Egyptian cinema owes a large measure of gratitude to the indomitable women who shaped the industry in its early days. They challenged convention and overcame tremendous societal pressure to establish the first production companies, build state-of-the-art studios and lay the foundation for the industry’s future successes.
Aziza Amir (1901–52) is typically referred to as the founder of Egyptian Cinema. Born Mofeeda Ghoneim, she was originally a stage actress like most of her peers. She starred with Youssef Wahbi’s Ramsis theatre troupe but stepped away when rivalries began to arise, shifting her aspirations to cinema. To realize her dreams, she married a wealthy Upper Egyptian named Ahmed Sherei who was promptly disowned by his family for marrying an actress. Sherei bankrolled Amir’s projects and the couple formed a production company named Isis Film, hiring the Turkish Wedad Orfi as art director. Their first project, a film called Nida’ Allah (The Call of God, 1926), came to a halt after disagreements with Orfi who was subsequently fired and replaced with Stephane Rosti as director and Stelio Chiarini as cameraman—although historians still disagree on exactly who assumed which role. Her friend, the journalist, Ahmed Galal rewrote the script and renamed the film Laila which was released in 1927 as the first full-length Egyptian feature film. At the film’s grand premiere, which was attended by Egypt’s glitterati, Talaat Harb, the celebrated industrialist and future founder of Studio Misr, told her that ‘[she] had accomplished what no man had accomplished’. She then went on to found Amir Film, a second production company, with Mahmoud Zulfikar, who later became her third husband and frequent collaborator. Amir continued to star in and produce films until shortly before her premature death in 1952 at the age of 51.
Bahiga Hafez (1908–83) was a multitalented actress, director, producer, composer and film editor as well as a set and costume designer. Born in Alexandria to an aristocratic family, her first passion was music, which she studied in Paris and planned on teaching. Upon her return, she met actor-director Mohamed Karim who cast her in a leading role in his silent film Zeinab (1930). Hafez’s family disowned her, reportedly going so far as to accept condolences for their ‘loss’. Hafez, unfazed, not only acted in but also composed the score for the film. In 1932, she was among the original cast set to take part in the first Egyptian talkie, Awlad al-Zawat (The Elites) but a row with the lead actor, Youssef Wahbi, forced her to quit and reportedly sue Wahbi. She went on to establish her own production company, Fanar Film, with her husband Mahmoud Hamdi. They released their first production, al-Dahaya (The Victims) in 1932. The silent film was remade with sound three years later but without commercial success. This film was lost, then found in 1995, and later screened at the Cairo International Film Festival. In 1935, Hafez began filming the historical epic Laila Bint al Sahara’ (Laila, Daughter of the Desert) which reportedly cost her over LE 30,000 and took over two years of work. The film, which depicted a rivalry between Arab and Persian clans was released on the year of the wedding of the Egyptian Princess Fawzia to the Shah of Iran. Deemed politically insensitive, it was banned after only a brief stint in theatres, which was devastating to Hafez. After the royal divorce in 1944, she was allowed to release her film, but it was not positively received by the audience. In 1947, she made her last attempt with a film titled Zahrat al-Suq (Flower of the Market). After it too failed commercially, Hafez decided to give up on her film career for good and devote her time to music and to her famous literary and cultural salons. She returned one last time to the cinema to play the role of a princess in Salah Abu Seif’s al-Qahira 30 (Cairo 30), released in 1966.
Fatma Rushdi (1908–96) was Egypt’s ultimate diva. Born into poverty in Alexandria, Rushdi showed promise as a young performer and was first discovered by composer Sayyid Darwish who encouraged her mother to move with her daughters Fatma and Ansaf to Cairo to advance their careers. In Cairo, Rushdi eventually performed parts with Naguib al-Rihani’s theatre troupe and later joined Youssef Wahbi’s prestigious Ramsis troupe. There, she shadowed the troupe’s lead actress Rose al-Youssef while at the same time ingratiating herself with the troupe’s veteran director Aziz Eid, who mentored her, eventually falling in love and marrying her. Rushdi eventually became the star of the Ramsis troupe and was dubbed by the press as the ‘Sarah Bernhardt of the East’. After a spat with Youssef Wahbi, the strong-willed Rushdi formed her own eponymous rival theatre troupe. The enmity between the two was such that they would reportedly put on the same play at the same time under the same name. As the popularity of the theatre waned, however, Rushdi turned to film, founding a production company— Sharikat Aflam al-Negma al-Masriyya—and acting in and directing al-Zawag (Marriage, 1933). Although the film was a female directorial first, it was not necessarily Rushdi’s best work. Her iconic role did not come until she starred in al-‘Azeema (Determination, 1939), directed by her then husband Kamal Selim. Her last film was al-Gassad (The Flesh) in 1955. Rushdi went on to live a turbulent life with multiple unsuccessful marriages, and like Bahiga Hafez, died alone in poverty, forgotten and unappreciated.
Born ‘Almaza’ but always known simply by her stage name ‘Assia’, Dagher (1901?–86) was one of Egypt’s most prolific and influential film producers. Originally from Lebanon where she produced her first film Taht Thelal al-Arz (In the Shadow of the Cedar Tree, 1922), she moved to Egypt with her sister Mariam, her niece Mary (later known as Mary Queeny) and her daughter Hélène (credited in films as ‘Mona’). Dagher debuted as an extra in Aziza Amir’s Laila in 1927 and eventually went on to star in and produce her first film Ghadat al-Sahara’ (Desert Beauty) in 1929. Sometimes criticized for overacting to compensate for her lack of range, Dagher did not achieve much success as an actress but became a legend as a producer. Her company, Lotus Film, produced epics such as Rudda Qalbi (Give Back My Heart, 1957) and al-Nassir Salah al-Din (Saladin the Victorious, 1963) and enduring classics such as Yawmiyat Na’ib fil Aryaf (The Diary of a Country Prosecutor, 1969), and many more. At a time when production companies typically survived for only one or two projects, Lotus film, established in 1927, became the longest-surviving private production company in Egypt.
