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.
Most accounts of the history of Egyptian cinema assert that the post-war period from 1945 and up until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 was dominated by what were later termed ‘contract films’. It was a period when the war profiteers used their dubiously acquired wealth to enter the film industry as depicted by Kamel al-Telmissany’s film al-Souq al-Sawda’ (The Black Market, 1945). But the truth is that it was a much more complex era. Many foreign artists and technicians had emigrated and were replaced by Egyptian counterparts who had to reinvent local cinema in terms of form and content. It was up to them to find a new formula independent of both the theatrical style of the past decade and of the prevailing Hollywood blockbusters dominating the screen at the time.
Al-Souq al-Sawda’ marked the beginning of this era and, much to its credit, dealt with a contemporary and relevant subject. However, as far as form was concerned, it remained captive to the influence of German expressionism, and as such, there was a clear contradiction between the style and the actual content of the film. The narrative did not to flow and the performances were exaggerated to an extent that made the viewing public shun the film.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the box office failure of al-Souq al-Sawda’, Egyptian filmmakers learned some key lessons: Their films needed to combine a coherent narrative with elements of Egyptian culture in order to appeal to local audiences. During this learning period, they managed to double the number of films produced, averaging fifty films a year, up from just thirty films annually over the previous decade. To give some perspective to these figures, the Egyptian population had grown more than six-fold over the same period.
In Search of an Egyptian Formula
The journey of director Salah Abu Seif illustrates the course taken by Egyptian cinema. Abu Seif began by adapting the melodramatic plot of the American film Waterloo Bridge (1940) for his film Dayman fi Qalbi (Always in My Heart, 1946). In al-Osta Hassan (Hassan, the Foreman, 1952), he presented a sharper and less romantic depiction of Egyptian reality, bringing the narrative closer to the taste of Egyptian viewers. But more importantly, he employed this form to produce a critical commentary on the reality at the time. His film depicted two opposing worlds separated by a mere bridge. On one side of this bridge was the popular neighbourhood of Bulaq, home to the poor, while on the other side lived the wealthy of Zamalek. Whereas the film may be classified among those that portray the nobility of the poor versus the decadence of the rich in a subliminal message to the viewer to accept his lot in life, it may also be seen as a strong warning against the ever-growing class divide. This message was often repeated in Abu Seif’s later films.
The strongest influence on the course of Egyptian cinema during this post-war period did not come from filmmakers with explicitly political messages, however; rather it came from those whose primary aim was simply to entertain but whose films nevertheless contained inherent social messages. This was largely due to the expansion of the Egyptian film audience to encompass the middle classes who viewed the cinema as an accessible means of entertainment. Moreover, there was a rapid increase in the number of venues which proliferated in popular districts and smaller towns and were no longer restricted to the luxury theatres of the wealthy neighbourhoods. This in turn ensured a continuous flow of profits to finance the production of new films. Films would be screened in different levels of movie theatre until finally ending up at the third-class venues which constituted a large share of box office revenues in spite of their low ticket prices.
Anwar Wagdi was the most commercially successful filmmaker of the time. He was a true ‘man of cinema’, writing scripts, producing and directing, as well as acting. His talent lay in creating a successful production package that appealed to his audience. Wagdi brought together such entertaining elements as high-intensity action sequences punctuated by song and dance numbers that were in turn part of melodramatic stories with sensational twists, and ultimately, a happy ending. Examples of his production genius are plentiful. Wagdi employed Laila Mourad’s singing talents in a series of films and discovered the multi-talented child star Fairouz, who featured in many of his musicals despite her youthful age. He also had the clout to bring together an ensemble cast that would otherwise never have collaborated. In Ghazal al-Banat (The Flirtation of Girls, 1949), he not only played the lead role opposite Laila Mourad but also cast Naguib al-Rihani opposite such celebrated actors as Soliman Naguib, Youssef Wahbi and eminent composer and singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
At the other end of the spectrum of popular cinema were the films of Abbas Kamel which usually depicted a simple story or at times adapted modest foreign plays. His style could not be mistaken as it paid homage to popular theatrical art recalling the folkloric puppet and shadow puppet shows of the time. It was therefore not unsurprising that Abbas Kamel, during the next phase of Egyptian cinema, produced ‘Arousset al-Moulid (Festival Doll, 1955), a film with a cast made up entirely of sugar dolls that come to life. This style, peculiar to Abbas Kamel, was reflected in his choice of heroes: In Mandil al-Helw (The Beauty’s Veil, 1949) there was a cobbler; in Shubbak Habibi (My Beloved’s Window, 1951), a carpenter; and in Khabar Abyad (Good News, 1951), a news vendor. He also did not cast the typical screen stars of the time. His films showcased popular singers such as Abdel Aziz Mahmoud and Karem Mahmoud. Funnily enough, the films Abbas Kamel made in the 1940s contained postmodern touches long before the style was born. He would often include scenes or dialogue poking fun at the films’ naive plots and simple narratives and joking about new film producers who lacked any form of artistic sense or appreciation.
Romance! Comedy! Adventure! Music!
Ezzedin Zulfikar was the complete antithesis of Kamel. His film Asseer al-Zalam (Prisoner of Darkness, 1947) embodied the romanticism of the Egyptian novel from the time of Mostafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti and up until Abdel Halim Abdullah. The layers of burning passion were a cover for a deep sense of social integrity that refused to condone any form of injustice or oppression while wrapped in a series of fortuitous turns of fate. However, the film relayed, to a certain extent, a feeling of insecurity in a trouble-filled world.
