A national project that mirrored the shifting political tides and left an erratic legacy both supported and hindered by state control.
The notion of documentary stems from the late 1920s and was coined by John Grierson who was considered the architect of the British documentary film movement. In Egypt, it was Saad Nadim, an admirer and student of Grierson’s who, according to his biographer Kamal Ramzy, introduced the Arabic term al-film al-tasjily. Grierson’s model of using documentary as both an aesthetic and a didactic tool became of great interest to Egyptian filmmakers after the Tripartite Attack in 1956 even though non-fiction film production had begun decades earlier. Unfortunately, many of the films of the early phases are not accessible for evaluation: Two major fires, one at Studio Misr and the other at the government Department of the Arts, destroyed most of pre-1960s documentary production. To make matters worse, inadequate storage conditions at the National Film Centre have further damaged what remains of Egypt’s documentary film heritage.
It is thanks to the efforts of researcher Diya Marei that we have some knowledge of the early years of documentary filmmaking. In his 2003 publication Documentary Cinema in Egypt, he at least managed to salvage a record of titles, filmmakers and some of the production context from oblivion. The data provided in this article owes much to his thoroughness and dedication. Marei divided the production until 1977 into seven phases: the early beginnings after the introduction of the medium to Egypt with the first screening on 5 November 1896 in Alexandria; then first steps in the 1920s; growth in the 1930s; institutional interest in the 1940s and 1950s; the 1952 revolution and subsequent state domination in the 1960s; and finally, emerging individualism and the flourishing of documentary filmmaking in the 1970s. Two events within this chronology seem decisive: First, the foundation of Studio Misr in 1934 and the establishment of its documentary unit in 1946; and second, the beginning of state intervention after 1952. A third turning point, which is not part of this article, is the digital transformation in the mid-1990s that has revolutionized and changed most of the conditions of the previous periods.
Pictures of Life
The first report of a non-fiction film by a local resident was in 1912 when a certain Delagarne, owner of a movie theatre or night club in Alexandria, presented the series Fi Shawari‘ al-Iskandaria (In the Streets of Alexandria) shot by an Italian cinematographer. It contained shots of different monuments and places. The next known attempt to issue a newsreel or film journal was undertaken by Mohamed Bayoumi in 1923. The first of his three Jaridat Amun (Amun Journal) episodes featured the return of the national leader Saad Zaghloul from exile. Unable to sustain his productions, Bayoumi thereafter sold his equipment to Talaat Harb’s Misr Company for Acting and Cinema (MCAC) in 1925. That same year Bayoumi and a colleague, Hassan Mourad, shot some episodes for Jaridat Misr al-Sinima’iyya (The Misr Cinematic Journal) for which Mourad became responsible from 1925 onwards. It was issued on a weekly base except for the war years of 1943-45. In 1935, the journal was taken over by Studio Misr and equipped with sound in 1938. The studio also produced Jaridat al-Harb al-Mussawara (The British War Pictorial News) in cooperation with the British Army to cover the events of the Second World War in the Middle East.
The interest in journals continued well into the 1950s and 1960s when Jaridat Misr al-Sinima’iyya was eventually handed over to Egyptian television. Studio al-Ahram and the National Documentary Film Centre created journals mostly focussing on art and culture. Of course, there were also individual efforts. In 1919, Alvise Orfanelli bought the equipment of the dissolved Italian-Egyptian Cinematograph Company (SITCIA) and shot footage during the 1919 revolution as well as scenes of other locations in Egypt. In 1923, Victor Rosito made a short educational film on the dangers of spitting. One year later, René Tabouret produced Le Cinéma en Egypte, a short film mocking the filmgoing habits of local audiences.
The volatility of the situation was not conducive to creativity, and between 1975 and 1977, only nine films saw the light.
Attempts to make use of the medium’s promotional potential have been reported right from the beginning. Delagarne used to offer his services to affluent personalities. In 1915, a certain Abdel Rahman Salihin, hotel and cinema owner, had himself filmed in front of his establishment in Cairo. In 1928, Bayoumi and Mourad were asked to film the Mahala Company for Spinning and Weaving. The same year, they also documented the first cataract eye surgery undertaken by an Egyptian doctor.
In 1931, Mohamed Karim was commissioned by the Department of Cooperation to direct a film on the cooperative movement in Egypt, and in 1932, Hassan Mourad documented Mashru‘ al-Qirsh (The Penny Project). In 1935, Niazi Mustafa was called in to direct a film on Banque Misr and its companies. Reportedly, this was the first documentary to have a specially composed music score.
