By Mary Queeny
Translated by Olivia Misan-Maari

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.

I owe my introduction to Egyptian cinema to my aunt Assia Dagher. In 1928, she would whisk me away from the schoolrooms of Saint Vincent de Helmia al-Guedida to have me play bit roles in her first film Ghadat al-Sahara’ (Desert Beauty), directed by Wedad Orfi who nicknamed me ‘Queeny’ which in Turkish means ‘Star of the Future’.

Wedad Orfi was a Turkish playwright. Many of his plays, translated into Arabic, were popular in Egyptian theatres at the time. He had arrived penniless in Cairo looking to make his fortune and managed to convince three of the era’s famous actresses to produce his films. Aziza Amir, Fatma Rouchdi, and my aunt, Assia Dagher became his first victims. Each began production of a film under his directorship and each was left in the lurch halfway through filming.

Power couple: Mary Queeny and Ahmed Galal talking to Georges Behna on one of their film sets.

HESHAM SALAMA, COURTESY OF BASILE BEHNA

None of them despaired, however, and production continued under the direction of each film’s young leading actor. Stephane Rosti took over the direction of the first Egyptian film, Laila, while Ahmed Galal took the reins of the film Ghadat al-Sahara’ in which he co-starred with my aunt and me.

At the time, we did everything ourselves. There wasn’t even a studio. We filmed in homes or outdoors. Terraces would sometimes serve as sets for scenes that were impossible to film on location. Armed with hammers and paintbrushes, it was left to us to build the sets and add the props as we were filming.

We improved with time, sharing the workload. Author and journalist Ahmed Galal scripted the scenes and the dialogue while I served as secretary. On the set, he was both actor and director and I was his assistant, script girl and co-star. Mme Assia, our patron and investor, was more involved with the business side of things and served as producer while also acting in the film.

Later, I specialised in editing. I can still remember a time when strips of film and intertitles were pinned together, one by one. Once that was complete, the strips would be glued together, and the film could be screened using an ordinary projector.

We soon obtained editing benches and set up a studio in downtown Cairo. It was known as the Castaros Studios, now converted into an auction house. It was originally a hangar used as stables, then as a car park. We brought with us a primitive camera, a few basic projectors and wooden frames covered in paper to use as storyboards. Egyptian cinema was expected to rival foreign production using this kind of equipment. It was already 1931! It was thanks to the pioneers’ constant perseverance and their faith in the future of Egyptian cinema that they were able to overcome obstacles such as this.

Our second film, Wakhz al-Damir (A Guilty Conscience), was produced for my aunt as a silent film by one the Lama brothers, Ibrahim, who had recently left Alexandria for Cairo. At the time, Ahmed Galal was filming Aziza Amir’s second film, Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile). After that, he would direct exclusively for us until his death in 1947. Our trio, Assia-Galal-Queeny, was following its course.

Fresh difficulties arose as we had no specialised technicians. Our limited budget prevented us from bringing in technicians from abroad. I remember how, for one of our first films, the operator didn’t know how to distribute the lighting. Ahmed and I had to set it up ourselves.

Nonetheless, we managed to attract investors and the attention of the Arab world to our nascent industry. Many filmmakers from Alexandria who had imported cameras from abroad moved their operations to Cairo. A handful of studios were built in gardens or on the terraces of villas and feature film production soon became more financially viable.

Amongst this first wave of arrivals in Cairo, Togo Mizrahi’s is particularly memorable. His father, faced with his son’s obsession with the cinema and his determination to pour every last penny into the industry, gave up on his son ever getting a proper job and turned to one of his Cairene friends, M. Edouard Behna. Mizrahi’s father sent Behna 300 Egyptian pounds, asking him to loan the sum with interest to Togo, who was accustomed to letting his father’s money slip through his fingers.

Togo made a good film with this tidy little sum: Cocaine in 1930 made a respectable profit. This success encouraged the Behna Brothers to produce the first Egyptian talkie, Onshoodat al-Fuad (A Song from the Heart), the following year. It was filmed on a huge budget at the Studios Eclair in Paris, but suffered heavy losses. The Behna brothers took the decision to remain as investors and created a sort of financial resource for films—Behna Film Selections—which remains successful to this day. They provide loans to productions and retain the rights until repayment, covering around one third of Egyptian films produced today. Many companies have used this model, successfully financing the production and distribution of Egyptian films.

The following year (1932), Mohsen Szabo built a sound-recording device, allowing him to set up an auditorium to synchronise sound in post-production. Our methods did not change, and we still filmed in situ. Once edited, we would proceed to partial voice recordings. This is how our trio produced ‘Inda ma Toheb al-Mara’a (When Women Love) in 1932, ‘Ouyoun Sahira (Bewitching Eyes) in 1933, and Shagaret al-Dor in 1934.

By 1935, the Misr Company was finishing the construction of its studios. Those students who had been sent abroad for training were now returning in the company of French and German technicians to make their first films. At the same time, Nassibian Studios, smaller but very well equipped, were being rented out at a handsome cost to producers.

Zoga bil-Niaba (A Bride by Proxy) was our first talkie in 1936. Our jobs remained the same: we had starring roles as well as our original jobs in production. In 1937, we made Bint al-Basha al-Moudir (The Pasha’s Daughter) under the same conditions, whilst 1938 saw the production of Fatah Motamarreda (A Rebellious Girl).

My close contact with Ahmed Galal and our overwhelming joint efforts to succeed allowed love to blossom between us and we married in 1940. Nader was born in 1941. Our professional trio disbanded, however. My husband and I created the company Société Galal Films, whereas Mme Assia partnered with the young director Henri Barakat. In 1942, we produced Rabab, and in 1943, Magda. From then on, my husband focussed all his efforts on directing.

Egyptian film production reached its zenith in 1944 and film sets had to be reserved at least six months ahead. Hangars and garages were converted into studios and makeshift equipment was gathered. We owned two hectares close to Studio Lama and we decided to set up a studio of our own with two sets and equipment, oblivious to the fact it would absorb all our savings.

Our studio was to be a model of seamless organisation. Each set had an independent entrance and access to thirty rooms reserved for actors and services. It was temporarily equipped with a second-hand DeVry camera imported from Iraq. We also rented Szabo’s old sound recorder and used locally made projectors. We despaired of the electricity supply to our area and were even advised to move the entire studio to an area with better services and connexions.

Thankfully, we were able to overcome all obstacles, and in 1946, we were overjoyed at producing the very first films shot at our own studios: Om al-Saad, Amirat al-Ahlam (Princess of Dreams) and ‘Aoudat al-Gha’eb (The Return of the Departed).

The cumulative effect of all the effort had a negative impact on my husband’s health. He died suddenly in 1947, leaving me with my son to manage a complex company.

 After a two-year sabbatical, I starred in Kana Malakan (It was an Angel) which was written by my husband and directed by my brother-in-law, Abbas Kamel. I then produced a series of films in which I took no role but whose profits allowed me to re-equip both sets with entirely new equipment: two new Mitchell cameras, a complete sound recording booth, two Kalee 35mm recorders, American camera jibs, Vinten dollies, a Prevost editing bench, a modern auditorium, and a complete laboratory, all to the specifications of a very exacting producer.

My son Nader follows his studio’s expansion with great satisfaction and promises to be a good partner I can depend on one day. He is demonstrating a tendency towards directing—and why not? His father was the originator of this art in Egypt and his two uncles, Abbas Kamel and Hussein Fawzi are two very popular directors.

La Revue International du Cinéma, Numéro 16, 1953

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 9, 2018