Fateen Abdel Wahab’s initial films followed this formula as well, of which his film Nadia (1949) is an example. However, he quickly moved on to romantic comedies such as al-Ostaza Fatma (Fatma, the Lawyer, 1952) where he touched upon the subject of equality between men and women. This brilliant mixture of humour and satirical social commentary soon became Abdel Wahab’s signature style.
Henri Barakat was another of the era’s exceptional filmmakers. He was a prolific master of his craft, capable of making equally superb films across a variety of genres. He introduced the Egyptian audience to the middle-class dreamer, a hero who was continuously struggling to reconcile his difficult circumstances with his good-natured nobility. Emad Hamdi frequently embodied this character in the following decade, starting with Barakat’s Saga al-Layl (Night has Fallen, 1948). In 1950, Barakat switched gears with his film Ma‘lesh Ya Zahr (Just My Luck!, 1950) a black comedy which was a significant departure for its star, Zaki Rostom, who was more commonly known as a character actor specialising in melodramatic and tragic roles. In the same year, Barakat directed Amir al-Intiqam (Prince of Vengeance, 1950) an adaptation of Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Christo, which Barakat turned into a purely Egyptian classic by incorporating the spirit of folkloric epics and the storytelling style of A Thousand and One Nights. He also directed numerous musicals starring such famous singers as Mohamed Fawzi, Farid al-Atrache, Laila Mourad and Soad Mohamed.
The post-war period also witnessed the evolution and maturity of Mohamed Karim, who was considered by many to be the preeminent Egyptian director of the time. His film Zeinab (1952) took place in a rural setting but nevertheless reflected the director’s romantic side. Karim had originally produced this film in 1930 as a silent film but in this more recent talkie, he managed to avoid the naïveté of his earlier works. These works, while primitive, had however been instrumental in presenting Mohamed Abdel Wahab to the public on the silver screen for the first time.
The Directors of the Future
The most significant phenomenon of the period, however, may have been the rise of the directors who would enrich the world of Egyptian cinema in the following decades. Each one followed a different path. The first was Hassan al-Imam with his film Mala’ika min Guhannam (Angels from Hell, 1947), followed by al-Yatimatayn (The Two Orphans, 1948), Zalamooni al-Nas (People Have Wronged Me, 1950), Hokm al-Qawi (The Law of the Jungle, 1950) and Ana Bint Nas (I’m from a Good Home, 1950). These films were essentially a mixture of French melodrama and popular theatre; however, they were not simply adaptations but rather a distillation of the essence of melodrama. They reflected the vast contradictions in life and were generally biased towards the poor, the weak and the outcasts. One of al-Imam’s most typical characters was the prostitute portrayed not as a sinner but as a victim of society.
Youssef Chahine was another of the directors who started his career during that period with his film Baba Amin (Father Amin, 1950) followed by Ibn al-Nil (Son of the Nile, 1951). Kamal al-Sheikh also began his journey with al-Manzil Raqam 13 (House Number 13) in 1952. While their films did not have the popularity or box office weight of the films of Salah Abu Seif or Hassan al-Imam, these two young directors were not afraid to push the boundaries and were willing to explore new artistic forms and examine the depths of human nature. Their interpretation of the human condition was different from Ezzedin Zulfikar’s estranged, romantic soul. They were more inclined to depict the tortured, uncertain human being, perhaps less alienated from reality, but suffering from deep internal conflicts nonetheless. These stories lent themselves more readily to non-linear narratives which jumped back and forth in time and space. Cahine and al-Sheikh soon parted ways, however. Most of Chahine’s later films were an evasive or explicit interpretation of his own world, while al-Sheikh turned to the police thriller with an occasional nod to social issues.
There were other directors who also continued to hone their styles during the post-war period. These included Niazi Mostafa whose adventure films developed into films depicting the life of the neighbourhood fitiwat (thugs) during the ensuing decade. Ahmed Kamel Morsi’s films, on the other hand, focused on the dialogue between ideas whereas Ibrahim Omara and Hussein Sedky tended to preach social and nationalistic values. Films dealing with explicit or symbolic political issues were finally allowed to a certain extent. Examples include Mosmar Goha (Goha’s Nail, 1952) directed by Ibrahim Omara and Mostafa Kamel (1952) by Ahmed Badrakhan which had initially been banned by the Egyptian censor and was only screened in June 1952. There was also Seif al-Din Shawkat’s amusing film Shamshoun wa Liblib (Shamshoun and Liblib, 1952) which depicted the conflict between Shoukoko, the smart but puny boy next door, and Serag Mounir, the local thug who competes with Shoukoko for the affections of the local beauty played by Hourriya Hassan. Throughout the film there was a banner in the background that clearly read ‘Evacuation Café’, a not-very-subtle reference to the presence of British forces in Egypt.
The relatively brief period following the Second World War witnessed the slow coming of age of Egyptian cinema in a time of political upheaval and volatility. In 1952, years of labour and student demonstrations, successive governments, and palace intrigue finally gave way to a new era both for Egypt and for Egyptian cinema.
In the print edition the photograph of director Abbas Kamel on page 46 was erroneously captioned as Ahmed Badrakhan.
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.
Ahmed Youssef (d. July 2018) was a member of the Egyptian Film Critics Association and the film critic of the Cairo based al-Arabi newspaper. Youssef published numerous studies and articles on cinema and film criticism as well as translating titles such as A History of the Narrative film by David Cook into Arabic. His publications include Nogoum wa Shahab fi al-Cinema al-Misriyya (General Organization of Cultural Palaces,1999). This issue is dedicated to his memory.