The State Steps In
Institutional productions started to increase during the 1930s when ministries and private companies became aware of the promotional and educational potential of the medium. The multinational Shell Oil Company set up a film unit in 1952 and produced a journal, Suwwar al-hayah (Images of Life) focussed on industrial matters. One of its episodes, Ba‘th al-Tarikh (The Renaissance of History), documents a highly interesting historical event, the transport of the Ramsis colossus from Mit Rahina to Bab al-Hadid Square. The real value of the Shell Oil Company film unit, however, was its training programme, which produced many of the film professionals and documentarians who would later rise to prominence, such as Salah al-Tuhami and Hassan al-Telmissany.
With the nationalization of Shell in 1959, the film unit was transferred to state institutions which dominated the field after the 1952 revolution. First, the Ministry of National Guidance became responsible for the so-called ‘Surveillance of Film and Cinema’. Then, in 1954, the Department of Information took over, producing around 60 films by 1959. In 1953, the Egyptian Army also created its own self-sufficient unit. Other ministerial bodies of the time produced promotional films as well, including the Tourism Department, the Ministries of Agriculture, Health and Industry, and the Ministry of Social Affairs. In 1957, the authorities decided to unite all public production under the umbrella of the Film Administration at the Department of the Arts, but political topics remained with the Department of Information. Between 1957 and 1959, the Department of the Arts produced films on topics such as art, history, sculpture, folk art, the opera or the Siwa oasis.
The Aid Organization for Documentary Film Production was established in 1957 and later reorganized into the General Egyptian Film Organization under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Guidance. Some of the eras most notable filmmakers were employed there including Khalil Shawky who directed Tattawur Fann al-Naht (The Development of the Art of Sculpture, 1960) and Tewfiq Salih who made Fann al-‘Ara’is (The Art of Puppetry, 1960) and al-Qulla (The Water Jug, 1961). During that era, Saad Nadim also produced the notable series Rihla illa al-Nuba (A Journey to Nubia, 1960) including the acclaimed episode Hikaya min al-Nuba (A Story from Nubia, 1963) and Hassan Reda made al-Qahira fi al-Layl (Cairo at Night, 1962).
In 1963, the General Egyptian Film Organization officially became the heart of the public film sector. The frequent change of administration was undoubtedly disruptive to filmmakers, and in April 1967, documentary filmmakers Fuad al-Tuhami, Hassan al-Telmissany and Saad Nadim, avant-garde members of the Arab Socialist Union—the governing party—submitted a petition asking for the foundation of a National Documentary Film Centre. This request was briefly granted but then the centre was split into the Experimental Film Centre (1969–75) supervised by Shadi Abdel Salam and the Arab Agency for Cinema (1969–71). The latter was supposed to foster commercial production and distribution throughout the region. The call for state support for filmmaking was mainly due to the growing divide between what had come to be understood as art on the one hand and commerce on the other. Certainly, many filmmakers attached to the National Film Centre felt committed to social and political activism and put themselves in the service of relevant subjects.
In 1971, the National Film Centre was nominally re-established, but its financial responsibility was shuffled around between the Ministry of Culture and the General Egyptian Film Organisation until 1973. The volatility of the situation was not conducive to creativity, and between 1975 and 1977, only nine films saw the light.
Finding an Audience
In 1970, the National Festival for Documentary Film was founded, later to become the International Ismailia Film Festival. The Documentary Filmmakers Association was created in 1972 by critics and filmmakers to foster professional film criticism. Despite all these efforts, distribution and exhibition remained a problem. Some films circulated via the cultural palaces or community centres which were conceived to bring modern arts and culture to the less privileged, but it was difficult to find appropriate outlets. This was further exacerbated by the fact that Egyptian National Television, established in 1960, was an entirely self-sufficient entity with its own production units. Between1966 and 1975, it produced no fewer than 80 films, most notably Ali al-Ghazuli’s exceptional ethnographic films.
Little space was left for private productions. Among the few works to be aired by television were productions such as the Young Men’s Muslim Association’s film on homeless children; the film Rihla illa Dayr Doronka bi Assiut (A Journey to the Doronka Monastery in Assiut, 1949) on the feast of the Virgin Mary; and the 1952 Studio al-Ahram film on Saint Catherine’s Monastery by Gamal Madkour, which was awarded best film award at the International Film Congress in India. Six films produced by the Islamic Congress starting in 1954 on Islamic monuments and history were also among the few works to be aired innumerable times by television.
Judging from the surviving summaries and titles it seems that film essays, political films, montage films of archival footage or observational films were uncommon until the 1970s. Production was dominated by propaganda, didactic or touristic films. Producer Ramsis Naguib for instance asked Salah Abu Seif to direct a film on Sudan in 1955. In the 1960s, during the unification between Syria and Egypt several documentaries on Syria, cities, monuments, crafts were produced. Promotional films depicting technical or industrial progress had been another important topic since the 1930s. Innumerable films appeared in 1958–68 on the High Dam, most notably the series Muzakkerat Muhandiss (Memoirs of an Architect, 1961–62).