Mary Queeny (1916–2003) arrived in Egypt in 1922 as a child with her mother, sister, and aunt, Assia Dagher. Born Mary Younis, her debut role was in her aunt’s first production Ghadat al-Sahara’ (Desert Beauty) in 1929. She then worked for several years as a film editor before moving on to production. In the early 1940s, she established a production company with her husband Ahmed Galal (journalist turned actor and filmmaker) and began building Studio Galal in the Qubbah Gardens district. Studio Galal was to become one of the five largest in the country during Egypt’s ‘golden age’ of cinema, introducing the first colour lab in Egypt as well as the first modern sound system. Sadly, Ahmed Galal died in 1947 before the studio was completed. Although perhaps more successful as an actress than her aunt, acting was also not Mary Queeny’s forte. She retired from the screen in the late 1950s and devoted herself to Studio Galal, which was nationalized in the aftermath of 1952. She eventually became as prominent a film producer as her aunt and continued to support the career of her son, Nader Galal, who would become a successful film director in his own right.
Amina Mohamed (1908–85) may not have achieved the fame and recognition of her pioneering female peers, but she was an audacious, self-made, unstoppable woman. Born in Tanta to a family of modest means, Mohamed moved to Cairo along with her slightly younger niece Amina Rizq. The two teenagers headed to audition for the theatre companies of Emad al-Din Street (at the time, Egypt’s answer to Broadway) and it was there that their careers were born. A multitalented artist, Amina was a dancer (taking on stints at the Lido and the Folies Bergère in Paris), director (working at one point as an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille), and producer. In 1937, she realized her dream of producing a film with Tita Wong, the story of a Chinese-Egyptian woman wrongfully accused of murder. Mohamed established a production company, Amina Film, with an office in downtown Cairo and a makeshift studio on the roof. At a time when Bahiga Hafez paid a reported LE 30,000 to finance her film, Mohamed scraped together LE 17, borrowing the rest of the money against future acting commitments and securing the Chinese-themed props from a downtown furniture shop in return for a mention in the opening credits. The film’s cast and crew included future notables—among those who auditioned unsuccessfully was future president Anwar al-Sadat—and stars such as Hussein Sidky, al-Sayyid Hassan Gomaa, Sayyid Bedeir, Safiya Helmi, Gamal Madkour, Negma Ibrahim, Mohamed al-Kahlawy, Ahmed Kamel Morsy and Salah Abu Seif, among others. Tita Wong was by no means an artistic triumph, but it proved to be a springboard for many future luminaries of Egyptian cinema. Amina Mohamed made only a handful of other films, retiring by the 1940s to pursue a career in the tourism industry.
Amina Rizq (1910–2003) left Tanta for Cairo in the company of her slightly older aunt, Amina Mohamed, after her father’s death. Both auditioned for theatre icon Youssef Wahbi’s Ramsis troupe as teenagers. Known for his penchant for melodrama, Wahbi immediately chose the more serious Rizq with her deep, sad gaze over her sprightly, more comedically inclined aunt. Sure enough, over the coming decades, Amina Rizq’s name would become synonymous with melodrama in popular culture. Rizq excelled as an actress with the Ramsis troupe and was cast as a replacement for Bahiga Hafez in Egypt’s first talkie Awlad al-Zawat in 1932, shifting her career from theatre to cinema. Of all the exceptional women of the time, Rizq was the only one whose career continued beyond those first early decades. A highly respected figure, known for her unwavering professional ethic and respect for her craft, Rizq managed to maintain a successful career over her long life. She appeared in hundreds of stage plays, starred in over 250 films and television series, won numerous national and international awards, and in 1991, became a member of the Egyptian Senate, where she served until her death.
The years following the Second World War saw Egyptian cinema mature, paving the way for a new generation of filmmakers who were not afraid to experiment and innovate.
A tour of Egyptian film archives—or lack thereof—given by the archivist of Cairo’s Cimatheque, an alternative film centre in Downtown Cairo dedicated to celebrating the diversity, beauty and power of film from Egypt and beyond.
A national project that mirrored the shifting political tides and left an erratic legacy both supported and hindered by state control.
The story of how the state supported the production of some of the most progressive and innovative films in the Egyptian film cannon.
Following the 1952 revolution, a newly independent Egypt was rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with on the international stage, but its cinema industry was still only regional in scope. In 1953, celebrated director Fateen Abdel Wahab, representing the Syndicate of Egyptian Filmmakers, wrote a report identifying the obstacles holding back the Egyptian cinema industry.
A great star of Egyptian cinema, Mary Queeny took her first steps in the industry in 1929. As an actress, scriptwriter, film editor, etc., she gained experience in all aspects of filmmaking. Today, she is co-owner of Studio Galal with her son Nader and has produced some of the biggest productions in the Arab world.
Yasmine El Dorghamy holds an MA in international education policy from Stockholm University and manages an educational foundation in addition to teaching visual culture at the American University in Cairo. She also publishes RAWI - Egypt’s Heritage Review, a bilingual (Eng/Ar) publication dedicated to Egyptian history and heritage.