the National Bank built a film studio that was equipped with the latest technology (Shafik, 2007a). Local directors received the first-class shooting equipment, numerous workshops, and convenient pavilions. A massive banking capital helped make a considerable step in the production of films, develop and strengthen the cinematographic base of the country, and build new cinemas. Moreover, such a move helped attract musicians, theater artists, writers, and other artists to the cinema. It was particularly important because the era of sound cinema began in world cinematography.
In the earliest Egyptian sound films, music occupied a central place, and well-known singers were cast in them, including singers from other Arab countries. According to the conviction of numerous experts, the origins of the peculiar musical design of Egyptian films should be sought in ancient Arabic poetry where the musical element had a great impact on the content and manner of the narrative (Shafik, 2007b). Nonetheless, the existence of a great number of dances in the local cinema is also connected with national cultural traditions. Nevertheless, since this tradition was more theatrical, Egypt reminded India in this regard. In these countries, the traditional theater combined dance, music, and drama. In such a way, musical and song elements were significant means of national self-expression.
In the 1930s, comic genre was extremely popular in Egyptian cinematography. If the founder of musical movies was the director Muhammad Karim, the tone of comedy films was set by Naguib el-Rihani (Shafik, 2007b). He was a well-known director and theatrical figure, eventually becoming one of those who had laid the basis of national Egyptian art. Naguib el-Rihani turned his gaze to a little person fighting in the grip of need but not losing their fortitude and optimism. In the 1960s, popular Egyptian actor Ismail Yassin became a peculiar spokesperson of this tradition (Shafik, 2007b). Comic films of that period included usual comedic tricks, comic actions, a heap of unimaginable situations, an abundance of gesticulation, and sparkling folk humor.
Staying in the current of national culture, these films were quickly admired by audience throughout the Arab world. They became especially popular when directors started using the literary language that had been used in the Koran (Shafik, 2007a). The only problem was that the demands of commerce resulted in the appearance of a great number of cinema frauds that decreased the overall artistic level of Egyptian cinematography. The Hollywood experience was applied widely in the production of commercial movies that consisted in the active replacement of films that decorated reality. Such films did not burden people’s consciousness with serious problems and, thus, there were accessible and easy for perception. In Egypt, where the biggest part of the population lived in poverty, these movies became especially popular (Shafik, 2007a). Clear moral sentiments, strong passions, and unusual stories attracted people, gave the ordinary public an illusory hope for a better future, and helped people have some escape from daily worries. The Egyptian films of the 1930s-1940s played an important role in the lives of the peoples of the Middle East and the history of Arabic cinema in general (Shafik, 2007a). Some of these films described the most vital problems, reflected the dissatisfaction of people, and revealed social injustice that prevailed in class society at that time.
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The following years marked the appearance of realistic films. In 1939, director Kamal Selim directed a film The Will (Bandhauer & Royer, 2015). The motion picture was dedicated to the students who could not find work after graduation. Moreover, the film is considered the first serious social movie in Arabic cinema. In the 1950s, realistic tendencies in Egyptian cinematography became more visible (Bandhauer & Royer, 2015). Therefore, one could talk about a new trend in Egyptian cinema that started developing in the stream of critical realism. Such major movie directors as Youssef Shahin and Salach Abu Seif became the founders of this direction (Bandhauer & Royer, 2015). Their creative work was particularly successful after the revolution in 1952 (Bandhauer & Royer, 2015). This event opened a way for progressive economic and social transformations in Egypt. The government of President Nasser nationalized large industrial enterprises and banks, held several agrarian reforms, outlined a broad cultural program, and exercised control over domestic and foreign trade (Bandhauer & Royer, 2015). An active fight against the imperialist impact was conducted with the purpose to strengthen the economic and political independence of a young country. Realistic Egyptian cinematography was in a close connection with the fight of people for the national independence and self-determination. In the stream of progressive searches and democratic transformations, films depicted a serious analysis of class contradictions, historical reality, a truly popular humor, and authentic characters. Egyptian cinematography was in a truly Golden Age during these years.
Today, Egyptian cinema is the most developed ones among the Arab countries. Egyptian-made films have a huge impact on many Arabs. More than 300 cinemas are open to entertain people (Gugler, 2011). About 60 films are produced annually (Gugler, 2011). Egyptian films are diverse in terms of genre characteristics and the coverage of living material. Their creators receive honorary awards of the Cannes, Berlin, and other prestigious festivals. Moreover, many Egyptian actors are known around the world. The most popular of them are Ahmed El Sakka, Ahmed Helmy, Ahmed Ezz, Aida Abdel Aziz, and others (“Famous Actors from Egypt,” n.d.). Thus, Egyptian cinematography should be regarded on par with the films from European countries and the United States.
These days, many people believe that the best movies are made in the United States and Europe. However, one should not forget that in other states, cinematography is also well developed, especially in the Arab states and Egypt. Moreover, this country’s cinematography is considered the oldest among all Arab countries. Egyptian people started watching feature when the Lumiere brothers had opened the first cinema in Alexandria. Since that time, moving pictures have become highly popular. Furthermore, people from Denmark, the United States, and Italy also directed and showed their films in Egypt. Soon, Egyptian directors began to make their own films. The 1950s were considered the Golden Age of Egyptian cinematography when a great number of movies on different topics were directed. The most popular genres of Egyptian films include comedies and melodramas, while a great number of movies on important social topics are made as well. Today, Egyptian cinematography is admired by many critics around the world and films win the most prestigious awards.