Even before 1952, much of what was produced had a strongly modernist stance emphasising the nation’s cultural and economic development and progress. Anecdotal but telling is Mohamed Karim’s complaint of the inconsistent dress code of Cairo zoo visitors and the fact that women were not ready to be filmed without their veils so that Karim ended up inviting his friends— who were presumably following European dress codes—to stand in for the usually mixed audience.
It is difficult to say when Egyptian documentary style shifted from the actualité-style view—a single shot or several shots displaying a site or an event—to argument-based documentaries with a rhetorically sophisticated approach. Most likely it occurred when future fiction filmmakers and professional editors, like Mohamed Karim, Salah Abu Seif and Niazi Mustafa got involved. They must have enjoyed a certain level of sophistication given the fact that the 1937 Studio Misr production on the Hajj to Mecca was aired at the Venice Film Festival.
Certainly, Saad Nadim played a pivotal role in establishing the format, particularly after he was put in charge of Studio Misr’s documentary film unit in 1946. In 1950, he was sent for training to Great Britain where he met Paul Rotha and attended a training program held by Grierson. Nadim became a prolific filmmaker and his Fa Liyashhad al-‘Alam (Let the World Bear Witness, 1956), a successful propagandistic counterattack of the Nasserist regime after the Tripartite Attack, certainly increased the state’s interest in the medium. Also, his al-Tariq illa al-Salam (The Road to Peace,1966) on the link between worldwide poverty and warfare earned him a Union of the Friendship of the People’s award at Leipzig Film Festival (former German Democratic Republic).
Nadim was not the only filmmaker to join the anti-imperialist and patriotic bandwagon. In 1973, film critic Sami al-Salamuni authored Cowboy (1973), a satirical documentary mocking American imperialism. Concurrently, the bravery of Egyptian soldiers was lauded in several films including Shedwan (1970) by Fuad al-Tuhami, ‘Abdel ‘Ati Sai’id al-Dababat (‘Abdel ‘Ati, the Tank Hunter, 1974) by Khairy Bishara and Juyush al-Shams (Armies of the Sun, 1974) by Shadi Abdel Salam.
The 1970s were marked by a decisive shift in style and orientation. Films became less formally loyal to Grierson’s model and to the use of spoken commentary. Some were quite outspoken in their critique of the social system, tackling the country’s ‘underdevelopment’ and deficient government services particularly in light of Sadat’s ‘open door’ (infitah) policy towards the West. Hashim al-Nahhas’s al-Nil Arzaq (Fortunes of the Nile, 1972) and Atteyat al-Abnoudy’s Hussan al-Teen (Horse of Mud, 1971) applied an observant, direct cinema approach in their portrayal of fishermen and workers. Daoud Abdel Sayed directed an effusive voice-over mockumentary, Wasiyyat Rajul Hakim fi Shu’un al-Qarya wa-l-Ta‘lim (A Wise Man’s Advice in Matters of Village and Education, 1976) denouncing Sadat’s politics of education in rural areas. Khairy Bishara offered a highly sensitive and poetic but unequivocally modernist portrait of a Tabib fi al-Aryaf (A Village Doctor, 1975). Other socially and politically committed directors include Hossam Ali, Ibrahim al-Mogui, Atef al-Tayeb and Mona Mugahid.
Few abstract or experimental films were produced. One notable exception is the first non-fiction film produced in colour, al-Ajnniha al-Mulawanna (Coloured Wings, 1949), playing on the graphic relations and variations of butterfly wings. Other examples include Madkour Thabet’s Thawrat al-Makkan (Revolution of the Machines, 1968) and productions of the Experimental Film Centre such as Shadi Abdel Salam’s Afaq (Horizons, 1972), a poetic panorama on the arts in Egypt, and Samir Ouf’s Lu’lu’at al-Nil (Pearl of the Nile, 1972), which dispensed with voice-over commentary and focussed on the editing instead.
Even though the late 1960s and 1970s can be regarded as a period of diversification where filmmakers assimilated innovative methods and attempted to free themselves from discourses and ideologies close to the political establishment, the documentary format was still plagued with problems. Primary among them was the lack of resources. Most films had to be scripted, with sound and images recorded separately, because of film scarcity and outdated equipment. A further complicating factor was inconsistent state intervention accompanied by direct or indirect censorship. Given all these obstacles, the rich documentary heritage of the time is a testament to the dedication of the documentary filmmakers who laid a solid foundation for the digital revolution of the 1990s.
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Viola Shafik , PhD, is a freelance filmmaker, film curator and scholar currently researching the history of the Arab documentary at Ludwig Maximillian University. She has previously lectured at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Zürich University, among others, and has worked as a consultant for La Biennale di Venezia and the Dubai Film Connection. Her publications include Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (AUC Press, 1998/2016) and Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation (AUC Press, 2007).